Crazy, Jumbled Up and Delicious
After four incredibly filling noodle and rice entrées plus an appetizer of fried chicken, my friends looked at me like I'd lost my mind when I ordered dessert at House of Bowls. But when dessert is peanut butter-stuffed French toast covered in condensed sweetened milk, how are you supposed to pass that up?
French toast. Fried chicken. Noodles and rice. What do any of these things have in common, and why are they all found on one menu? The crazy, jumbled-up, wild and wooly mishmash of ingredients and cuisines is the signature of Hong Kong food, thanks to many years of colonial occupation by the British. And that's the beauty of Hong Kong-style cuisine, of which House of Bowls — which has been serving up dishes like spaghetti with ham and sweet corn for the better part of a decade — is perhaps Houston's greatest example.
Even the more traditionally Chinese dishes like fried rice have a colonial flair to them, as in the curried shrimp fried rice that we polished off that day, made with the heavenly sort of Madras-scented yellow curry you wouldn't necessarily expect to crop up in Chinese food.
"It's not really Chinese," laughed my dining companion as we ate one afternoon. "It's British-influenced food that's quick and easy." We were dining with his wife and another friend that day — full tables and family-style sharing of dishes are definitely the way to go here. "Mid-range and upscale restaurants didn't really exist in Hong Kong prior to the British," he elaborated. "These places served Western food, so the Hong Kong people who were able to eat there took those Western influences and integrated them into their cooking at home."
My friend, an engineer who's lucky enough to work right down the street from House of Bowls, comes here often. For him, it's the closest thing to Hong Kong-style food, the food he left behind when he moved to Houston 20 years ago. He doesn't much care for other Hong Kong-style restaurants in the area, dismissing places like Hong Kong Food Street as "too pretentious" with a simple wave of his hand. "It's your mom's cooking," he told me over our spread of food. "Or junk food you buy yourself. It doesn't make sense to have it in a fancy setting."
"This," he gestured to the colorful, noisy dining room, "is how you eat in the little food shops back in Hong Kong." Even late in the afternoon that day, House of Bowls was still packed. But that's nothing compared to the scene there on a Saturday night.
I wasn't feeling well on the Saturday evening that I went to House of Bowls, but was determined to forge ahead. I had carefully crafted a solution to this by intending to order a straightforward bowl of congee and some milk tea at the restaurant, taking it easy while also checking out its comfort food options.
But the moment we walked into House of Bowls that night, I started feeling better. The place is alive, in the most basic sense of the word. It exudes vitality and youth and a kind of infectious exuberance. It's almost impossible to feel rotten standing in the Wonka-esque dining room, surrounded by a jungle of plants and a kaleidoscope of colors, watching the cooks work the woks fast and hard, the servers scurrying from table to table, listening to the sounds of tables filled with happy, vivacious diners and the addictive strains of Aaron Kwok's greatest hits on the stereo.
I still ordered the congee, of course, as even the circus of sounds and color weren't guaranteed to make my stomach settle down. But my dining companion had to ruin everything by ordering a plate of roasted duck and rice that I stared enviously at for the entire evening. I scored a few small bites, not wanting to push things, and savored each one. The skin was nicely crisped, the dark meat beneath it luscious and soft.
As it turned out, it was his first time eating duck. Perhaps the festive atmosphere was the encouragement he needed to branch out and try something new. When I asked him later what he thought of this experience, he simply replied, "Does all duck taste like that? Because that was amazing!"
My congee was less impressive, but that wasn't the fault of the simple, sturdy rice porridge. A few scattered pieces of chicken and green onions on top gave it a little punch of flavor and I desperately wished for more of it. Equally bland were the turnip cakes we'd ordered as an appetizer. I've had far better elsewhere, and these weren't worth the stomach space. But the congee did the trick, its blandness keeping my stomach from revolting against me and sticking with me throughout the evening and well into the next day.
I told my Hong Kong friend over our meal at House of Bowls, several weeks later, that congee has been knighted as the Asian Comfort Food of 2011 by some national food trend prognosticators. He laughed. "Why?!"
"That's like white people thinking tofu is a diet food," he finally said, after he gathered himself. "Chinese people would never eat tofu as a diet food. They eat it for texture and flavor, not because they think it's good for you." He shook his head, still laughing. And while I agreed with his sentiment, I still stand behind congee as a great sick-day food, especially when you get nearly a vat of it for only $3.95 at House of Bowls.
The dishes we had at that weekday lunch with my friend from Hong Kong were blessedly more diverse in flavor than on that Saturday evening. And the curried fried rice was only the beginning.
Dry-fried beef chow fun was served atop a mound of flat noodles that glistened with oil hot from the wok, that trademark smoky flavor in each bite along with rich undercurrents of soy sauce and nearly caramelized onions. You can easily gauge a restaurant's chops with this dish: How fresh are the noodles? How skillfully was the wok handled while cooking?
In both cases, House of Bowls passes the test. My friend agreed. "These noodles are very fresh," he said. "And see how quick this came out? It only took them five minutes to make it." The cooks definitely know what they're doing back there.
I was a little less impressed with the fatty beef with oyster mushrooms, but only because the beef chow fun had set the bar so high. The subtle, earthy dish was perked up quite a bit by the liberal application of some dark red chili oil, however, and I found myself enjoying it much more afterward. (Then again, what wouldn't be enhanced by chili oil? Shallots, garlic, chilis, dried shrimp and sugar work miracles when thrown together.)
All three dishes were quickly consumed by our table and the beef chow fun threatened to steal the show until the fried chicken appetizer hit the table. (One thing to note: Food is served when it's finished. This means you may well get your appetizer awhile after your entrées.) It was clearly fresh out of the fryer, yet it wasn't remotely greasy — odd, considering that excess grease is something that many of the dishes sometimes struggle under here. What it was, however, was scorching hot.
When it finally cooled off enough to eat, we found that the chicken had an almost impossibly crunchy and sweet batter that I struggled to describe to a coworker the next day. "It was like it had been battered in Life cereal!" I finally exclaimed, sounding like an overexcited child. Those wings didn't last more than five minutes on the table, and I wished for more the instant they were gone.
But then that Hong Kong-style French toast came out, and all thoughts of chow fun and chicken wings vanished. A hush fell over the table as we each took a few bites of the creation: peanut butter sandwiched between two pieces of French toast, an almost indecent amount of condensed milk on top. As with the roasted duck, I savored each sweet bite. And as with the chow fun and chicken wings and curried shrimp fried rice, I wished immediately for more after it vanished, as quickly as it had appeared.
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