Get a look inside Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant with our photo gallery.
From the outside, Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant resembles any other Chinese restaurant in any other run-down strip center on Bellaire. Boxy, windowless, heralded by a large neon sign in English and Chinese characters. Outwardly, there's nothing to entice diners to eat there instead of the hundreds of other Chinese restaurants lining either side of the boulevard.
But walk inside, and you're immediately greeted by ropes of kinetic LED lights encircling mirrored outlines of fish and crabs, a backlit window-size image of the Hong Kong skyline, metal ceiling panels that appear to have been stolen from a Vegas lounge in 1996, and seafood so fresh you can look your live dinner in the eye only minutes before it ends up on your plate.
I'll admit I was skeptical about the place when my friend first suggested it to me. Strip-center seafood is not something I generally seek out, but being a trusting sort, I decided to give Hai Cang a try. I needn't have worried: The chefs here know their way around a lobster and a crab and even the oft-misunderstood geoduck.
The simply prepared but elegant food delivered on family-style platters to my table at Hai Cang impressed because it was prepared with such respect for the ingredients and was unbelievably inexpensive. Two lobsters, rolled in butter and black pepper, then sprinkled with flour, lightly fried, and chopped into manageable pieces so they can be easily cracked, mined, squeezed and sucked, set a table back a mere $18.99. At lunch, a whole fried fish with a divine spicy hoisin sauce appears on the check for only $8, even though the fish, along with some sides, can easily feed two. Even the non-seafood dishes such as sautéed "salad" (not bok choy but something similar) with peppery Malaysian sauce and sizzling beef — no doubt packed full of MSG — make for hearty and delicious meals.
I did start to feel a little concerned on my first visit as I found myself growing increasingly excited about the prospect of watching my food swimming happily around in the bright-blue tanks at the front of the restaurant, then having it delivered, steaming, to my table within a matter of minutes. Is it proper to get so excited at the thought of my lobster being thrown into a pot of boiling water?
These thoughts were short-lived, though, because as soon as I started digging into the massive red claws and tightly curled pink prawns, all thoughts of propriety and the poor little crustaceans went out the window. My hands and mouth were covered in buttery, peppery sauce; there were napkins on my lap and tucked haphazardly into my shirt; and I grabbed for more lobster, more crab, more flaky white fish, as if this were the last time I'd ever taste such sweet meat.
When you eat at Hai Cang, you eat. Though it's a popular spot for quick, casual lunches and celebratory repasts alike, every meal, no matter the time of day or occasion, somehow turns into a feast. Perhaps it's the helpful, professional waitstaff or the fact that everything is served on ornately glazed platters. Perhaps it's the diverse ten-page menu, a list that would require five or six visits before one even dented it. Perhaps — and most likely — it's the generous portions of impossibly fresh seafood swimming happily around a tank one minute and sitting inside your stomach the next.
Hai Cang is almost always packed with families celebrating birthdays or enjoying a night out, and no one seems to mind much when a child taps (or bangs) on the tilapia tank or runs crazily in circles around the elderly couple enjoying a soft-shell crab. It's a family kind of place, and the large, round tables — complete with giant lazy Susans — and deep, accommodating booths reflect that.
Though it's been open only since March, Hai Cang has already become the Chuck E. Cheese's for cultured Asian children and their first-generation parents, who are pleased that they don't have to eat rubbery pizza to amuse the youngsters. The kids (and I) are mesmerized by the tanks of live seafood and flashing neon lights, and the parents are satisfied by the impeccably prepared Chinese cuisine delivered from the bustling kitchen by saintly waiters.
In the spirit of inclusiveness, the menu is printed in English, Vietnamese and Chinese, and though each table is set with chopsticks, the waiters without fail ask if one would prefer Western cutlery. They even direct that question to Asian diners, so as not to appear doubtful of anyone's chopstick capabilities. Little touches such as that are appreciated by Chinatown newbies.
I ended up using neither silverware nor chopsticks for most of my meal, since neither approach lends itself particularly well to cracking open juicy crab claws and fishing out the meat. Dining at Hai Cang is a messy, hands-on experience, and the food certainly tastes better for it. There's something very satisfying about diving into a platter of steamed fish, picking the flaky meat off the fragile bones with your hands and licking your fingers to ensure every last drop of salty, briny juice is savored.
Fish is prepared nearly a dozen different ways here, but the best is the $8 Hunan style crispy fish, which includes a whole fried tilapia — mouth agape, eyes staring up at you — smothered in a thick, spicy sauce dotted with bright red and green chiles. When lightly fried, the skin becomes crunchy, a nice textural contrast to the soft meat and the crisp pepper slices that pop when chewed, releasing petite amounts of heat into your mouth. The steamed tilapia is wonderful, too, but I prefer the spicy crunch of the fried fish to the soft steamed version, which on one visit came with a mild, watery soy sauce, albeit one packed with delicate seafood flavor.
Dungeness crab is also dressed up with a variety of sauces and presentations. On my way out of Hai Cang one evening, I observed a couple tearing into a large bowl that was wrapped in banana leaves, a whole steamed crab perched gracefully on top. I returned the next day knowing exactly what I wanted. It's a massive helping of simple seafood fried rice dotted with tiny shrimp and scrambled eggs, topped with a whole steamed crab (legs already detached for easier consumption), which itself was topped with a sprinkling of bright orange crab roe. For a complicated presentation, the dish itself is fairly simple. Steamed crab, unfussy fried rice, roe. That's it. But when everything is prepared with the utmost care, a dish needn't be intricate or abstruse.
The crab with fried rice wasn't even my favorite version of the spindly crustacean, however, because the fried crab with a butter black pepper sauce approached perfection. So, too, its cousins, two fried lobsters, also dressed in the butter black pepper sauce.
Traditionally, lobster and crab are served with melted butter, so it makes sense to simply dunk the whole in the butter rather than encouraging dainty dipping. And while we're at it, why not fry the creatures? Because, really, few things are better before they're fried than after.
The butter, the small balls of cracked pepper, the nearly translucent fried crust — all these elements enhance the natural sweetness of the crustaceans, elevating them to their best possible forms far removed from superfluous spices, bread crumbs or tartar sauces.
Dining on such succulent creatures, I felt like a king, slurping the juicy meat out of a claw here, taking a moment to munch on spicy stewed eggplant there, ordering a pot of tea to aid digestion.
'I think we should order something else," my friend said as I sat staring at the decimated seafood platters before us, clutching my full belly. I started to laugh at what was clearly a joke, then stopped as she beckoned the waiter and placed an order for yet another whole crab.
The waiter, however, didn't seem shocked at all, and I realized why when I glanced around and noticed diners at other tables pushing partially filled plates aside to make room for round two of their feasts. Sure enough, ten minutes later, we performed the same routine, shifting plates and glasses to make room for one more glistening, steaming crab, its sweet juices still bubbling out from cracks in its shell.
I have always believed that happy animals taste better, and as I left Hai Cang, after having devoured four different types of ocean creatures, the lobsters and crabs resting in their temporary homes seemed to confirm my thesis. I swear they were smiling at me.
Get a look inside Hai Cang Seafood Restaurant with our photo gallery.