Restaurant Review: Hong Kong House
Tongue-tingling peppercorns. Fried innards. Bubbling hot pots. It's the strange and intriguing world of authentic Sichuan cuisine, and it's closer than you think.
Once upon a time,Chinese food was an exotic affair. Back when novelties like HBO and car phones were gaining steam, there was something glamorous about dinner at Mark Pi's dark, ornate dining room at the Continent. The elegant pling-pling of Chinese instrumentals filled the air. Servers were as regal and attentive as the staff of a five-star hotel.
As a kid, I felt like a high roller when my dad would order our appetizers: "Wonton, wonton, wonton, wonton," he'd say, pointing at each of us like a game of Duck Duck Goose. And, back up the line: "Egg roll, egg roll, egg roll, egg roll." Those fat, golden egg rolls would be plunked head first into a puddle of hot mustard and sweet and sour sauce.
Now, Chinese food is as American as spaghetti and enchiladas. And-big surprise-those popular dishes of our youth are not exactly what they're eating in Chengdu.
Dinner at Hong Kong House, a Sichuan restaurant in a beige strip mall anchored by TJ Maxx, is another story. It's not fancy. The cinnamon-painted dining room is crammed with the kind of round tables used at wedding receptions-each dressed with a white tablecloth and fitted with a glass lazy Susan the size of a wagon wheel.
Service can be awkward if you don't speak Chinese. But you can experience dishes unlike anything you've had before. Chinese food can be exotic again.
Take the Crispy Diced Chicken Chongqing Style ($11.95). It looks like kid-friendly popcorn chicken. But there's a reason this dish is only on the authentic Sichuan menu, where griddled frogs and pork kidneys replace the General Tso's chicken found on the Westernized menu. These morsels are dry-fried with no oil, super-salty and radioactive with Sichuan peppercorns. Chili peppers with glossy, brittle skin are scattered around the platter, but they are a red herring. It's the tiny peppercorns that cause a physical reaction in your mouth: a lemony tingling that quickly turns into a chemical numbness.
During our visits, we were often the only Westerners there. "That's a good sign," assured my friend, who is originally from the Guangdong province.
Previously called Hong Kong Buffet, the restaurant switched to authentic Sichuan with table service last year when owner Zhiquan Zheng hired chef Kewu Chen. Chen owned a restaurant in China's Sichuan province, the humid belly of the country, for 20 years before coming to Columbus.
To prove our adventurous intentions, we ordered Sichuan Pickle ($4.95) and Beef Shank & Tripe with Red Chili Oil ($9.95). Our server looked very unsure.
Sichuan pickle, a slaw of pickled cabbage, celery and onion, lurks somewhere between sour and bitter. It's a side dish best taken in small doses. And I couldn't do more than pick at the cold tangle of beef slices and white strips of tripe. It had the texture of slightly crispy Fruit Roll-Ups.
Cocktails weren't much of a respite. The Plum Wine ($8) was as sweet as flat Coke. The Mai Tai ($8) tasted like drugstore rum.
A seed of doubt began to take root. The menu overwhelms with mysterious-sounding dishes. Servers, while polite, don't exactly help you navigate it.
On a pass through the dining room, I noticed many tables had a silver bowl bubbling with red broth. What is that? I asked our server. He smiled like he was thinking of an old girlfriend. "Hot pot," he said.
Five minutes later, a Hot Spicy Delight Hot Pot ($22.95) was set before us. In some restaurants, hot pot means you cook your own raw ingredients. That wasn't the case here. The bowl was filled to the brim with a chili oil-slicked broth stocked with flounder, beef, shrimp, scallops, tofu, chili peppers and slices of what looked like thick bologna (I was told it's called, simply, lunch meat). The hot, spongy meat was tender, waterlogged with spicy broth and very good.
According to lore, the heat and spice of Sichuan food evolved as a way to restore the body's balance in the region's damp, gray climate. Hot pot in particular seems made for cold Ohio winters: Your internal furnace will roar to life.
Another hot pot, the Griddle Tofu in Hot Sauce ($12.95) doesn't have much broth, but is just as tantalizing. Seared pillows of tofu and triangles of soft green pepper are coated in a thick, spicy sauce. Pork belly is a fabulous but surprising ingredient in a dish one might assume is vegetarian.
I also loved the garlicky Eggplant with Ground Pork ($10.50). Unlike its black-skinned Italian cousin, Asian eggplants are the soft lavender of a peeled red onion. Here, the vegetable is velvety and rich in umami flavor.
Dan dan noodles are a traditional Sichuan street food, so I didn't want to leave without trying Hong Kong House's version. They turned out to be terrific. Ground pork and chili oil cling to the dense, wiggly noodles, and you get a hint of that familiar soapy taste of peppercorns. Sichuan Dan Dan Noodles ($5.95) are listed under appetizers, but the portion is generous enough to be a meal.
Recommendations don't come easily because of the language barrier. But there's something else at play: doubt that Westerners will like anything authentic. For example, our server-at his own doing-indicated "No Pork Intestine" when he put in our order of Hot Spicy Delight Hotpot. Maybe he thought he was doing us a favor, but I would have liked the choice. Over lunch with a friend, we asked about the fried pork kidney. Our server proceeded to make a frame with her thumbs and forefingers over the area of her body where the kidneys reside. Given the visual, we opted out.
There's a texture barrier to enjoying authentic Chinese food, too. I couldn't get past the wet, snappy, cartilage-like texture of the eponymous seafood in the Jellyfish Salad ($7.95).
I did eventually try the pork intestine. In a dish called Fried Pork Intestine ($11.95), the organ is sliced into thin fried rings that resemble tiny palmiers. They were porkier and gamier than traditional pork meat, but not bad. Even so, I probably won't be going around the horn saying, "Intestine, intestine, intestine, intestine" the next time I take the family out for Chinese food. But I'm glad I tried it.
Hong Kong House
1831 W. Henderson Road, Northwest side, 614-538-9288
Hours:11 a.m.–10 p.m. Mon–Sun
Price Range:$5–$14 for appetizers and soups, $10–$22 for family-style entrees and hot pots
In Short:This no-frills strip mall restaurant canned the buffet in favor of authentic Sichuan cuisine. It can be an exotic adventure. If you don't speak Chinese, be ready to navigate your own tour. Hot pots and dan dan noodles are good places to start. Try the fried pork intestine if you dare.
Two Stars Out of Four (Very Good)