Give our city long enough, and maybe our culinary scene will one day come to resemble the wonderfully messy melting pot that is Hong Kong cuisine.
House of Bowls
In this tiny city-state (now technically a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China) where over seven million people pack an area just over half the size of Houston, years of being one of Southeast Asia's great crossroads has created a hybridized cuisine that's just as fascinating as Malaysian and Singaporean cuisine—two other Southeast Asian hubs of culinary blending—with one big difference: strong Western influence.
Hong Kong was a British colony from 1841 to 1941, and aftewards a British territory until it was returned to China in 1997. And in recent years, it's emerged as one of the world's foremost financial capitals. In combination with its proximity to mainland China and other Southeast Asian countries, Hong Kong's cuisine has familiar threads of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, British, and other influences woven through it, but otherwise defies easy categorization.
Nowhere in Houston is this more visible than at House of Bowls, the city's biggest and best Hong Kongese restaurant. On the menu you'll find pork ramen keeping company with macaroni and sausage, Cantonese congee with Indo-Japanese curried seafood udon, Italian spaghetti with British Ovaltine (although only the Ovaltine is prepared in its traditional manner; the Hong Kongese spaghetti tends to be quite sweet and topped with anything from cheese to corn and peas).
My two favorite dishes to order at House of Bowls are chicken wings and French toast—an appetizer and a dessert—leaving plenty of room in between for exploring the vast menu (which is best done with a large group, as you do in Chinatown).
Salt and pepper chicken wings are technically an appetizer, but be warned that they come in a bowl large enough to split between six people. Very few other restaurants in Houston surpass House of Bowls when it comes to frying up a batch of gloriously crispy chicken wings, which maintain their juiciness under a fine layer of batter that shatters into the tender meat with each bite. Aggressive seasoning with both salt and chile peppers means you won't need sauce, nor would you want it—it would only make that crispy skin soggy.
Dessert is Hong Kong-style French toast, which—unlike the wings—you'll want to hoard all to yourself, because this is no ordinary French toast. Instead, two pieces of French toast are slathered with a thick layer of creamy peanut butter and sandwiched together, then passed through the frying pan one more time to get the exterior nice and crispy. In place of syrup or powdered sugar, Hong Kongese French toast gets a topping of creamy, tooth-achingly sweet condensed milk. You'll want to leave maple syrup to the Canadians and start pouring condensed milk over every breakfast pastry: pancakes, donuts, coffee cake—what couldn't be improved with sweetened condensed milk?
As you can imagine, this is a once or twice a year indulgence. You can't just go around eating HK French toast willy-nilly; that way lies adult-onset diabetes. But what an indulgence it is. And what a wonderful creation in an unlikely place. Perhaps one day Houstonians will have exported our own crawfish pho or Italian-Cajun po'boys or chorizo kolaches far and wide, and a Hong Konger sitting in a Houstonian cafe across the world will wonder over the very same thing.