A sad day for Singapore noodles
I was in the mood for Singapore noodles.
So now I find myself, the only customer, in a little Chinese/Vietnamese restaurant in the Heights. The noodles are prepared indifferently. The texture is too thick, a little oily. The noodles are supplemented by bland steamed chicken breast and pork. The dish is sadly lacking in curry.
I am overcome with the conviction that something is terribly wrong with American Chinese food.
A mere shadow of Chinese cuisine
I am not the first to make this complaint. Last summer Nina and Tim Zagat -- the restaurant guide couple -- wrote a wonderful op-ed piece about the problem. As the Zagats confirm, "Chinese food in its native land is vastly superior to what's available here."
I have heard that China, along with France and Italy, has one of the world's top three cuisines. Supposedly, Chinese food is remarkably varied. Allegedly, China's cuisine is unrivaled in its flavorful ingredients and creative techniques.
But you would not know any of that from eating Chinese food in Houston. Menus are standardized, with the same inauthentic dishes: General Joe's Chicken, sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken. Almost all dishes are steamed, stir-fried, or deep fried with batter, American-style. Sauces have too much sugar and oil. The food is anything but authentic, catering to American tastes. Houston's Chinese menus do not give even a glimpse of the diversity of dishes and techniques that are available in China and Taiwan.
Although China is supposed to be the jewel of Asian cuisine, Houston has much better restaurants with the food of India (Indika) and Japan (Nippon, Kubo's, Blue Fin).
A little hope
Of Houston's 400 Chinese restaurants, there are a few glimmers of hope:
-Fung's Kitchen has a broader, more authentic menu than most Houston Chinese restaurants, with a focus on Hong Kong-style seafood. Most dishes are very good.
-Daniel Wong's is not high cuisine, but is a quirky blend of standard Chinese recipes with a Houston twist.
-The pan-Asian bistro explosion is bringing some interesting Chinese flavors at stylish, inexpensive restaurants like Mak Chin's and Rattan.
-You can get some interesting cheap Chinese food at some of Houston's dumpling houses, like Doozo, Dumpling King, and Santong Snacks.
As my Singapore noodles start to get cold, I find myself staring at the rain. My mind starts to wander . . .
20 years from now
On January, 1 2028, a new Chinese restaurant has opened in Houston's very upscale Sharpstown area.
The chef is in her late 30s and has trained in some of the top restaurants in Beijing and Taipei. She has surrounded herself with skilled and creative younger Chinese and American chefs who actively participate in the creation of the nightly changing tasting menu.
The restaurant has three sommeliers and a wine list with over 600 wines. Each wine listing includes a description of the Chinese flavors with which it pairs well. The list has no California Cabernet Sauvignon. It does, however, include a number of wines and liquors imported from China. The sommeliers gladly suggest by-the-glass wines to go with the tasting menu.
The restaurant's elegant design highlights the kitchen by raising it on a stage-like platform in the center of the restaurant and surrounding it with glass so that it is visible from every chair in the restaurant. The design of the tables, chairs, and fabrics is warm and colorful with hues of black, red, and green.
The central location of the kitchen allows chefs to quickly carry dishes to tables only steps away as they are finished -- to preserve the "breath of the wok."
The food is as good as the best restaurants in China. It is firmly-rooted in Chinese techniques. Yet the chefs use the tradition as a springboard for new flavors, often created with local ingredients from the dozens of daily farmer's markets in Houston.
The restaurant also includes a large bar with a separate menu of less-expensive, small-bite dishes sold a la carte.
Finally, Houston has a world-class Chinese restaurant.
And sometimes they serve a killer version of Singapore noodles.