Ten years after
HoiCin Cantonese Restaurant
Sacramento, CA 95827
Good for: well made Chinese-American fare and Catonese cuisine
Notable dishes: deep-fried flounder
Nearly 10 years ago, Kate Washington, a previous SN&R restaurant reviewer, wrote a review called “Shell Game” where she detailed her adventures at nibbling deep-fried crab innards at a Chinese restaurant on Folsom Boulevard called HoiCin (See “Shell Game,” SN&R Dish; July 21, 2005). At the time, I’d just graduated UC Davis and was just starting out as a food writer. Enamored with her account, I clipped out the review and stuffed it in a notebook determined to go.
I just found that notebook while cleaning out my garage and there, still neatly folded if not yellowed from the decade, was Washington’s review.
So, 10 years later, I finally decided to go and in and fashion a literary form of book-ending.
To begin, HoiCin’s “Fine Modern Asian Cuisine” (as described on the restaurant’s sign) is hardly modern. Rather, this is more typical Chinese-American fare with a few truly authentic Cantonese dishes thrown into the mix.
However, what sets it apart from other Chinese-American restaurants is its level of execution. Flavors are clean and light, as opposed to sugary and oily as most Chinese restaurants tend to be.
Take the Wor Wonton Soup: the filets of chicken and beef you find in most wonton soups are tough and chewy from being over-boiled, vegetables are limp and the wontons likely store-bought. Here, the house-made wontons are full of flavor, the chicken soft and supple, vegetables have a crisp bite—all of it in a hauntingly savory broth.
Deep-fried diced tofu are the potato chips of the menu: You cannot eat just one. They arrive billowing hot and tantalizing. Placed on the tongue, their crispy exteriors release salt and seasoning. Flecks of fried garlic and diced scallion accompany the tofu for astounding finish.
Spring pea tendrils are on the menu but weren’t quite in season yet; instead, they were substituted with ong choy, or Chinese spinach. Ong choy are verdant, musky greens similar in taste to spinach with a wilder side that drinks hard liquor and tells bawdy jokes. Cooked with a bit of broth and a flurry of minced garlic, the table quickly decimated the generous mound that was served.
A plate of Beef Chow Fun can be ordered dry or wet—the latter is served with gravy. The dry version is a tangle of chewy, wide rice noodles tossed with snappy bean sprouts and cuts of beef. It’s a homey dish that the table dismissed as the least interesting of our order, yet no one refused seconds.
Oh, but let’s talk about the pork belly, which the table cheered at upon its arrival. Fatty slabs—no exaggeration—are served with their skin intact. The skin and fat melts apart in your mouth, the meat shredding apart at the merest bite. It’s all punctuated by dry-preserved mustard greens that add a bitter counterpoint to slice through the more unctuous textures. Cantonese-style cooking at its finest and unlikely to be found on other menus.
Washington spent much of her review glorifying the Sampan Fried Crab, confettied in chiles and scallions. Sadly, the dish is out of season, so we instead ordered the deep-fried flounder.
And so the entire flounder arrived, seasoned in a sweetened soy sauce. A glorious presentation ensued as the backbone was surgically removed tableside. The fresh, flaky bits of white fish and crackling skin were devoured till only pin bones and part of the head remained. Even the cracker-like fins were nibbled away. Crab-shmab, this flounder was fantastic.
HoiCin is a welcome change from the everyday Chinese menu, and as Washington said, “You could do a lot worse than to take them to HoiCin for one of the more interesting Chinese dinners.”
Someday I plan to return to finally try the crab. Hopefully before another 10 years gets by me.