Hong Kong Calling

The Imperial Palace serves Houston's classiest dim sum -- and then some

The disappointments here tend to be dull rather than disastrous. Tentacled Asian prawns with a minced-shrimp stuffing looked splashy, but neither they nor the accompanying shelled shrimp with sweet longan fruit generated any excitement. Pan-fried cilantro oysters proved to be an overcooked, oddly bland omelet. Glazed in a glossy fish sauce, whole squab (the pigeon on which South China dotes) was dryish, boring and expensive at $23.95 -- a price that includes a beaky, disembodied head that could star in Addams Family Recipes.

Dinner here is a well-run affair attended by captains primed to ease the passage of English-speaking guests. Most of the prosperous-looking clientele is Chinese, with a Vietnamese component of perhaps 30 percent, and they are arrayed through the celebration-oriented dining room in groups large and small. Slide a partition here, and you've got a semi-private wedding party; move a lacquered screen there, and a high-school graduation banquet acquires a sense of occasion.

The expansive room, a serene sea of ivory trimmed in black and muted cinnabar, can hold up to 800 people. And on Saturday and Sunday noons, that's exactly what it does -- several times over. Figure on showing up by 11:30 if you want to beat the dim sum mob devouring the habit-forming tea-house snacks that constitute Chinese brunch.

They're scarfing down pillowy baked buns stuffed with subtle barbecued pork and Chinese bacon. They're littering the special plastic dim sum tablecloths with crumbs from superb sesame-seeded puff pastries hiding cabbage and extravagantly crunchy Sputnik balls of shrimp with preserved black egg. They're cutting the richness of black-mushroom-laced vegetable spring rolls with skinny, crisply braised stalks of gai lan, the Chinese broccoli. They're flagging down a cart for more cilantro-spiked meat turnovers -- ever so gently fried. They're drinking endless cups of hot tea and awaiting their second wind, while the parade of carts and staff-borne trays circles relentlessly.

Everything is so meticulously done that experimenting is a low-risk enterprise. Long, airy crullers wrapped in a thin, cool noodle skin and scissored into neat cross-sections? Why the hell not? Shrimp and banana rolls? We'll take some. Golden fried shrimp patties with a sweet dip grow on you; so do shrimp and pork turnovers encased in a crisp shell resembling sweetened cream of wheat. Soft noodle sheets rolled around a delicious mince of vegetables and black mushrooms turn out to be the suavest cheung fun in town. Only a bland, pasty taro-root turnover and pastier stuffed crab fail to please. But sunny custard tarts are just light enough, just sweet enough.

Everyone appears to be having a swell time. The tiny girl in the hot pink cheong sam; the guys accessorized with cellular phones and pagers; the beautiful young woman sporting a Limited T-shirt and a faux-Vuitton bag. People cluster around an awning-topped steam table on wheels for esoteric Hong Kong delicacies labeled in Chinese. By 12:15 there's not an empty table in the place, and you're plotting your next visit.

Dim sum every day, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays, and 9:30 to 4 weekends, sounds like an irresistible proposition. At night, there's the very Southern Chinese water buffalo hot pot left to try, not to mention the seriously Chiu Chow fried rice with chicken and salted fish, or the Southeast Asian-ized sate crabs -- a reflection of the eclectic, melting-pot culinary tradition that makes latter-day Hong Kong more than a little like Houston. Thanks to the Imperial Palace Five -- chefs Chang Tak Hing, Sing To, Kin Wah Ng, Su Xia Cheng and manager Raymond Wong -- Houston Chinese food suddenly seems interesting again.

Imperial Palace, 9160 Bellaire Blvd., 773-3881.

Imperial Palace:
Chiu Chow quail, $6.95;
rack of venison, $14.95;
wild boar ribs with mustard greens, $12.95;
fried prawns with walnuts, $13.50.

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