(Please excuse the discursory nature of this review -- I have not been sleeping well, and my brain responds to exhaustion with garrulousness and sudden synapse detours, resulting in a rambling, often disjointed writing style.)
My first introduction to King Harbor was on my birthday, back at the beginning of August. My co-worker took me out for lunch, and after hearing me bemoan the weird service at Ten Ten and the tendency of Chu's Wok Inn to be brown-gloppy (it's possible to avoid it, but you must choose judiciously), she suggested "the Chinese place we used to go to when I worked at the other place."
"You're really just a wealth of information, aren't you."
"I don't remember the name. It's on Garden Grove Boulevard somewhere."
"Boy, it sure made an impression. Let's try it. You drive, since 'on Garden Grove Boulevard somewhere' is not going to help me."
And so we sat down, and had a very good lunch of hot and sour soup, pineapple fish and yuxiang ("fish flavour", meaning made with garlic and ginger) pork. Lunch was quite reasonably priced, the portions were good, and the service quick. I enjoyed it, the staff were polite, the food hot and well-made, and no weird brown glop so pervasive amongst Cantonese restaurants.
I spent the next week and a half thinking about the pineapple fish. I'm telling you, it's quite possibly the perfect Cantonese dish. Those of you who know Chinese food know that the Cantonese, perhaps uniquely amongst the traditions, pair sweet sauces and fruit with protein, which has led us from sweet and sour pork (reasonably authentic) to the much-beloved-but-calorically-dense orange chicken, made with marmalade and chilies, which is perhaps the only edible thing at Panda Express.
King Harbor's pineapple chicken, though, is large, deep-fried nuggets of flaky tilapia tossed with fresh pineapple and a sauce made from thickened pineapple juice. A few carrots lend an oh-no-what-have-I-done Western quality to the dish, but they're easy to ignore. The fish is perfectly, perfectly cooked -- flaky and, most importantly, still moist -- but ripping hot.
I went back to King Harbor, because I couldn't stop thinking about the pineapple fish. This time I was buying for three, so I also bought dry-fried green beans and West Lake beef soup. The dry-fried green beans were quite good -- bits of pork and fried scallions tossed with the green beans -- but a bit too much oil left in the bottom of the bucket for my particular taste. The West Lake beef soup was a miss, overthickened (the kiss of death for any Chinese soup) and underwhelming in its blandness. The fish was still tasty, and warm even after a traffic-packed drive to Orange, but it doesn't travel well -- you should eat in if you want it.
Tonight, then, since we spent the weekend away and hadn't yet gone grocery shopping, I suggested King Harbor. My wife assented and off we went, my first time for dinner.
Upon being seated, tea was brought (it's bog-standard tea, you can ask for better), and with it came forks. We politely laid them aside, being renowned experts in the chopstickial arts (my wife can fillet fish with chopsticks, and I can pit cherries).
We ordered pineapple fish (I'm telling you, pineapple fish for the win), ma po tofu and garlic-fried ong choy. The ma po tofu was very tasty but not porky enough for my taste. It's what I get for ordering a Sichuan dish in a Cantonese restaurant. The ong choy was extremely good, though -- obviously high-quality ong choy (this translates roughly as "water spinach") with the required hollow stems, it was tender enough that the cooks could use most of the stem, which is unusual. The garlic had been either baked or roasted and had that sweet caramelised taste. My wife pronounced it "a little too greasy", but what looked like grease was actually water from the dish, hardly any oil at all.
The restaurant wasn't very full, so the ma po tofu came out literally two minutes after we ordered, followed in quick succession by the ong choy and the fish.
The problem came when it was time to eat the tofu. The very efficient waiter had whisked away our bowls when we didn't order soup (this comes with lunch but not with dinner), and it's very hard to eat ma po tofu without a bowl of rice under it. "Please bring us bowls," I said in probably-fractured Cantonese, and two rice bowls appeared instantly. We spooned rice into the bowl, topped it with tofu, and ate.
At the end of the meal, I called for the bill ("mm-goy? mai dan" if you're interested in practising your Cantonese whilst dining there). The bill came, and the busboy brought over a plate of oranges and fortune cookies. The waiter intercepted him before the plate hit the table, which we thought was odd -- until he brought over two bowls of what I think of as Chinese che -- coconut-based sweet soup with what looks like seaweed and mushrooms in. (Trust me, it tastes a lot better than my description would lead you to believe.) I haven't had this dessert since we used to eat at Pho Bac Huynh, in the space on Wilshire where Pho 99 is now. I have no idea what it's called in Chinese (any dialect), only that it is probably Chaozhou (Teochew, Chiu Chow) in origin, since no other tradition serves dessert as part of a meal. "This is for you," said the waiter in English, "please enjoy."
We tipped well, took our leftover tofu and ong choy, and walked away happy -- this may be our destination for when we want Chinese and don't have the inclination or the time to drive over the hill to Rowland Heights. The bill was $33.50 (including $1.00 each for rice) plus tip.
It's not Monterey Park standard, but little else in SoCal is. Stick with Cantonese dishes and you'll enjoy it -- try the other dishes and they may be OK, but probably not as well-executed as you could get elsewhere.
King Harbor Seafood Restaurant
13018 Harbor Blvd, Garden Grove, CA 92843
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