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.
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.
As my companion and I have slurped our soups, we've been checking the progress of the hot tea delivered with our menus. It's been our only disappointment, as we poured it fresh to find barely colored water. Opening the lid, we discovered bagged oolong, instead of traditional leaf. But after letting it sit and steep, it is now full-flavored and ready to fill our cups.
Nice timing: The tea is an appreciated partner to our soft-shell-crab appetizer, served seconds fresh from the fryer. The crab's been frozen, but hardly suffers from it, its flaky shell dissolving with whispery batter and juicy, mellow meat. We dip torn bits in a sweet/spicy sauce of Chinese red vinegar and chili oil, picking out little bits of hard cartilage shrapnel here and there.
Another appetizer, squid rings, reminds me why calamari once was so treasured, before chain restaurants began dishing out their tasteless, dry nuggets. Gourmet House keeps it simple and so wonderful, bringing a dozen crisply battered ringlets of tender meat. The accompanying red chili oil and vinegar blend is an aromatic delight that puts heavier seafood sauces to shame.
Gourmet House's entrees hardly resemble Phoenix's street-corner Chinese takeout, and for that, I am so very happy. Why do most of our Chinese restaurants insist on glopping their plates with sinister sauces that are reminiscent of that mysterious stuff dripping from Hong Kong buildings? What's wrong with clean, fresh meats, vegetables and oils?
Gourmet House has the secret to pristine cooking, with creative spices tossed around like rice at a wedding. Shrimp with salt incorporates China's five-flavor seasoning, the menu says, which would be a blend of five spices: Szechuan peppercorn, cinnamon bark, clove, fennel and star anise. I don't know -- it tastes like salt and sugar to me, but it's a feisty addition to this mammoth plate of whole, head-and-shell-on shrimp. The deep-fried crustaceans are lightly crispy and sprinkled with shallots.
The cooks working in the exposed (not too pretty, but clean) kitchen know how to use -- or not use -- oil. Cantonese chicken and Wunan duck are two examples of fried mastery. Mounds of chicken, menu-described as "skin and bone," are actually healthy chunks of miscellaneous parts, the skin fried to dry paper over excellent juicy bird and dipped in a five-spice blend. I'm thrilled. Even the heaps of shrimp wafers served alongside have been kindly treated. Picture chicharrones, like pork rinds, but cloud-light and crunchy.
And if you've avoided duck because of its greasy, high-fat nature, give the poultry served at Gourmet House a second look. Wunan duck is an uncomplicated plate of moist meat with just the tiniest gloss of tasty fat, covered in brittle skin and dunked in a very salty/sweet sauce. High five.
Of everything sampled, the only choice that sinks is our steamed red snapper. I like the toss of fresh ginger and scallions and its pool of soy and stock, especially when the whole thing is mixed up with entree-included white rice. The fillet chunks are flabby, though, and pretty uninteresting.
I'm in love with the long green pea with pork, however, even if the peas have been cut in half (the taste is the same, but some of the amusement is missing). Pork is fine, but the hot, skinny pea bundles are best, tasting of superior asparagus stems flicked with garlic pellets. They're a true treat munched cold the next day, too.
I'm sure the leftover Singapore-style silver rice noodles want to go home with me, as well, I tell my companion. Of course I'll give TLC to the slippery tendrils dressed with barbecue pork, spicy red pepper and scrambled egg, I promise, fully planning to attack the takeout box as soon as I'm safely in my car. He knows better, and we split the huge portion between us. Curses.
It's not as if I'm feeling deprived, of course. Working my way through Gourmet House's elephantine menu would take a year if I were to eat just one meal there a day. With the incredible portion size, I wouldn't need to eat much else. And budget? Most of Gourmet House's entrees ring in at $7 to $9; the most expensive options are whole fish or crab ($14) and a whole lobster with six clams and six mussels in black bean sauce for $17.74. At lunch, 30 different plates are available for less than $3.75. You can't beat that with a chopstick.
Then, of course, there's always more of my (gulp) dearly loved shark fin soup. If I were simply to stay away from the ocean (no difficult feat in Arizona), I'd surely be safe from my fishy friends seeking revenge. Except, I remember glancing at a National Geographic earlier this year, one that reported scientists have learned sharks can fly. It's true: A crew filming Great White, Deep Trouble in South Africa was terribly flustered to discover that, when chasing fleeing fur seals, great white sharks are capable of dramatic, airborne attacks. I'm sure the seals were pretty surprised, too.
Knowing that sharks are invading our air space, I'm too worried to try the exotic soup again. Not nearly as worried, however, as Peter Benchley should be.
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