Comfort food, Sichuan style
By MARK NIXON
It’s been a former drive-in restaurant for as long as I can remember — which is longer than I care to remember. It’s forlorn and low-slung, huddled next to an abandoned building with broken windows, hardly noticeable to motorists passing by on US-127.
We’ve all seen places like this. A restaurant that, given its location, should have faded from memory years ago. Its surroundings are dubious. The architectural style is despair nouveau. It hurts just to look at it.
Yet look past this book’s cover, and behold Hong Kong Restaurant, a solid little haven of efficiency and friendliness that happens to know what’s cookin’. The last time I was in this place, I was a beat reporter who had just left a press conference with Miss Nude Universe — but that’s another story.
Hong Kong bills itself as a Sichuan restaurant, denoting culinary roots from the southwestern China province. Sichuan is known for its spicy food, and Hong Kong does not disappoint on that front. Its menu is peppered with little icons marking the spicier foods. On one visit, I opted for the Sichuan Noodle Salad ($5.59), which had a single red pepper next to its name on the menu. How hot could that be?
Very, it turns out. But I’ve been a spice wimp since — oh, I don’t know — roughly when I attended a press conference with Miss Nude Universe, Kitten Natividad. But that’s another story. To be honest, I can’t tolerate spicy foods the way I used to. The Sichuan Noodle Salad was great at first bite, with complex tastes that reminded me of smoked pork and garlic, but then the heat set in. One mouthful was all I could handle.
Far better for my tender tummy was the Crispy Sesame Beef ($12.49). It was just slightly sweet — unlike the gooey, overly-sugary iterations from some Chinese restaurants — and kept its high notes of garlic and toasted sesame seeds. This is one of three dishes that top my “best of” list at Hong Kong.
The others are Double Cooked Side Pork ($10.99) and steamed dumplings ($5).The pork dish was made of what is often called pork belly. It’s exceedingly tender and, yes, fatty. But as most cooks will tell you, fat is the gatekeeper of flavor. So double up on your anti-cholesterol drugs and indulge in this simple but amazingly complex tasting dish.
The steamed dumplings were filled with savory ground pork that tasted like home. To clarify, Chinese steamed dumplings were not served in my childhood home. We noshed on pierogi from our Slavic roots. Hong Kong’s dumplings are similar to dishes like pierogi or the Russian pelmeni or Italy’s gnocchi. All bespeak the simple, economical fare of peasant roots. Hong Kong’s version hews to that spirit.
While we’re on the subject of home, I appreciate the hominess of Hong Kong. Patrons are greeted as if they were neighbors dropping by for a visit. Many online reviews note that Asian students from Michigan State University find a home-away-from-home ambience in this place.
Back to the food. Aside from my top three, I recommend the Curry Chicken ($9.99), which, thankfully, isn’t over-curried; the Sizzling Rice Soup ($5.50, for two), which wasn’t as sizzling as it could have been but held a rich broth; and Hot and Sour soup ($1.70) which popped with flavors of vinegar and sesame oil.
For diners inclined to adventure or Sichuan authenticity, Hong Kong offers dishes like Pig Blood Curd and Tripe or the Spicy Pork Intestine. I declined.
Hong Kong’s exterior is a bit of a puzzle. They’ve kept the old drive-in awning, where patrons of a long-gone restaurant used to park their car and order food via intercom. Why keep the awning? And in the parking spaces, big letters spray-painted on the asphalt spell out P-R-O-J-E-C-T-D. Street art? Future development site? Lansing’s version of Area 51? Unknown.
Standing in the parking lot on a muggy late-summer afternoon, I looked around. I’ve known this borderland between East Lansing and Lansing for nearly 50 years. If Hong Kong’s walls could talk ... .
Why, just two blocks away, I once drove my red 1958 MGA Roadster into the Red Cedar River. But that’s another story.Stickin’ with the chicken
By GABRIELLE JOHNSON LAWRENCE
Let’s start with a confession. I’ve never loved Chinese food as much as my contemporaries do. I love a killer pizza or a good sushi roll, but I’m lukewarm at best on beef and broccoli. After several visits to Hong Kong, I’m afraid my ambivalence toward Chinese cuisine remains unchanged.
Of course, there are high points. On past visits, I’ve been impressed by the lemon Chicken, and I remain impressed. It’s extremely lightly breaded and flash-fried, so the white meat chicken stays juicy and tender. Steamed dumplings are another of our perpetual favorites. A wonton wrapper is stretched over a pillow of minced pork and served with spicy chili oil for dipping. I could make a meal of these appetizers.
I didn’t fare as well with sweet and sour shrimp, however. Aside from the aforementioned lemon chicken, I tend to steer clear of deep-fried foods. The batter is almost always too heavy and masks the flavor of whatever is being fried. In this case, the fried shrimp were not only covered in a thick coating of batter, they were tossed in a bright orange sauce that was glutinous and thick. Most of it came home with us and became lunch for Mr. She Ate the next day.
On another visit, I was inspired by a man who came in to pick up his order of Tofu Family Style. I’ve read recipe after recipe for fried tofu and was eager to see if it really can become crispy and delicious. As the Magic 8 Ball of my youth once said, “outlook not so good.” The tofu was mushy. I wouldn’t order it again.
We went hog wild one night, ordering a veritable smorgasbord of dishes, determined to find something that we loved. The cold beef with green onion appetizer gave us a bright start, with the thinly sliced beef marinating in a delicious, slightly spicy oil with fresh chopped green onion. After reading all the Yelp reviews I could handle, I was excited to try the fish scented eggplant, which smells and tastes nothing like fish. The chunks of stewed eggplant were topped with garlic and herbs and cooked until unappetizingly mushy. My mother, who had joined us for this culinary excursion, insisted that the texture reminded her of fried apples.
My high hopes for the salt and pepper shrimp were dashed when I grabbed one and attempted to peel off the shell. “The shrimp have been disrespected,” declared Mr. She Ate. Indeed, they were seriously overcooked, to the point that shrimp and shell had basically become one unit, impossible to separate. There was no salt or pepper to write home about.
The clear winner of the evening, the dish that I would pair with lemon chicken to make a satisfying meal any day of the week, was the stirfried green beans. The beans were topped with blackened garlic, pulled from the heat before becoming bitter. The beans themselves retained their integrity (that’s Sir Bean to you) and crunched a bit when you bit into them. We devoured them.
To cap off the meal, we cracked open our fortune cookies and read the inane slip of paper. We threw our broken cookies to my ever-hungry husband, the only person I know who actually eats those things.