Combos go Crazy

Chinese eatery offers classics, but why not try an omelette?

HOUSE OF GOURMET (484 Dundas West, at Spadina, 416-217-0167) Ever wondered about the mysterious dishes listed on the walls of Chinese restaurants in Cantonese? This brightly lit space in Chinatown answers those questions with its 700-odd-item menu that goes from bacon ‘n’ egg sandwiches served with Ovaltine to Deep-Fried Crispy Intestines downed with Grass Jelly. Complete meals for $18 per person, including all taxes, tip and a bottle of Tsingtao beer. Open Sunday to Thursday 8 am to 2 am, Friday and Saturday 8 am to 4 am. Fully licensed. Access: four steps, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

it’s a story many white diners tell. They’re sitting in a Chinese spot on Spadina waiting for the Cantonese chow mein to arrive, only to see a server with a fabulous-looking dish held high pass their plastic-covered table.As all eyes turn and follow, the person sitting next to you whispers, “See? They think the non-Asians can’t handle the real thing. That’s why they only list it on the wall in Cantonese and we get stuck with the boring stuff.”

House of Gourmet — hard by the site of the old Victory Burlesque Theatre — has nothing to hide. Sure, much of the fare on offer is listed on wall banners in Cantonese, but each of these dishes is also detailed in a 700-odd-item menu that ranges from the mundane to the very unusual.

Do you fancy Deep Fried Crispy Intestine ($7.95)? Pork Blood Cake with Leek Flower ($7.50)? A glass of hot Ovaltine ($1.25)?

If you prefer the retro “classics,” find comfort in the Canadian Chinese section, where Sweet and Sour Chicken Balls and B.B.Q. Pork Chop Suey (both $7.95) take things back to before the Szechuan rebellion. Moo Shu Pork ($7.95) — shredded pork, Chinese cabbage, carrots and onion wrapped in a quartet of hoisin-spread pancakes — is the kind of no-nonsense wrap far fancier joints try to pawn off as fusion food.

But I decide to throw culinary caution to the wind and find out what we’ve been missing. When I place my order, the polite black-and-white-clad server asks if I’m sure that this is what I want. Why wouldn’t it be?, I bluff as she rolls her eyes.

After she talks me out of trying the Chef’s Special Congee ($3.50), featuring chunks of pork liver, she quickly returns with a bowl of steaming Chicken and Fish Congee ($4.95). Tender pieces of both fowl and bass swim in a soothing long- and short-grain rice mush thickened with soya milk and tossed with green scallions and slivered ginger, then sauced with hoisin and peanut-butter-like sesame paste.

Just the medicine for an upset stomach when dunked with chewy Deep-Fried Donut wrapped in sheets of house-made rice noodles ($2.50).

We soldier on with Scallop with Whelk ($11.95), a medium-sized seafood platter scattered with a handful of tasty scallops and rubbery slices of conch-like whelk, a monster mollusc that preys on lobsters and oysters.

I somehow doubt that Mr. Whelk would enjoy feeding any more than I did on Grilled Oyster with Satay Sauce on Sizzling Platter ($11.95), a half-dozen doughy Atlantic critters bathed in barely spiced cornstarch gloop studded with green pepper and canned pineapple bits.

However, a nippy side of Young Bean Leaves with Garlic ($8.95) finds these pea-shoot-style greens pleasantly kicked with chopped bulb.

Though its name offers no clue, think of Fried Crispy Milk Special Style ($7.95) as a monochromatic, fluffy egg-white omelette laced with tiny lobster threads and minced shrimp. While not exactly as described, Stuffed Bean Curd with Young Bamboo Skin ($7.50) turns out to be lengths of tofu topped with strips of the fibrous outer layer of ‘boo shoots alongside a few pieces of Chinese broccoli.

Another textured selection, Sea Cucumber and Black Mushroom with Vegetable ($8.50) matches the vegetable-looking sea slug with equally dense Chinese ‘shrooms and wilted bok choy.

House Special Fried Noodle ($7.95) returns us to more familiar territory. It’s a heap of crisply fried chow mein piled with barbecued pork as well as shrimp, chicken, squiggly squid and halved bok choy hearts. Beef Tenderloin with Black Pepper Sauce ($9.95) recalls Salisbury steak in a particularly pungent gravy, while Braised Slice Beef with Lily Flower and Black Fungus ($8.50) contrasts thinly sliced steak with velvety blossoms and slippery cloud ears.

Saving the strangest for last, we pass over Luncheon Meat with Macaroni in Soup ($3.95) for Gourmet’s House Special Spaghetti ($7.50). Over a mess of Italian noodles, we identify canned condensed tomato soup studded with frozen peas, carrots ‘n’ corn and some squid bits, all topped with a fried egg. Definitely an acquired taste.

Not everything at House of Gourmet is as daunting as things like Crispy Fish Skin ($3.95). Apart from McDonald’s, where else in Chinatown can you chow down on onion rings ($1.50) and a glass of milk ($1)?

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