My son was visiting me in Merced, so I asked him if he was up for an adventure…I explained that I had discovered a restaurant that I thought looked interesting, but that I knew little about, other than that it looked to be very basic and was located in a part of town I was a tiny bit nervous about visiting alone at night….son’s not necessarily the adventurous sort, but I was buying, so he acquiesced and we set off for Houa Khong…
I had originally spotted Houa Khong by getting lost (isn’t that how all good adventures begin?) …it was closed the first two times I drove by (both times trying to figure out the maze of streets near Highway 99)……nothing about the signage told me anything about the restaurant other than that it was obviously Southeast Asian (no signs in English at all, other than the ‘closed’ signed on the door). The location in a low income residential area was not necessarily encouraging.
Did a quick search, but there were no reviews on CH, or anywhere else that I could find.
However, I did find a website:
The menu on the website was definitely the most interesting I’d seen from a Merced Asian restaurant (though not recently updated: prices have risen)…
I noticed the reference to catering of Hmong events and wondered if it were possible that the place was Hmong owned. After all, Merced is home to one of the largest concentrations of Hmong immigrants in the United States. I made a promise to myself to try the place soon…
Now that I’ve been, I’d guess the web site is or was a college project of the son of the owners; quite possibly the same son who waited on us….However, it isn’t Hmong owned: son told us that his family is Laotian, but not Hmong…his mother and father do the cooking…
but enough preamble, on to my report:
When G and I pulled up, he looked at me with a bit of trepidation:, ‘um, Mom, are you sure about this: it looks more like someone’s house than a restaurant’...sure enough, the front room consisted of a cash register, a computer/office area, a door to the kitchen, and two formica tables filled with condiments. The spot isn’t as small as it appears, however, as there is a large back dining room.
Actually, as it turned out, G’s description wasn’t far off: Houa Khong is like eating at your Laotian or Thai’s Grandmother’s house, assuming she is a great cook!
We were warmly greeted, and chose one of the front tables. Our server immediately brought menus (which are more extensive than the one on the website), and ice water. No alcoholic beverages served, so I asked for a lemonade. It was very good, and probably house made.
Fried meatballs: ok, I know, I am meatball obsessed. Perhaps I should have tried the fish cakes instead. These were our least favorite dish: not very meaty, and an odd, somewhat rubbery texture. It was a generous portion, about ten meatballs each slightly smaller than a golfball, served with fresh red leaf lettuce and a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.
Tom Yum Par: fish soup. This was wonderful: thick tilapia steaks in a spicy soup base of fish stock, tomatoes, chili, and lemongrass. The soup was very well balanced with a heat bite…the whole steaks were a delightful surprise and made this dish a meal in and of itself, though we did have to be careful of bones.
Neua-Num-Tok: beef salad. The grilled beef slices were served with cucumbers and a chili sauce that reminded me very much of the one I had with Hmong sausages in Fresno: fiery hot (I am guessing that habaneros provided the heat), with yellow and red onions and fish sauce. The beef was a tiny bit more well cooked than the rare I prefer, but otherwise the dish was a big success: That sauce was outstanding.
Penang Curry with pork: we asked for it between mild and medium and would have been happy with a bit more heat. It was delicious, with slices of Thai and baby purple eggplant.
My son is not a noodle fan, but our server told us that they are a favorite on the menu, so I will try those next, and perhaps ask him for his Mom’s favorites on the menu….
Our total bill was $44 with tax, lemonade and a soda. We brought home plenty of leftovers for two lunches.
Service was quite efficient in addition to being very friendly, and our meals were brought to us promptly despite a steady stream of business.
Bottom line: nothing we ate was refined, everything we ate was absolutely delicious. Houa Khong has gone to the top of my list of Merced eateries. Indeed, it could hold its own easily in a much bigger town like Fresno or San Francisco. I will be back very soon. Highly recommended.
By the way, now that I've felt the warm welcome from within, the neighborhood seems less daunting for someone dining alone: just find your way up the unlit street: there is a parking lot right in front.
Houa Khong is just a few blocks off the freeway, and if you have good directions to deal with the one way streets (Google does a better job than Mapquest), well worth a detour for those passing through town. Do call first; the website says they are open for lunch, but it was closed several afternoons when I drove by in mid-afternoon.
Houa Khong Restaurant
85 E. 13th St
Merced, CA 95340
Houa Khong Restaurant
85 E 13th St, Merced, CA 95341