Despite the fact that so many of the Chinese dishes we as Americans consume aren't really Chinese -- things like chow mein, General Tso's chicken and chop suey are almost more American than apple pie -- the egg roll has actual roots in Chinese cuisine and, throughout the years, has managed to maintain close similarities to the dish from which it originated.
Egg rolls are most likely native to southern China; no big surprise as the dish -- vegetables and/or meat in a deep-fried wrapper -- is not unlike the chả giò of neighboring Vietnam or the lumpia of Indonesia and the Phillipines. Americans have been happily dipping them into sweet and sour sauce for decades, munching on them as appetizers before their Peking duck arrives or -- as poor college students -- making entire meals out of them and stealing soy sauce packets on the way out the door.
They've become so ubiquitous, in fact, that it's difficult to find a really good egg roll these days. So many egg rolls come to Chinese restaurants frozen and pre-assembled, ready for the fry vat and ready to be mindlessly consumed with the same blank mastication required for that other omnipresent appetizer: chips and salsa. This week's Food Fight looked to find some decent egg rolls for a decent price. Did we succeed? Find out below the jump...
Kam's Fine Chinese Cuisine
Kam's has been a Montrose staple since it was founded in 1988. It took home the Houston Press Reader's Choice award for Best Chinese in 2008 along with many other accolades from outlets such as Citysearch and Zagat. Like many other Chinese restaurants to be found in Houston, it carries other Asian items on its vast menu -- dishes like Vietnamese bo luc lac and a Japanese-style breaded calamari share space with traditional and Americanized Chinese dishes alike. To be fair, egg rolls probably are more of an afterthought on a menu that includes daring affairs such as winter melon soup and whole crispy hot and sour fish.
And, in the end, they are. The egg rolls at Kam's ($5.50 for four) are little more than deep-fried cabbage rolls. If you like gołąbki, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. But this is bland, nearly white cabbage that was most likely raw and unseasoned before it went into its little doughy wrapper. Sure, there are other vegetables in there. A shred of carrot was spotted halfway in. And the menu claims that Chinese mushrooms and onions also make up part of the filling. But all that we could taste was cabbage and the thick, viscous grease that oozed off the things as we brought them to our mouths.
The egg rolls were remotely saved by the bright, peppy apricot sauce (the orange version of sweet and sour sauce). But you shouldn't have to douse anything in that much sugar to make it palatable.
Dragon Bowl Asian Bistro
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Dragon Bowl is a tiny Asian fusion restaurant tucked next to a check cashing place and a mattress store off Shepherd in the Heights, a sister restaurant to the popular Pink's Pizza joints and the upcoming Lola's on Yale. The menu is highly schizophrenic, ranging from Thai to Korean to Japanese to Chinese with a make-your-own-bowls of entirely indeterminate origin thrown in for good measure. Despite this, it's wonderful.
The crispy dragon egg rolls at Dragon Bowl ($4 for five) are a bargain compared to the somewhat expensive sushi and signature dishes on the menu. Served with a watery chili plum sauce, the rolls are more than enough to split between two or three people. They're very obviously hand-made -- as is everything else here -- and only delicately greasy. Inside, the crunch of the roll gives way to a soft, velvety interior that -- oddly enough -- has a hint of cream cheese. While it was difficult to identify the vegetables inside due to their nearly emulsified texture, the egg roll had a pleasantly tangy and vegetal taste that didn't require the use of any dipping sauce. (And thank God, because it was one step removed from strained prune juice.)
Dragon Bowl wins not only for a better value, but for a better product overall. The crispy dragon egg rolls are an excellent way to start a dinner (we recommend the fantastically fresh sushi rolls) or just to share with a friend over an Asahi after work.