Our New Hong Kong Cafes: A Little Bit of WTF

Get used to that feeling that you're not ordering right.

"Your entrée comes with your choice of soup," said our waiter at LA Cafe. And what were our two choices? Hot and sour, perhaps? Beef and winter melon? Egg drop? No. Tomato vegetable and corn chowder. LA Cafe opened up on the second floor of the Pacific Rim Center a year ago, and I passed its banner outside the shopping-condo complex for months before realizing that it was part of a Chinese restaurant trend whose popularity in Seattle won't stop growing: the Hong Kong–style cafe. Hong Kong is world-renowned for its dim sum and fresh, Cantonese seafood. But Seattle's Hong Kong–style cafes dish up all the dishes that you'll find in the street stalls and tea shops specializing in sai chaan, or "Western cuisine." In the International District, LA Cafe, Purple Dot, and 663 Bistro all have menus whose descriptions read like a 1930s cookbook author's idea of Chinese food. Dishes like sole with creamed corn, stir-fried spaghetti with beef and black pepper, and "ham and fried egg with macaroni in soup" simultaneously frustrate, entice, and repel the uninitiated. My first visit to LA Cafe wasn't auspicious. Both soups tasted like nursing-home cuisine: watery, bland, not quite up to Campbell's standard of excellence. Spooned over a fat layer of white rice, our fish definitely tasted "home-style"; thick slices of fresh ginger were the only speck of life in a thick, clear sauce so bland we could almost taste the cornstarch. Hong Kong's famous XO sauce is said to be named after the "XO" on cognac labels, referring to the priciness of its ingredients; but while I could see flecks of ham on the cafe's rice noodles with XO sauce, I could taste none of the garlic, dried scallops, shrimp, and chiles that usually make it so punchy. The best thing on the table was a plate of crisp-tender, golf-ball-sized baby bok choy heads stir-fried with garlic. Of course, it's a dish that Cantonese cooks learn to master about the time they hit puberty. Part of the problem is that LA Cafe's menu has more than 190 items, and the specials menu another 50. Should you start with the milk tea, in Hong Kong called "silk stocking tea" because it was originally steeped through panty hose to achieve the right strength and creamy mouthfeel? Perhaps a nice cold glass of milk with Horlicks? Or a parfait glass of sweet red beans, shaved ice, and sweetened condensed milk? Everyone around us—the couples in their jade-colored booths, the big families sitting around cherry-red tables—was eating big plates of noodles and grilled steaks. The place was a pop paradise, spotless and lit to a perennial high noon, its candy-colored walls and furniture accented with little vases of plastic fruits and a ceramic napa cabbage almost worthy of Jeff Koons. I figured I just ordered wrong, so I returned twice more, compelled to figure out what all these dishes were and because I wanted to find something I actually liked. But I kept striking out. The culinary hit of all three visits was "Luncheon Meat Chow InStant Noodle": kinky ramen noodles stir-fried with scallion greens, onions, and cubes of a Spam-like substance. Everything else barely rose beyond the level of edible, whether it was the stir-fried spaghetti with beef and so much black pepper that it set my mouth aflame, or the pork chops baked over rice in a gloopy tomato sauce, or the fish balls with egg noodles in a watery chicken broth tinted notebook-paper yellow—hello, bouillon cubes. LA Cafe is a cute place, but the owners either need to reduce the eclectic menu down to its greatest hits or figure out how to make all 250 dishes better. On my third visit, I was explaining to my tablemates that I was planning to come back again to try the "digital fried rice" and the grilled ox tongue with onion sauce, when one of them stopped me. "Why are you putting yourself through this?" he demanded. What's inspiring the proliferation of Hong Kong cuisine in Seattle right now? In the past couple of years, the "Western-style" cafes have also been joined by more modest restaurants that specialize—with much greater success—in congee and noodle soups (Mike's Noodle House, Hong Kong Noodle House), as well as steamed rice baked in stoneware pots (HK Homestyle Cafe). "In recent years there has been greater immigration coming from Hong Kong, particularly after 1997," said May Wan, executive director of Seattle's Chinese Chamber of Commerce. The other factor, she explained, is the major Hong Kong expat communities in Vancouver and Los Angeles that have emerged since the Brits returned the island colony to the Chinese. Both West Coast cities have emerged as sites of pilgrimage for foodies from cities with smaller Chinese populations such as Seattle. In fact, LA Cafe's owners, Yuk Chun Ho and Wai Wing Ho, moved up north from Los Angeles in order to spread the love. If I'm counting right, this makes their food blissfully postmodern, a simulacrum of a simulacrum of a simulacrum. Wan encouraged me to order another Hong Kong specialty that I confessed to her scared me: yuanyang, or half coffee, half tea, named after a duck that pair-bonds for life. So I manned up and ordered a mug when I went to 663 Bistro on Seventh and Weller. It tasted...exactly as awful as I thought it would. But the rest of 663's Hong Kong cafe food was decidedly better. In fact, when I walked into the place I was smacked with a huge hit of nostalgia for Gold Medal, a Hong Kong restaurant in Oakland's Chinatown and a favorite late-night stop. Same barely decorated walls and plastic tables, same sweet smell of barbecue wafting off the glossy red ducks hanging in the entry. The bistro's menu is about two-thirds the size of LA Cafe's, as well as much less eclectic, focusing more on congee, noodles, fried rice, and simple Cantonese entrées rather than Canto-Western mishmash. For the purposes of comparing restaurants, I chose to pass over all the things I'll be returning to 663 for (like ong choy with preserved tofu sauce and hot pot with chicken, tofu, and salted fish) and instead stuck with the Hong Kong specialties. These, too, were hit or miss. A soup with beef balls, pinkish-white cuttlefish balls, and gossamer egg noodles was based on a useless chicken stock, and I wasn't sold on the curry chicken, whose soupy sauce tasted mainly of store-bought spice powder. But 663's baked pork chop over rice was a much, much tastier rendition, with tender pink meat and not-mushy rice—this isn't saying much, considering that its sweet tomato sauce was spruced up with frozen peas and carrots. Thick rice noodles were stir-fried with a little soy sauce and then topped with translucent, juicy shrimp and "egg swirl," a creamy omelet studded with scallions. This isn't food that will ever make the angels sing, and if you're sober and fond of the original versions of these East-West dishes, I can't imagine its appeal satisfying anything but curiosity. It's diner food, plain and cheap. With one exception: 663's Hong Kong–style French toast. LA Cafe's rendition was simply a piece of white bread dipped in egg batter and deep-fried, so oily that when I tore off a corner with my fingers, they came away shiny and dripping. But 663's was magical. When we cut into the lacy, golden square, it revealed itself to be three thin slices of Wonder Bread stuck together with syrup. The dessert equivalent of a Monte Cristo, the French toast was freakish and three kinds of wrong—and if Denny's ever discovers its existence, you'll never see the last of it. jkauffman@seattleweekly.com

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