Hong Kong Food in the House (of Bowls)

One of -- if not the primary -- reason I love food so much, and the main reason I lean toward enjoying ethnic restaurants more than "mainstream" places, is the opportunity to learn and be taken on a journey.

Even if it's only for that hour at the table.

House of Bowls, the subject of this week's cafe review, offers a great experience for diners interested in learning about one of the world's most fascinating culinary melting pots: Hong Kong cuisine.

House of Bowls serves Hong Kong-style fast food, which is itself a combination of traditional Cantonese dishes and what's called "Canto-Western" cuisine. You'll see Canto-Western cuisine all over House of Bowls' menu, from pork chops baked in spaghetti sauce with rice to my personal favorite, French toast stuffed with peanut butter and topped with sweetened condensed milk.

Eating (or just wondering at) this food, it's impossible not to want to learn more about where it came from and how it came about.

Canto-Western cuisine evolved as a result of Hong Kong being a British colonial outpost until 1997. Much as the British brought cricket to India, they also brought distinctly Western tastes and foods to Hong Kong. But prior to the 1960s, only foreigners and the very wealthy were able to eat in the Western-style restaurants that had opened across Hong Kong.

That changed starting with a period of economic prosperity in the 1960s. The country became a center of manufacturing and, later, finance. Eventually, Hong Kong became the world's freest economy -- a title it's maintained since 1995. And as Hong Kong became more open to the world around it, so did its citizens' palates. A booming economy meant that people had money to spend in restaurants, and Hong Kongers did so with open minds, creating Canto-Western dishes along the way like fried fish on rice covered with corn soup or spaghetti with ham and sweet corn.

Of course, the more traditional dishes at House of Bowls are every bit as good as the "crazy" Canto-Western ones. But don't just take my word for it -- take a group of friends to House of Bowls this weekend and dive headfirst into the massive menu yourselves.

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Katharine Shilcutt