Finding this little storefront in a strip mall at 787 Bethel Road in Columbus this afternoon was like glancing down in my compost heap to find that a tomato seed had sprouted and was busy growing, blooming and putting out fruit while my back was turned. Primarily a take-out operation, Hometown Oriental Gourmet Foods does have a few tables set about, and it does have a typical Chinese American menu that the proprietors will cheerfully press into your hands if you happen to look American.
But they also have a Chinese menu, which is written in both English and Mandarin, which is posted in their window, which they will also hand you, if you ask for it with proper enthusiasm. They also have a deli section featuring killer Cantonese roast pork, whole roasted ducks and poached chickens, as well as thousand year old eggs, tea-cooked eggs, and salted preserved eggs.
We happened upon this place by chance, as we had just been at the Columbus Asian Market (a great place to get Asian groceries--well stocked, -clean-, tidy, with the freshest produce I have ever seen. They also have a butcher on staff, and in the meat department, you can buy fresh fish from a tank, chicken feet, whole ducks, pork belly and all sorts of other good stuff), and had seen the Chinese characters on the sign. We had seen it a couple of times before, but today we had time so we decided to stop.
Boy were we glad we had time.
Zak, true to form, had to order roast pork noodle soup. I had to be different, even if they did have both noodle soup with shredded pork and preserved mustard, and noodle soup with shredded pork and preserved turnip. I decided on a dish that didn't really have a name, but this was the description: "Fresh chili, dried fish, beancurd, shredded pork stir fried."
Aw, hell, it sounds good. Why not?
So, we ordered. The owner wrote down Zak's order with no problem. She got to mine, and looked over at the other owner (her brother, she told us later--she was a very nice woman, very chatty, very friendly), and he said to me, "This is spicy, so you know?"
I said, "I know, that's why I ordered it."
So she wrote it down, and they brought it out a few minutes later. While we were waiting, she came by and asked us how we found the place, and we said we had driven by on our way home from the Asian market and saw the sign and decided to stop. Once we saw the menu, we had to come in. She said, "Oh, lots of Chinese people come from the Asian market, come here and have noodles before going home. Or they have, we make rice soup, we eat it for breakfast...."
I smiled and said, "Congee." And she smiled and said, "You know it?" And we both nodded and said, "We love it."
She was very surprised to hear that we liked congee, more surprised that I liked thousand year old eggs in mine, more surprised that we liked the fried crullers in it. She wanted to know where we had learned to eat congee, and we were chatting, when her brother brought out our food.
Well, Zak said that the broth to his soup wasn't great--I tasted it and it was a standard fresh chicken and vegetable broth--lighter than we both like for pork noodle soup. We like pig neckbones added to the broth, for that soup. But the roast pork! Oh--that made up for any deficit in the broth. It was succulent, rich, with a very well balanced seasoning. It was much better than I have managed to replicate in my home oven, so I am very happy to have found this place for that reason alone.
My dish, whatever it is called, was fantastic. They used pressed tofu, and the chili peppers were both fresh and preserved. The pork was tender and well-cooked, and the whole dish was fragrant with dark soy sauce and rice wine.
The dried fish added a wonderful fragrance to the sauce as well, though I had to laugh when I encountered the first one under my chopsticks--they were whole! Little tiny shiny silvery fish, heads, eyes and all, were in my food. Oh, well, I thought as I plucked one up, and popped it in my mouth. They are very chewy and fishy tasting, but they add a great deal of textural interest and flavor to the dish as a whole. A surprise, but not too bad of one. Every time I picked one up, though, I felt as though I was stealing a hapless neonfish from my father-in-law's aquaria.
We were objects of fascination for the large family who came in and occupied the corner table, but that didn't bother us. We were happily eating, and intend on going back and trying the congee. And the duck. And the chow fun.
All in all, it was pretty much the best Chinese food we have had in Columbus that I didn't cook at home. The place may not look like much, but it has it all where it counts--in the flavor of the food and the friendliness of the staff.