9889 Bellaire Blvd., 713-777-7029. Hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily.
"What's that called?" my buddy John Bebout asked the hostess at the new restaurant called Hong Kong Dim Sum on Bellaire. He was pointing at an impressive-looking pile of fried noodles at the next table.
"That's chow kueh teow," responded a guy at the table. The man had a crew cut and was wearing some sort of corporate I.D. badge. He told Bebout that the saucy rice noodles with shrimp and fish balls was a typical Malaysian offering, but in Malaysia it came with lots of the little clam-like bivalves called cockles.
Hong Kong Dim Sum
Belanchan kang kung $7Chow kueh teow $9Xiu mai $2.85Stuffed eggplant $2.85Fried shrimp puff $3.35
Hong Kong Dim Sum has a sign in the front window indicating it serves Chinese and Malaysian food. When you sit down to eat, you get two menus. One is a dim sum list with 65 choices. The other is a regular bill of fare with Malaysian and Chinese dishes including noodles, fried rice, vegetables and other choices such as congee, a rice cereal that can be ordered with various accompaniments.
The man with the crew cut and the badge had ordered Malaysian items. I asked him if he used to work in the oil business in Malaysia, and he said he'd worked for Esso over there. I chuckled, as I hadn't heard the name Esso in quite a while. Evidently, the old name for Exxon is still used in much of the world.
He leaned over to our table, spread out the menu and pointed out a few other dishes. He liked the seafood scrambled egg chow fun as well as the Belanchan morning glory leaves. He said the Belanchan was stinky but quite tasty once you got used to it. When the waiter approached, we ordered all the Esso guy's recommendations.
The chow kueh teow was the standout. It's a plate of hot fried-rice noodles (fried in pure lard in the authentic version) tossed with big shrimp, Chinese sausage and fish balls cut in half. The version at Hong Kong Dim Sum includes some tiny seafood bits I assumed to be baby squid standing in for the cockles. Bebout gave the dish an A.
He gave the scrambled egg chow fun a "B minus" owing to its unattractive appearance. It looked like a plate of rice noodles and seafood covered with raw egg whites. I think the transparent stuff was actually some kind of cornstarch sauce with scrambled eggs in it. The fried noodles underneath it all were quite good, but the dish also contained chunks of fake crab, which is a sorry substitute for the real thing.
The jury was divided on the morning glory greens tossed in Belanchan sauce. I loved them, and Bebout hated them. The delicate greens looked like well-cooked baby spinach leaves, but the aroma of dried shrimp was too much for Bebout. Belanchan kang kung, as it is known, is an exquisite vegetable dish, if you can get your nose past the sauce.
Belanchan is made by toasting dried shrimp and pounding it in a mortar with ginger, garlic and chiles. Toasting dried shrimp creates an awful smell that Malaysians often joke about as the aroma of home. The aromatic sauce appears in a great number of Malaysian dishes. Like durian or blue cheese, Belanchan smells a lot more pungent than it tastes. The version I tried on my kang kung was a little long on the shrimp and short on the chiles compared to the ones I have had at Café Malay and elsewhere.
Hong Kong Dim Sum doesn't compare to the elegant Café Malay on Westheimer [See "Damn Fine Fish Heads," November 2, 2005]. But I did notice that the Singapore fish head soup that is so good at Café Malay has recently been handwritten onto the menu at Hong Kong Dim Sum. You can get other Malaysian specialties that aren't on the menu — like beef redang — by calling in advance, the Esso man told us.
While the Malaysian menu is the most unique thing about Hong Kong Dim Sum, it is hardly the reason the restaurant is packed every day at lunchtime. Judging by the profusion of round metal steamer dishes on the tables, I'd say people are coming here for the dim sum dumplings. I tried dim sum on two out of my three visits.
My first dim sum experience was on a Sunday morning. I'd heard that a new dim sum restaurant had opened in the shopping center, and I went expecting to sit down in a gigantic dining room with carts rolling around like you see at Ocean Palace. Instead, I found a humble-looking 19-table dining room with a dim sum menu that required you to check the boxes of the dishes you wanted to order.
I was disappointed at first, but when the waitress delivered my stuffed eggplant with black bean sauce (53), I was shocked at how good it tasted. The Japanese eggplant was piping hot, and the ground shrimp stuffing was soft and moist. The dish is one of my favorite dim sum orders, but I had always assumed it was supposed to be served lukewarm, because that's the only way I'd ever tasted it. Be sure and try it if you go.
Granted, it's a lot more fun to eat dim sum in a restaurant where the carts come to you and you get to check out what looks good. But the advantage of ordering dim sum from a menu is that the food arrives hot and freshly cooked. With some dim sum dishes, it makes a big difference in flavor. The Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce (38) was bright green and tender, and the crispy pan-fried pork dumplings (45) were excellent.
The xiu mai (2) at Hong Kong Dim Sum are among the best in the city. They are big and fat, with a bright-yellow cradle of dumpling dough. Since they are rushed to your table straight out of the steamer, you never have to contend with the rubber ball texture that cold xiu mai so often acquires.
My only disappointment was the red bean sesame balls (55). I once had some spectacular red bean sesame balls that were fresh out of the fryer at Fung's Kitchen's dim sum brunch. They tasted like hot jelly doughnuts with juicy sweet red bean paste inside and fragrant sesame on the outside. I ordered them at Hong Kong Dim Sum figuring I might relive the hot jelly doughnut experience. But it wasn't happening. The sesame balls were cold. And the red bean paste in the middle was thick, brown and terrible.
The last time I stopped by Hong Kong Dim Sum was on a weekday at lunchtime. And as the crowds will attest, that's the best time to go. On the weekend, you might as well go to one of the big dim sum palaces and order from the carts. But on a weekday, there are only a few places serving dim sum, and Hong Kong Dim Sum is one of your best choices.
The crunchy fried shrimp puff with mayonnaise (48) was awesome. And once the shrimp puffs were gone I experimented with dipping the chewy steamed beef balls (10), the slightly rubbery shrimp-stuffed bell pepper (54) and the pork-studded pan-fried turnip cake (40) in the mayonnaise too. I can report that mayonnaise seems to make everything taste better.
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A few tables away, I noticed a couple of xiu mai containers and a plate of Belanchan kang kung, and I silently congratulated the diners for their astuteness. Combining the best of both menus is the smart way to order here.
Hong Kong Dim Sum is located in the new Chinatown shopping center at Bellaire and Beltway 8 along with Fu Fu Café and Noodle House 88. The space was formerly the home of another, short-lived, Malaysian restaurant called Penang.
I intended to take James Oseland, the editor of Saveur and the author of an Indonesian and Malaysian cookbook, to sample a few dishes at Pedang when we visited Noodle House 88 back not long ago [see "Great Gaddo Gaddo," March 20]. But the restaurant had gone out of business.
Give the new owners credit for turning things around by recognizing that Houstonians love dim sum dumplings and that the esoteric charms of Malaysian food are not for everybody. And if you are an adventurous diner, take advantage of the rare opportunity to order a little bit of each.