Great Jellyfish at East Wall Chinese Restaurant
We were planning to stay home and watch the Olympic gymnastics events on television, so I went out to pick up some thematically appropriate takeout. I had never eaten at East Wall Chinese Restaurant before, but I had looked over the menu during my visits to Tofu Village, Fu Fu Café, HK Dim Sum and 88 Noodle House, all of which are located in a newly constructed shopping center at Bellaire and Beltway 8, and all of which I have reviewed in these pages. I hadn't hit a clinker yet at the trendy Dun Huang Plaza, so I had high hopes for the Cantonese food at East Wall. And I wasn't disappointed.
We started with the spicy, chewy appetizer called "Rainbow Jellyfish," which featured luscious noodle-like ribbons of cold jellyfish tossed in a chile-spiked sesame oil dressing. We followed the jellyfish salad with a pile of hot "Salt and Pepper Squid" — freshly fried squid coated with jalapeño peppers and lime juice and dusted with salt and powdered dried plum.
Then came an order of East Wall's signature "Roasted Pork with Mui Choy." Mui choy is a preparation of pickled mustard greens, which are tossed with garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil and sweetened to make a sweet and sour stew out of the long-cooked pork.
We also got a plate of Singapore-style fried rice stick noodles tossed with shrimp and vegetables. Everything we sampled was excellent. By the end of the meal, I started to wonder if I had inadvertently wandered into the best new Chinese restaurant in town.
On a return visit around noon one weekday, I looked over East Wall's lunch menu. It's not just a list of specials; it's a whole booklet with color photos. Most of the items are priced at $5.80, with a few at $6.80 or more.
We started with a delightful tureen of hot and sour soup. Unlike the watery versions served elsewhere, this one was loaded with black fungus, bamboo shoots and other vegetables. There was enough for each of us to eat a couple of bowls and still take some home for later.
We also tried a sensational bowl of udon noodles with crispy salt-and-pepper chicken, which turned out to be giant, chewy buckwheat noodles stir-fried with onions, green peppers, garlic and pieces of fried chicken seasoned with ginger and dark soy sauce. The menu advertised pea shoots, but I guess they are out of season, so we settled on a bowl of crunchy baby bok choy in garlic sauce. Once again, I found nothing to complain about.
Looking around the elegant little 20-table restaurant, I was impressed by the steady stream of customers. The waitstaff speaks nearly no English, but most of the crowd seems to understand the Mandarin dialect of Chinese. Judging by the exotic dishes I was spinning on the lazy Susans of the larger tables, I'd say East Wall is popular with the most knowledgeable enthusiasts of authentic Chinese cuisine.
On my final lunch visit, when I could no longer contain my curiosity, I walked over to a nearby table where a hip young Chinese couple were seated and annoyed them with a bunch of rude questions.
"Do you like this place better than Fung's Kitchen?" I asked them. The enormous restaurant called Fung's Kitchen on the southbound Highway 59 access road past Bellaire has long been considered the best Cantonese restaurant in Houston.
The guy I pestered introduced himself as Thomas Wang, and he told me he preferred East Wall to Fung's because it was cozier and less expensive.
"The food is tastier, too," his lunchmate added.
"Fung's is too big, and I think this place is more authentic," Wang concluded.
The crispy salt-and-pepper chicken we got on that visit was one of the best entrées I sampled at East Wall. Pieces of boneless chicken were fried up crisp in a cornstarch batter and then tossed in a sauce containing onions, garlic and sliced jalapeños with a squeeze of lime. I was supposed to try some and save the rest to take home, but the chicken proved addictive. I ate the whole bowl.
Our other entrée that day was selected out of an aquarium. I noticed that, like Fung's Kitchen, East Wall displayed some of their live seafood swimming around in fish tanks. There were some tilapia, some Dungeness crabs, live clams and lobsters. At $18.80 a pound, the lobster seemed like a pretty good deal. So we ordered a pound and a quarter of lobster stir-fried with ginger and scallions.
The ginger-scallion preparation is a favorite with live seafood because of its simplicity. The idea is to savor the incredible freshness of the seafood that was swimming around a few minutes before you ate it. But unfortunately, East Wall messed up on the lobster, as far as I am concerned. It was cut up and stir-fried in oil with the green onions and chunks of ginger as usual, but then the chef coated the lobster pieces with cornstarch.
This is a bad idea if you ask me. Cornstarch doesn't add anything to the flavor of the lobster, and there isn't much sauce to thicken, so it doesn't serve that purpose, either. All it really does is coat the lobster shells. And since you have to pick up the lobster shells to eat the lobster, you end up covered with a seafood-scented goo. Paper napkins were no match for this stuff. It hardened on my fingers like library paste. I had to get up and go wash my hands before I even finished the dish.
There is a very strange piece of artwork on the wall in the men's room, by the way. It's an image of the Bay Bridge with the San Francisco skyline in the background. But a closer look reveals that it's an intricately cut jigsaw puzzle that's been assembled, glued together and framed. It's been a long time since I have seen a framed jigsaw puzzle. As I scrubbed my hands, I wondered if they used cornstarch paste for the glue.
The lobster was a mess, but it was my only disappointment in three visits to East Wall. It seemed odd, since the live seafood dishes, including scallops, lobster and ling cod, are the best things to order at Fung's Kitchen.
I asked the waiter if the lobster could be ordered without cornstarch and he assured me it could. So I guess that's the trick. Otherwise, it's pretty hard to go wrong with this menu.
The Chinese fare is authentic and inexpensive, and it's served in a friendly, intimate setting at an unhurried pace. And that's why East Wall is gaining so many converts.
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