Straight Out of Canton
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Though it was already a couple of hours past lunchtime on a state holiday, Canton House Restaurant, located deep in the heart of Chinatown, was surprisingly busy.
At the next table, a half-dozen middle-aged men speaking a seamless blend of Cantonese and English served themselves from bowls of steaming jook in the center of the table. They ate the rice soup with obvious gusto, a good sign of the good things to come.
“Our jook is very popular,” said Peggy Li, who manages the small North Hotel Street eatery owned by her parents. “We make our own meatballs here. And my mother and father make the jook at 5 o’clock every morning, so it’s fresh.”
A bargain at $4.35, jook may be ordered with meatballs, preserved egg and pork, beef, chicken, sea bass, seafood, or a mix of beef, meatballs, and pork. The soup is a generous tureen of creamy comfort, with strips of fresh ginger and rings of green onion.
According to Li, Canton House’s bestseller is its Look Funn (known to many Cantonese outside Hawaii as cheong fun). The flat, wide rice noodles are made onsite, she adds, and the dish may be ordered plain, or with Spare Ribs, Shrimp, Scallops, Beef or Char Siu, for $2.88. “All of them are good, but our beef look funn is the most popular,” she said. This version consists of a fat rice noodle wrapped around soft, rich beef, seasoned with parsley, green onions and cilantro.
As Li spooned lightly sweetened and seasoned soy sauce over the noodles, she explained that her father, Yat Quan Lee, and her mother, Lu Ya Lin, formerly owned and operated a restaurant in their native China. “Back in Canton, they made dim sum for more than 20 years,” she said.
Many items that once appeared on the menu at their Canton restaurant have now become favorites at their Chinatown eatery. One can enjoy a delightful and varied meal with friends here for just a few dollars apiece. Dim sum at the Canton House is priced at $2.08 per selection, and masterfully prepared and presented.
The Baked BBQ Manapua consisted of three warm, yeasty buns, generously stuffed with pork filling that was sweet and savory in perfect measure. Two kinds of Siu Mai, pork and chicken, were both tasty and rich, and the Half Moon dumplings were plump with fresh water chestnuts, cilantro and shrimp.
A trio of cakes was served: Taro, Turnip and Pumpkin. They’d been lightly sauteed on the griddle at the front of the restaurant. The taro brick tasted a bit like five-spice; the turnip cake was made of soft shredded daikon and not much else, and both were delicious (versions with chestnuts and chives are also available).
The pumpkin cake, a soft orange bun made with mushrooms and garlic, is an exclusive Canton House creation. “It’s made with a family recipe,” Li commented. “People are trying to eat healthier, so we’re coming up with healthier items.” Lighter offerings include Vegetable Spring Rolls (with cabbage, carrots, garlic, and other vegetables) and Stir-Fried Choy Sum, with oyster sauce or garlic.
Decor at Canton House is bright and cheerful, with posters of fantastic landscapes, plenty of red paper lanterns, and lots of wall hangings and scrolls. The walls are hung with handwritten signs in English and Chinese, advertising special dim sum such as Zong, made with red and green beans, pork, and sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf, traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival season.
Like many other Chinatown restaurants, Canton House allows patrons to bring their own favorite adult beverages. There is no corkage fee. The restaurant is open daily from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Catering is available on request, with a couple of days’ notice.
Though they are many years and thousands of miles away from their Cantonese roots, Yat Quan Lee, Lu Ya Lin, and Peggy Li of Honolulu’s Canton House Restaurant are working hard to keep the art of dim sum alive and well. Their efforts were recognized at the seventh annual Top 100 Chinese Restaurants Awards Show in San Francisco this past January, when Canton House was named a Top 100 Specialty Winner.
Canton House Restaurant
- 162 North Hotel Street
- Honolulu, HI 96817
- (808) 521-3788
- Open daily
- 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.