100 Favorite Dishes 2013-2014: No. 36, Fried Mini Fish at House of Bowls
This year, leading up to our annual Menu of Menus® issue, Kaitlin Steinberg counts down her 100 favorite dishes as she eats her way through Houston. She'll compile a collection of the dishes she thinks are the most awesome, most creative and, of course, most delicious in town. It's a list of personal favorites, things she thinks any visitor or Houstonian ought to try at least once and dishes that seem particularly indicative of the ever-changing Houston foodscape.
Photos by Kaitlin Steinberg Watch out, these little bites of fish are addictive.
I know what you're thinking.
She eats at House of Bowls and her favorite dish doesn't even come in a bowl?!
It's silly, I know, but the salty little fish off House of Bowls' appetizer menu are so addictive, I can't stop eating them once I start. That could be a product of the MSG no doubt used in the cooking, but I think it's because the fried fish are garlicky, spicy and the perfect two-bite finger food while you wait for the main course to arrive.
Or, if you're like me, while you eat them in lieu of a main course.
The fish are battered in a garlic-heavy sauce, then deep-fried until both the outside and the fish on the inside are hot and crisp. If you didn't know you were eating whole fish, you might not even be able to tell, save for the vague remnants of tails and eyes still visible beneath the batter.
It's watching you...
They're served on a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce and cabbage topped with chopped jalapeños and some sort of chile-garlic-ginger sauce. The sauce is never drizzled over the fish; you have to dig a little to get at it. But once you find the little mounds of sticky, brown sauce, gather it along with some lettuce, jalapeños and fish into one forkful for the perfect bite.
When everything comes together like that, you get salty, briny fish; MSG-laden batter; heat from bright, fresh jalapeños; spicy garlic and ginger; earthy chile; and finally crunchy, sweet cabbage to help your taste buds relax once more.
If you ask for a bowl of rice, you can make a concoction like I do by putting all of these elements into a small bowl and adding rice and chile oil, then stirring it around with chopsticks and shoveling it into your open mouth. If it sounds messy, greasy and almost too spicy, it is. But that's why I love it so much.
It's a dish that I know I can't replicate or get anywhere else in Houston (except, perhaps, at another strip center restaurant in Chinatown I have yet to discover), and that's what makes it so special. I have to drive half an hour and brave the construction on Bellaire for what, in China, would be common street food, but here is one of a kind.
See the full list of favorites on the next page.