I’m always reluctant to order seafood in a restaurant that doesn’t specialize in seafood. I’ve been burned too many times in restaurants where seafood is an afterthought on the menu. Even the best restaurants can ruin a perfectly good piece of fish. Years ago, during a visit to that temple of charred cow in New York City, Peter Luger, a friend of mine inexplicably ordered the swordfish. As the rest of the table mauled the giant carbonized porterhouse before us, my friend whined meekly, “My fish is overcooked.” No one at the table was particularly sympathetic.
But recent forays into Houston’s New Chinatown neighborhood are starting to change my mind about selective ordering of seafood dishes. I featured this neighborhood, near the intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and the Sam Houston Tollway, in a December article imploring Houstonians to explore the diverse food scene right in our own backyard. There are literally hundreds Asian/Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants within a few square miles of each other. It’s a target-rich environment for Houston food exploring.
There is, of course, a long tradition of seafood dishes in Asian cooking. But bad habits have always prevented me from ordering seafood in Chinese restaurants. Recently, I visited New Chinatown with my friend and fellow food writer Jenny Wang. There are few people in Houston more familiar with the food scene there. She recommended visiting a restaurant called Hong Kong Food Street and ordering a dish of steamed Dungeness crab over rice and lotus leaf.
Eating seafood in a “food street” restaurant? I was reluctant. A buddy of mine had recently visited China and barely made it back after having an allergic reaction to a seafood dish from a food stall. But it turns out that Hong Kong Food Street is a rather conventional Chinese restaurant with a big, clean, well-lit dining room. In the front corner was a food prep area with roasted duck and pork belly hanging in the window — a nod to the classic street food restaurants of Hong Kong and China. We ordered the steamed Dungeness crab.
It was one of the most delicious seafood dishes I’ve eaten in Houston. A fresh Dungeness crab is steamed until the shell is a radiant shade of red-orange, and the crab meat tender and sweet. A bamboo steamer is lined with lotus leaf and piled with rice. The steamed crab is placed on top so the crab juices soak the rice below. A fragrant lobster sauce complete with bits of scrambled egg is ladled on top and dribbles through the crab, mixing with the juices, and further soaking the rice. We alternated between extracting crab meat from the shell and scooping up heaping spoonfuls of the glorious rice.
A few notes on ordering steamed Dungeness crab in Chinatown. First, it’s big. Easily enough for two people. Which is good, because the dish goes for around $30 (well worth it). Also, call ahead to make sure they have it. Crab supply is seasonal and can be volatile. Keep in mind that this is a common dish in Chinese food — if unavailable at one place, call around to other restaurants to check availability. Often, if they don’t have crab, they do have lobster. Not a bad substitute.
Posted 27 March 2011 on the www.29-95.com website.