The Taiwanese restaurant China Gourmet is legendary for its stinky tofu. Perhaps "legendary" is too strong a word, as many non-Chinese people have probably never heard of (let alone tasted) stinky tofu, and many Chinese people can't stand it themselves. And being famous for stinky tofu is like being the world's best tiddlywinks player: People still don't care.
But such pigeonholing does China Gourmet a disservice, because it excels at much more than stinky tofu. It might be the best Taiwanese restaurant in town. It's clean, bustling, and well-run, with low prices, consistently good food, and a number of dishes you don't often see in Chinese restaurants. As a concept, though, it's a somewhat strange combination of a cafeteria and restaurant: You order at the front counter and have to fetch your own place setting, water, and tea, but the dishes are brought to you and you don't have to bus the table when you're finished. And contrary to recent reports on Yelp, the menu is in both Chinese and English, so there's no need to bring a Chinese-speaking friend. Unless, of course, you want to!
Last weekend, my wife and I tried a few of China Gourmet's non-stinky specialties, most notably the Taiwanese specialty Three Cup Chicken. This dish actually originated in Jiangxi Province hundreds of years ago, but the Taiwanese version has become the one everyone knows. The dish's name refers to the preparation: Bite-size pieces of chicken are cooked in a pot with equal amounts of sesame oil, rice wine, and soy sauce (a "cup" of each), until the liquid is absorbed by the chicken or boiled away. Add a healthy amount of sliced garlic, sliced ginger, and basil, and you've got a pungent, almost earthy dish with honeyed overtones. In China, the chicken would have bones for added flavor, but the version at China Gourmet is thankfully boneless. I guess I'm a lazy American, but when I lived in China I sure got tired of picking out slivers of chicken bone and separating gristle from meat with my teeth. Maybe one day when I'm filthy rich, I'll hire somebody to cook the chicken with bones, then debone it between the pot and my plate. Ooh, and pre-chew it for me too!
Other worthwhile dishes include the tasty satay-flavored Sliced Pork with Spinach in Sacha Souce [sic] and the Special Cooked Fish Fillet w/Hot Souce [sic], a Taiwanese take on the Sichuan specialty of poached sliced fish in hot chili oil. China Gourmet's version was less spicy than usual, and light on the numbing Sichuan peppercorns, but a surprisingly nice change of pace. My personal favorite, however, might be the prosaically named Seafood Toaster, a square hunk of bread with a "lid" cut out and filled with a sweet seafood chowder. It's a classic Taiwanese appetizer, and before you complain about the name, this is one case in which even an awkward English title like Seafood Toaster is better than a literal Chinese translation. In Chinese, this dish is called "coffin board."
China Gourmet is somewhat difficult to find; it's located in the Dynasty Mall, on the northeast corner of Bellaire and Corporate, but doesn't have an awning or sign above the door. The easiest way to find it is to look for the green awning above its neighbor, Le Lai Restaurant (not to be confused with Lai Lai). Once you've gotten that far, you'll be able to see China Gourmet's name on the door (in English) and on the window (in Chinese). The restaurant's Chinese name is considerably more poetic than "China Gourmet," but sounds a bit goofy if you try to translate it into English. It means, more or less, "Happy Lucky to Come Here."
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China Gourmet 9600 Bellaire Blvd., Suite 105 Houston, TX 77036 (713) 995-8919 Open daily 11am - 9 :30pm Closed Tuesdays