By Kathleen Vanesian
By Eric Schaefer
By Heather Hoch
By Lauren Saria
By JK Grence
By Eric Schaefer
By Robrt L. Pela
By Eric Schaefer
I feel so ashamed. I've just read an interview with Peter Benchley, author of that '70s sea shocker, Jaws. It seems he's done a 180 on his view of great white sharks recently, discovering over the past decade that they are actually shy, scaredy-pants fish that only attack people they erroneously believe to be giant tortoises or injured seals. Otherwise, they flee at the sight of humans.
Worst has been his revelation that by writing his fearsome tome, he has permanently damaged the image of sharks, and therefore contributed to the horrendous slaughter of the species worldwide. Millions are wiped out each year, he laments, many of them cruelly plucked from the ocean, sheared of their fins, then dumped bloody and helpless back in the water to drown.
I feel absolutely horrible. Because just days before reading the interview, I sat quite happily at Gourmet House of Hong Kong, sucking down a huge, hot bowl of (nervous tug at my collar here) shark fin soup. And I loved it.
1438 E. McDowell Road
Phoenix, AZ 85006
Region: Central Phoenix
Cantonese-style chicken: $6.82
Five-flavor shrimp: $8.41
Long green pea with pork: $7.47
Singapore-style silver noodles: $6.82
Hours: Lunch and dinner, Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Since Benchley's unsettling article, I've tried to justify my pleasure. Shark fin, in any assortment of Asian dishes, is one of the most expensive of Chinese dried ingredients and is normally served only on special occasions. But the meal-size soup I slobbered over set me back less than five bucks.
The soup was primarily chicken, I tell myself, suspended in a very thick, brown broth reminiscent of salty hot and sour base. But, there were also a lot -- a lot -- of needle-thin strands of gelatinous fin bobbing about. And there's no denying I savored the eel-textured strips greatly, dashing red vinegar in the broth for delicate sweetness.
Don't even get me started on the frogs' legs or duck feet served at Gourmet House, one of the Valley's oldest and most cherished emporiums of traditional Hong Kong-style cuisine. I can easily skip the duck feet -- they're like slimy, bone-in erasers -- but frogs' legs are fabulous. Four dainty gams are dipped in a crisp batter, then dunked on a pleasantly sour sauce of scallions, hoisin and hot red chili. Sure, they taste like chicken, but with sweeter tones and richer juices. Sorry, cute little froggies.
Such is the stimulating Hong Kong dining experience, though, authentically re-created at this coffee-shop-style dive in downtown Phoenix. We're not paying for ambiance, to be certain, surrounded by Formica tables, pink walls and cafeteria-style plates. A few big tables are set with lazy Susans that struggle to spin in thin veils of spilled sticky sauces. My companion is so mesmerized by the ceiling fans wobbling under flickering fluorescent light that he nearly falls out of his metal chair.
Plenty of mainstream dishes are offered at Gourmet House (moo goo gai pan, kung pao, teriyaki, curry, fried rice), but hard-core diners will want to embrace the adventure of visiting a foreign land and order unfamiliar entrees, even if they contain uncomfortable ingredients. How to do it? Simply adopt the "don't ask, just live it" policy I find so helpful when visiting Hong Kong, the country.
For example, how do Hong Kong's street vendors manage to price their Rolex watches at just 10 bucks, when they cost many thousands in the U.S.? (What? They're not real Rolexes? Damn.) Why are the ferries crossing to Kowloon plastered with so many angry, "no spitting" threats; who would do such a vulgar thing in public anyway? (Oh.)What are those viscous liquids dripping from the buildings above, landing in my hair and creeping down my neck? . . . I don't think it's raining . . . eek.
It's better not to know, and just have fun.
In places such as Hong Kong (the country) and Hong Kong (the restaurant), the best dishes are those of true Asian culture. Indeed, the most satisfying meal I ever had in Hong Kong was not an expensive corporate dinner but fare from a little blue-collar diner next to Stanley Market. The menu was in Chinese, and we ordered we knew not what with crazy abandon. It was obscene, I suppose, our table littered with many too many dishes as we poked, tasted and swallowed. Our fellow Chinese diners, working fastidiously on their single plates, watched us in stunned yet forgiving silence; crazy foreigners -- they could probably sell us a bucket of Rolexes later.
Much of Gourmet House's menu is in Chinese, too, particularly the wall-mounted specials. English translations accompany, but they're often vague (pork belly with taro; squid with green). But with 26 pages to choose from, and with the helpful advice of your server, you're sure to find sufficient sustenance.
One of the simpler yet hugely satisfying starters here is house club soup, a clear, rich chicken broth full of whole shrimp, sliced chicken breast, pork, squid tentacles and perfect fresh vegetables. It's got the pure clarity of everybody's favorite wor won ton, but sparked with the robust, smoky flavor of black mushrooms.
My dining companion's eyes light up when I suggest ordering the pork and thousand-year-old egg congee. He's never had it (neither have I), but is eager to try. Good, good companion. A staple of Chinese dining, congee is basically salted rice often served plain as breakfast porridge. Add meat, vegetables and such and it's a thick, whole-meal soup. I think it tastes like hot, wet Malt-o-Meal dressed with our dish's soft mushrooms, shallots, tender pork strips and egg. A thousand years old? I don't think so, but the egg sure looks ancient, its whites aged to thick, brown jelly and its yolk black. The taste isn't entirely different, just musty and very earthy, like hard-boiled egg sprinkled with dirt. It's oddly appealing.