Chef Chat, Part 3: Hoi Fung of Fung's Kitchen, a Taste of His Cantonese Cooking

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This is the third part of a three-part Chef Chat series. If you missed our previous posts, you can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

This week, we spent some time with Hoi Fung, the patriarch, owner and chef at Fung's Kitchen, located just off the Southwest Freeway and the Bellaire Boulevard exit. He told us what it was like training as a chef in the early 1970s, how he came to the states with just the dream of bringing Chinese food to America, working in someone else's kitchen for eight years before striking out on his own to open a 3,000-square-foot restaurant in 1990.

These days, the original building he opened is still there, but it's been expanded to accommodate large banquets. You can still see the main dividers where the first restaurant used to be, a testament to Fung's dedication to the business.

What struck me as extraordinary has been his ability to invite chefs from around the world to come and teach him their flavors and techniques. This is only possible because Fung himself is considered a master chef in his community. In fact, next week, on February 19, Fung's is holding a Chinese New Year's celebration in which two guest chefs -- Martin Yan of Yan Can Cook and Tony Wu -- will be on hand to meet guests and give cooking demonstrations, including the famous Hong Kong hand-pulled noodles.

Now to the food. Fung invited me into the kitchen -- which was spotless -- to see him working the wok. He made easy work out of the first four dishes -- pork ribs in crispy wonton wrappers, sautéed fresh garden mushrooms, beef steak cubes with basil, and lobster with black peppers -- firing up the wok for a fiery, steamy, sizzling display of his wok skill. Each dish took no more than a few minutes to make and came off the wok glorious, glistening, steamy and smelling utterly delicious.

"You look first, you smell second and then you taste," he reminded me as he plated the dishes. "If the look and the smell are no good, the taste doesn't matter."

The plates were each pre-prepped with artfully arranged slivers of cucumber and carrot. The cucumbers were arranged in patterns typical of gourmet Chinese cooking. The carrots were shaved and shaped into flowers, and on the lobster plate, cucumber and tomato were shaped like butterflies and placed around the plate for decoration.

Each dish had a distinct flavor and texture. The pork ribs still had a bit of bone, the meat seared from quick wok cooking, so there was a slight crisp on the outside. The beef cubes reminded me of the Vietnamese dish bo luc lac, an easy favorite for its savory bite-sized pieces, which had a savory, garlicky flavor that went really well with the white rice.

The lobster, made with a special house sauce that includes butter, is literally finger-licking. The almost sweet, creamy butteriness of the sauce and smattering of green onions was nearly my undoing. "It's only $18.99 per lobster right now," Fung told me as I made a mental note to return just for this dish.

The mushroom dish was notable for its contrasting textures. He used fresh shiitake and oyster mushroom in the sauté, which had this nice meatiness to it despite being a vegetarian dish. "People want more light food now," he explained as we ate the dish. "It's more healthy."

A special sliced pork hock plate came next, something that Fung says cannot be found in any other Chinese restaurant in Houston at the moment. The hock is marinated in special spices and brined to tenderize the meat, then cooked whole until the skin is crisp, before being served in thin slices with the bone as adornment. This was served with a light white vinegar sauce, the resulting bite tender, with a bit of crisp and a bit of chew from the skin, the light acidity of the vinegar giving the pork a slightly pickled flavor.

I special-requested Fung's famous orange ribs, which are made with his own special sauce that includes fresh orange juice. It lived up to my memory by bursting with flavor as I took a bite of the crispy skin softened by the tangy orange glaze -- still one of my all-time favorite dishes at Fung's.

It had been some time since I tried his Peking Duck (which I listed as number 2 in my Top 5 Peking Duck post some time ago). The crispy skin was cut with plump, juicy chunks of meat still adhering to the skin, so that each Peking Duck bun had that beautiful complement of crispy skin, the juicy meat, the plummy hoisin sauce and green onion -- easily displacing my former number one choice for top Peking Duck in the city.

Hoi Fung Fung's Kitchen 7320 Southwest Freeway Tel: 713-779-2288 www.eatatfungs.com

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