Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Near NW Houston Part 1 - Golden Cafe

I am exploring the region that I call "near northwest Houston." This region is described in my last post

Because I am exploring this region for the first time, I need a guide. I cannot look to food critics Robb Walsh and Alison Cook because they rarely review any restaurants here. The region also is not well represented on Citysearch. Instead, the best guide for the area is b4-u-eat.com -- the best site for populist restaurant reviews written by average folk. These 4-sentence reviewers don't think too much of fancy food, and they love their bargains.

Armed with www.b4-u-eat.com, I ran a search to find the best Asian food in the area. The best reviews were for Golden Cafe. These were some of the gushing comments taken from the 4 most recent reviews [with my reactions in brackets]:

-"I have tried almost every Chinese restaurant in the area, and this is by far the best of the best. They are extremely clean and friendly." ["Clean waiters" -- that's a real plus.]

-"the food is great, abundant and reasonably priced." ["Abundant" sounds like "overweight"].

-"Excellent high quality food. I'm picky about white meat chicken and don't have to worry about that here. It's all white meat." [Someone should tell her that real Chinese chefs prefer dark meat. It has far more flavor].

-"Excellent food, large choices, reasonbly priced and great service. Can't ask for more." [except maybe authenticity or innovation?]

Assured that the waiters are clean, the portions are huge, the chicken meat is all white, I had to try the restaurant.

In every respect, Golden Cafe is a classic, thoroughly Americanized Chinese restaurant circa 1975. The restaurant is inside a dingy, gaudy colored building on 19th near Ella. Inside, I first notice the plastic holders on every table with yellow mustard and day-glo orange sweet sauce. Preserved under the glass table top is the traditional red paper placemat with the signs of the Chinese zodiac. As I might expect, the menu does not have a single unique dish. Every item is exactly the same item you find at any other cheap Americanized Chinese restaurant. They have about 30 specials that come with soup (egg drop and sweet and sour, of course), egg roll, and fried rice.

Trying to stay healthy, I order garlic chicken, because it looks like one of the few non-fried items. I also asked for white rice, even though the menu does not give that as an option. As I waited they brought me an amuse bouche -- a bowl of fried strips to eat like tortilla chips -- just in case the egg roll, fried rice, and fried entree are not enough fried for one meal. I began to wonder, does the "Golden" in Golden Cafe really mean "golden fried"?

When my garlic chicken arrived, it came with many chunks of the promised white meat, covered in a sauce amply thickened with corn starch. But this garlic chicken had a secret ingredient. Rather than adding a lot of garlic, which tends to be too strong for some white folk, they had added copious amounts of sugar. This must be the sweetest garlic chicken in town. The egg roll was well-executed and exactly what you would expect. It was a crispy fried roll filled with cabbage and finely ground mystery meat (white meat chicken?) that pairs nicely with the msg-laden mustard and the day glo orange sweet sauce.

Yes, the portions are large. Yes, the price is cheap ($4.95). Yes, all the chicken is white.

No, there are no Chinese American patrons. No, this place has absolutely no authenticity or innovation whatsoever.

But Golden Cafe is quaint and nostalgic, in an American way. It reminds me of the Chinese food I learned to eat when I learned to eat Chinese food in the early 1970s -- back before we had Vietnamese, Thai, and Korean reastaurants and Chinese restaurants that actually tried to be authentic. Sure, I would rather eat at Mai's or Kanomwon or real Chinese food at a great restaurant like Fung's Kitchen. But I can understand why so many white people like Golden Cafe: It tastes more like home.


"Bob" said...

Sounds much like the stuff they still serve at the ancient Hong Kong, at the Bellaire Triangle in the HEB shopping center just a few doors down from Thai Cottage. Took my kids there last year and was amazed. The menu has to have been unchanged since I was a kid (in a universe far, far away where there were more authentically Chinese people and restaurants around, but where we frequented the exact same sort of whitebread mid-America sort of place).

anonymouseater said...

Oh, you must mean San Francisco?

"Bob" said...

You are a wonder of inferentia reasoning and enlightenment, anonymouseater . . . can't get anything past you! Let's just say the San Francisco "region." But, pont being that in that era, Houston probably had precious little in the way of an authentic Chinese community that would sustain "authentic" restaurants, while the SF area certainly did. And yet, my experience of "Chinese" food was pretty identically inauthentic, right down to the not - found - in - nature color of the sweet & sour sauce.

putas said...

It cannot have effect as a matter of fact, that's exactly what I suppose.