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Few who live in Davis would bemoan the shortage of Chinese restaurants. Just off the top of my head, I can count nine within the little central commercial area of town, and then I can think of another not too far distant. So when I first noticed House of Chang opening up next to the new Safeway a year or two ago, its existence seemed redundant. Then again, looking from another angle, I figure that Davis now has 11 Chinese restaurants; it only needs one more for an interested Davis resident to be able to go out for Chinese once a month for a year without hitting the same place twice. If you think hard enough, you might find some merit here. The only problem is that, based on my experience, if you started with House of Chang, you might quickly decide not to bother with the rest.
Given House of Chang’s status as the 11th Chinese restaurant in Davis, and its location in a Safeway strip mall, I was expecting typical red booths, plain white walls, red and gold phoenix and dragon art and your basic Chinese menu. However, upon entering we found that the interior placed this restaurant on a level somewhat more sophisticated than the norm. The large, round, heavy wooden tables were inlaid with green marble, the walls were covered with silk-like wallpaper embossed with tranquil cranes and bamboo trees and—perhaps to remind us that, after all, we were still in a Safeway parking lot in Davis—vases full of artificial flowers adorned the table tops.
We started with sizzling rice soup. I hadn’t tried it since I was a kid, and I was anticipating what I remembered as a big explosion as the toasted rice entered the soup. Instead, the rice went to its fate quietly, causing very little, if any, commotion, and we ended up feeling a bit sorry for the waiter because he seemed a bit embarrassed. I guess it must not have been hot enough for the desired pyrotechnics, but the flavor was pretty much right on the money, and the soup came well stocked with peas, carrots, chicken and shrimp.
But then the coolest-thing-ever arrived. From the handwritten specials board, we’d ordered what was described as “Fish—braised—sour—or steamed.” And when the braised (actually, fried) version came, it turned out to be this rather large whole rock cod. The thing was served sitting square on its belly with its crispy dorsal fins standing straight up in the air like a Mohawk hair-do. Its oversized head, with its giant maw, stared at us with a look of distinct displeasure. To eat it, you had to take a spoon and scrape the succulent flesh off either exposed side while looking into its eyes with a triumphant smirk.
The fish was delicious eaten by itself; the typical Chinese method of coating fish in a mixture of egg whites and cornstarch before frying creates a thin, crispy outer layer that seems more delicate than some of the heavier western breading techniques. But the fish didn’t arrive alone. Scallions had been sprinkled generously on top, and the entire fish was sitting in a pool of—and laced with—a perfect sauce that tasted most distinctly of chili paste, hoisin sauce and soy sauce.
Another dish, described on the specials board as “Chinese green vegetable,” turned out to be Chinese broccoli. The cook had taken the time to peel down the lower stalks to achieve maximum tenderness, and a great spicy and garlicky brown sauce complemented the broccoli nicely.
I like to get the specials in a Chinese restaurant if they’re available. I felt like we were eating what the staff and cooks might eat at the end of their shift. Who knows—if we’d just had chow mein and fried rice, would House of Chang have seemed as exceptional as it did? Though located in a Safeway parking lot in a small town with at least 10 other Chinese restaurants, House of Chang seems to fit in at the top. Easily.