Sunday, March 06, 2005

Hulu House

Since adding one solitary photo to my blog I thought I would put my Chowhound posts about Hulu House here as well. If you're an Angeleno, read 'em and weep, there's nothing to approach this in our part of Cali.

Dear Chowhounds,

This post will be long but here’s the punchline. Authentic laksa – the quintessential Singaporean/Malaysian curry noodle dish – is available at HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant (Kirkham @ 12th, 415 682 0826). Hurry there and order yourself a bowl, it’s far better than Straits, Banana Garden or Singapore/Malaysian. This restaurant MUST stay in business!

A little history, proving that lightning can strike twice in a given location. Sunset Star used to be possibly the worst restaurant in the Inner Sunset, somehow surviving at the godforsaken corner of 12th and Kirkham. I went there on my birthday one year and had a bowl of won ton noodles whose miserable flavour surely cancelled out any longevity promoting effects of the noodles.

Then a miracle happened. The place changed hands and for a brief golden age one could get outstanding Szechuan food from Sunset Star (the “couple’s delight” tripe and beef dish was the equal of Little Szechuan). It was too good to last and the food collapsed into generic take-out Cantonese after the chef moved on.

Thus I was intrigued but little encouraged when Sunset Star was reborn as HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant – it opened tonight. Buddhist vegetarian is usually forgettable, and what were they thinking opening in the middle of nowhere? Reading the menu made things MUCH more interesting. In a manner analogous to the overrated Golden Era, these folks were cooking Buddhist vegetarian ingredients with Singaporean/Malaysian recipes.

I had to order the vege laksa, it’s a keystone of the Malaysian hawker food pantheon and unlike beef rendang (for example) is poorly rendered at Indonesian restaurants in town. Authentic laksa contains chicken, so the vege version lacks a certain, well, meatiness. It’s also made with thick rice noodles, while my favourite renditions use ropy egg noodles with the occassional addition of thin vermicelli. Now for the good news. As soon as the generous bowl arrived, I smelled the aroma and knew the flavour would be OK. Good laksa has a milky, opaque broth redolent of coconut milk, with fierce orange-red spots of oil rising to the surface. The curry spices are very warming but the heat is modulated by the richness of the soup. HuLu House adds fat cubes of fried tofu (dou fu pok), tasty vegetarian goose and vegetarian fish to the traditional bean sprouts - no hard-boiled egg unfortunately. It’s not your grandmother’s curry laksa but in a city starved of the real thing it will serve. Triangular, flattish samosas were typical Chinese versions of the Indian appetizer, good value at $3. Complimentary lor bak ko/radish cake was OK but should have been more radish-y. I intend to eat at HuLu frequently and will soon work my way through the limited menu. Immediate must try dishes are vege nasi lemak (coconut rice) and the oxymoronic vege Hai Nan rice – hey, it can’t be worse than the sorry, overcooked gai fan you’ll find in local restaurants. “Special dessert” is $3.50. With luck it will be pulut hitam, the lovable sweet black rice served with coconut milk. Or ice kacang, or cendol with palm sugar, or bu bo cha cha...

I spoke to the chef who is Singaporean, she had a sunny first-day optimism about the restaurant’s prospects. I’ll be doing my part to keep tasty Malaysian food alive in San Francisco. Follow my lead!

Happy eating,

Low End Theory

Limster popped into town for a whirlwind visit. I took him and some pals to HuLu House Vegetarian Restaurant at Kirkham @ 12th for Singapore/Malaysian fare cooked with Buddhist vegetarian ingredients.

Limster noted the authenticity of the herbs in the curry laksa broth, and shared my opinion that the novelty of the vege goose and fish scored points. His delighted observations:

"Like finding a pot of gold."
"I would totally eat this in Singapore."
"This place opens AFTER I leave town."

As chibi noted in her earlier post, the nasi lemak is not very moist. The coconut flavour is tasty but could stand to be more pronounced. My ideal nasi lemak includes several accompaniments: curried beef or chicken, cucumber/carrot slices, hard-boiled egg, deep-fried peanuts and ikan bilis. The latter, literally "small fish", are delicious deep fried anchovies but of course they are absent here. I liked the vege eel/snake/animal that substituted for the curry. HuLu House does an OK job with this dish given their limitations. It's certainly equal to nasi lemak in Singapore/Malaysian restaurants that serve meat round here. Note also that Hulu House makes a passable vegetarian version of sambal belacan, the chilli sauce mixed with 1000x fermented shrimp paste that is the Malay condiment par excellence. It won't make your heart sing like real belacan but that's unrealistic.

For chowhounds who don't know, Hainanese chicken rice is a magical dish that inspires citywide competitions in Malaysia and Singapore. The rice is cooked in broth and fat from whole chickens and has an incomparable flavour. The chicken can be deep-fried but in my favourite version is barely parboiled - the bones should be bloody - and is thus incredibly tender. Chicken rice is served with chilli sauce, ginger and soy for dipping, and usually comes with a bowl of clear soup and some salad fixings. Again HuLu House produces an intriguing vegetarian, nay vegan facsimile of this dish. As chicken rice it scores 2/10. As vege chicken rice it is as good as it gets - a preposterous idea that is pleasing in its execution. The rice is cooked with sesame oil and tasted remarkably similar to the real thing given the lack of chicken. The "chicken" is painstakingly crafted from gluten and soy and comes in three varieties, each with a distinct texture. The "drumstick" was especially popular. As Hainanese chicken rice is terrible when ordered from most Cantonese restaurants (overcooked chicken is universal) and sub-par at Singapore/Malaysian places locally, I give HuLu House a thumbs-up for audacity.

Appetizers of note. The samosas and egg rolls are about average. I would pass over these in favour of the excellent HuLu tofu - sweet soy marinade, very delicate - and vege goose. You'll find the latter in many of the main dishes but it's worth ordering a plate to share.

Curry and rice was OK, though the curry was a little heavy on cabbage. This dish came with achar, pickled vegetables that were unfortunately too insipid, lacking the vinegary snap I look for. Thick noodles and veg contained lots of mushrooms, competent Cantonese cooking that was somewhat bland by comparison with the Southeast Asian fare we had. Add sambal "belacan" to increase satisfaction.

Distracted by picking over the wreckage of our lazy Susan - 6 mains among 5 plus appetizers for a Low End Theory-esque $12 incl. 20% tip - I completely forgot about dessert, again! Not to worry. There will be many other nights like this (even if there will never be another Limster).

Happy eating,

Low End Theory


Blogger Diana said...

I'm sad to report I had a mediocre bowl of laksa recently, and they didn't give me the tamarind sauce in the cucumber with my Nasi Lemak. This after driving in circles in the fog looking for parking. Hoping it's a fluke rather than a trend. I love that soup.

Did you know the owner/cook named the place Hulu House after having a dream with a gourd in it..

12:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This restaurant (why is it in a blog on LA restaurants?) no longer exists. It is now the Enjoy, run by Hong Kongers. Still vegetarian....

6:32 PM  

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