By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
By City of Ate
By Scott Reitz
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Alice Laussade
There aren't many places around Dallas where you can eat a sea cucumber family-style. Heck, there probably aren't many places outside of municipalities with China Town tracts that serve the wormlike sea creature. But the cucumbers are here at Chef Hsu, in various culinary treatments: braised, stir-fried and fried, and served with sidekicks such as abalone, pork belly and pig leg.
11180 Harry Hines Blvd.
Dallas, TX 75229
Region: Northwest Dallas
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Super buffet (lunch): $5.25
Super buffet (dinner): $7.95
Seafood noodle soup: $7.95
Sautéed chicken: $12.95
Sea cucumbers with asparagus: $19.95
Whole fried snapper: $29.95
Sea cucumbers are not necessarily appealing sea beasts. But then neither were sea sponges until some shrewd licensed cartoon character marketer dressed one in Fruit of the Loom briefs and paired it with a Texas squirrel in a deep-diving suit. A relative of the starfish and the sea urchin, the sea cucumber has a long cylindrical inchworm-like body that can range from a few millimeters to more than 6 feet in length. The mouth--often surrounded by tentacles to facilitate dining--and anus are at opposite ends of the body tube, an example of sound anatomical design.
Colors are almost universally drab. But so are the mild tawny sauces Chef Hsu spoons over them. Braised sea cucumbers and asparagus are gently spread over a large platter in a smooth, slightly gelatinous dark gold sauce toned with restrained soy splashes. Sea cucumber sections are interspersed with thin, bright green asparagus tips angle-cut at the base. Cucumber pieces are actually severed sections of halved body wall that curls in on itself, forming a kind of cucumber cup. It has a consistency of dried silicone sealer: pliable and elastic like rubber, yet tender--octopus on emollients. The inside of the body cavity is smooth and polished, while the outside is mottled with clusters of blemishes and bumps in shades of gunmetal and drab russet. Tawny nipples, almost like tiny fingers, erupt at seemingly random points from the gnarled surface. But the sea cucumber segments are easy to cut, separating with just the slightest fork pressure.
From a culinary standpoint, the cucumber has a mild, almost nonexistent flavor. The sauce supplies the bulk of the palate tingle. Sea cucumber is predominantly a textural experience, though the odd visual flourishes over the outer body surface more than compensate for any flavor sterility (am I actually eating this?).
But this is a good part of Chef Hsu's demeanor. Its entrées, its pieces of exotica, are mostly gentle, which takes the edge off the unexpectedness (sea cucumber or even shark's fin with pork belly seems more approachable than other strains of Chinese exotica such as sliced snake with bamboo shoots). And there is an extraordinarily conventional introduction to the place. Chef Hsu is an aircraft hangar of a feedery in a strip mall next to a shop selling sports ephemera and across from a superstore installation called Latin Bazaar. The inside is restrained kitsch, but kitsch all the same. To the left of the entrance is an enormous partitioned tank congested with lobsters and crabs. Lili Hsu, co-owner with chef/husband Hsin Hsu, usually patrols the front door and, if you're interested, will show you which of the crabs pressed up against the glass tank walls is snoozing (she points to retracted eye stalks in the crab's head as the telltale sign).
To the right of the entrance is a bar, dotted with fat Buddhas and bamboo plants, that serves plum wine and Asian liquors and beers. The dining room is centerpieced with four large buffet tables clad in brass and a reddish wood grain Formica. This is where Chef Hsu's all-you-can-eat "super buffet" ritual is held. These tables are laden with typical "Americanized" Chinese grub--egg foo yong, chop suey, egg rolls, Kung Pao chicken, sweet and sour pork, Hunan beef--the ilk found in most Dallas Chinese restaurants.
Here it seems better. The vegetables are bright and crisp. Fruits--cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon, pineapple, bananas, etc.--are lush. Though the fried foods were a little dry--a buffet table malady that's almost impossible to remedy--they were virtually devoid of grease.
Yet, good or not, these tables are still mind-numbing altars of the timid. The à la carte menu is where the real action is; it is where Chef Hsu's soul resides. Hsin Hsu is an ethnic Chinese born in Korea who spent a good portion of his culinary career working the kitchen in a five-star hotel in Seoul. His specialty is cuisine from Shandong province, a coastal enclave in east central China astride the lower reaches of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. Major crops emanating from this Sino scape are wheat and soybeans, and steamed breads, dumplings and noodles are Shandong staples rather than rice (although Chef Hsu has the usual roster of rice dishes). The province is also known for its apples, pears, small dates and watermelon. This is no doubt why watermelon has such a heavy presence on the buffet table and slices of it in both red and yellow are served at the conclusion of the meal.
In addition to the sea cucumbers, the à la carte menu includes stewed, braised and souped shark's fin, jellyfish and abalone as well as crab and lobster dishes. Perhaps indicative of Hsu's stint in Korea, à la carte meals begin with a pair of small dishes of pickled vegetables: a layering of pitilessly blazing kimchi (pickled cabbage); and a dish of lemony yellow radish slices. The radish was the mellower of the two--a feat not too hard to accomplish--gently surging with a snapping crunch and an alluring sweet-sour tug.
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