The Xiu Mai Super Bowl
It was a little after 11 on a Sunday morning when I first dropped by Fung's Kitchen to check out their new dim sum service. I was amazed from the second I opened the front door. There were steam tables and glass-doored refrigerators along one wall that weren't there before, and the dining room seemed to have doubled in size. And there were carts sailing by with dishes I had never seen at a dim sum brunch before.
Of course, there are plenty of the usual dumplings, turnip cakes and rice-noodle rolls at Fung's dim sum brunch, as well as some extremely plump examples of the dough-covered steamed shrimp and pork meatballs called xiu mai. But there are also some items in this dim sum lineup -- such as squid in spicy salt, duck tongues and black eggs -- that push the dim sum envelope. We ordered all of the above.
The "black eggs" were served on top of a seaweed and jellyfish salad. The dish was both exotic-looking and very tasty. Black eggs are hard-boiled eggs simmered in tea and soy sauce until the whites turn a gorgeous translucent amber and the yolks are deep black. They tasted like mildly seasoned hard-boiled eggs, but my dining companions were having nothing to do with them. They didn't have any problem with the seaweed and jellyfish salad, though. It disappeared immediately.
Jellyfish is one of those ingredients that sounds weirder than it tastes. If nobody told you what it was, you'd swear you were eating translucent noodles that were unusually crispy. Tossed with tender green seaweed in a sesame dressing, the jellyfish is an unlikely crowd-pleaser. The squid in spicy salt turned out to be a batch of big squid cut into small pieces and fried with a batter, then coated with seasoned salt. It tasted like typical fried calamari.
The duck tongues didn't do much for us. You hold them by the bony outside of the bill and attempt to nibble the little bits of meat from where the mouth cavity used to be. The meat is so heavily flavored with the cinnamon, cloves and anise of the five-spice powder it's cooked with that you can barely taste anything else.
Fung's Kitchen was named the Best Chinese Restaurant in the Press in both 2003 and 2004. Owner and head chef Hoi Fung comes from a long line of chefs in Hong Kong, the dim sum capital of the world. So about six months ago, when the movable type on the restaurant's sign first spelled out "Now serving dim sum every day," I took notice.
Hoi Fung's regular menu features more than 400 items, and when he serves whole ling cod, snow crab or lobster, he uses live fish and shellfish from the aquarium tanks displayed on the wall. And when Fung set his sights on dim sum, he decided to do it in the same sort of haute Hong Kong style.
Even the dumplings here are extraordinary. Sure, the shrimp ones and the xiu mai are excellent, but there are also some varieties you may not have seen before. I was wild about the ones filled with chopped snow-pea shoots and garnished with peas and carrot cubes. The dough was rolled and then folded, so it looked like three tubes sticking up on top. I also loved the chewy, wrinkled dumplings stuffed with ground shrimp and shark fin.
Among the sweets, my daughter went crazy for a turnip round stuffed with sweetened beans. We ended up ordering way too much, a problem that was turned into a late-night snack through the careful packing of two Styrofoam to-go containers.
In a recent letter to the editor ("Noodle Noshing," January 13), a former Bostonian named Colin Nederkoorn praised our survey of Houston's egg noodles ("Eat Mi," December 2) and suggested another quest: "How about finding the best dim sum in Houston?"
Yeah, how about it? I've been looking for the best dim sum in Houston for five years now. And every time I declare a winner, somebody gives me grief. But to tell the truth, dim sum is something I've come to enjoy being wrong about. Each error gives me an excuse to go eat some more.
Here's a quick recap for readers who have just joined us. I first blundered onto the Houston dim sum scene several years back, having heard rumors of a fabulous chef who was lured to Houston from Hong Kong to work at Ai Hoa restaurant on Wilcrest ("The Best Dim Sum in Guangzhouston," November 2, 2000). Unfortunately, just before the review ran, the vaunted chef was lured away by another restaurant. (Ai Hoa has since gone out of business.)
The master dim sum maker turned up at Kim Son on the Southwest Freeway in Stafford ("The Feng Shui of Dim Sum," February 22, 2001). Based on its incredible variety of items and high level of kitchen craftsmanship, I immediately declared Kim Son the best weekend dim sum venue in Houston.
But Dorothy Huang, Houston's top Chinese cooking instructor and the author of a new cookbook called Chinese Cuisine Made Simple, disagreed. Huang likes Ocean Palace restaurant in the Hong Kong City Mall at 11215 Bellaire Boulevard. So one Sunday, I attended a class there that she teaches on dim sum ("Dim Sum 101," September 26, 2002). Students learn the fine points of dim sum under Huang's tutelage and then go for a tour of the Hong Kong Supermarket, a 75,000-square-foot Asian grocery located in the same shopping center. There, Huang talks about Asian cooking methods, vegetable by vegetable. (For details on the class, call 281-493-0885.)
In truth, Ocean Palace doesn't have the most exotic dim sum, nor the best selection. But eventually it became my most frequent dim sum destination, too. Its location in the Hong Kong City Mall not only allows for some Asian grocery shopping after lunch, but it also makes it a great place to take visitors. Ocean Palace serves dim sum from carts every day.
During the week at Fung's Kitchen, there aren't any carts -- you have to order from a dim sum menu. One Wednesday, along with dumplings and hot tea, we got some sticky rice with pork wrapped in a lotus leaf, which was exceptional. The rice had that risottolike quality that Vietnamese clay-pot rice develops, and the lotus leaf gave it a wonderful fragrance. The good thing about ordering dim sum from a menu is that it comes to the table piping hot.
Which brings us to the subject of the New Golden Palace Seafood restaurant, 8520 Bellaire Boulevard. I once declared Golden Palace the best place in the city to eat dim sum on a weekday ("Wednesday Brunch," April 24, 2003), when you ordered it off the menu. In that review, I also complained that the weekend dim sum at Golden Palace just didn't stack up with the competition anymore and that the food from the carts ranged from lukewarm to ice cold.
This heresy enraged former Houston food writer Robert Rosenberg, who dashed off an angry letter to the editor ("Dim Sum Crabbing," May 29, 2003). "We've been eating dim sum around Houston for more than 20 years," wrote Rosenberg. "If there has been one consistently fine place, it has been the Golden Palace It has been my experience in over 100 visits to the Golden Palace that the food is rarely on the carts long enough to get cold."
Picking the best dim sum spot in Houston is a tricky business. And as Golden Palace devotee Rosenberg also observed in his letter, "no dining group is as fickle as regular dim sum diners."
Nevertheless, Colin, at your request, I will take a fifth stab at it and recommend Fung's Kitchen on the Southwest Freeway as Houston's best dim sum restaurant, in both the weekend and weekday categories. And if you want some other opinions, keep an eye on our Letters section.
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