Lemon Grass Stir Fried Alligator - Phat Ky (that's phat with p-h, yo!) Houston, TX.

alligator.jpgPhat Ky. Houston, TX.

I used to live in a land they call Sugar Land, Texas. It's a benign suburb just outside of Houston built around the historical Imperial Sugar refinery. Whenever I say Sugar Land out loud, I tend to say it with a twang. "Shugah Lan. Shugah Lan, Texas." It's a very twangy name. My parents still live in Sugar Land. Visits to my folks' town always conjur up strong emotions both terrible and pleasant within me.

I moved to Sugar Land from the O.C. to help my mom and pop open their very first restaurant. It was the worst kind of restaurant one could own. The sort of establishment one opens if one desires to work 12 hour days, make no money and likes lots and lots of fierce competition. It's the ubiquitous Chinese all-you-can-eat buffet. Like with many of these binge-a-terias, the decor looked as if it was inspired by the early-tedious and post-stale periods. On the walls the emotionless, pastel water colors framed in monotonous beech wood were enough to not only glaze anyone's eyes over but also the buffet's popular lemon chicken.

The name of our restaurant was intentionally synonymous with Americanized and blandified Szechuan "cuisine" so our customers wouldn't confuse us with any authentic Chinese eateries. We called our Chinese trough the Hong Kong Café. You probably can find a Hong Kong Café in your own town and you wouldn't have to strain too much to do so. Most likely unrelated, there could even be more than one in the same city. We actually didn't name it ourselves. The prior owner through some spasm of inspiration came up with it all by his lonesome.

My own private Hong Kong Café was my greatest source of misery in Texas. I endured seemingly endless twelve hour days with only Sunday off. I wasn't paid (family business and all). My dad lured me into the business by promising that I'd manage the place but in the end I was no more than a glorified bus boy. I didn't know anyone in Sugar Land or Houston so I started making friends with our customers and the employees next door at Schlotzsky's Deli. That made life a bit more tolerable.

Typically a day at the restaurant was a crappy one. It begins with a frenetic lunch rush and concludes with a depressingly uneventful rest of the day of clockwatching due to the fact that we didn't offer a dinner buffet. Then it would go from crappy to absolutely horrible when my dad decides to check the day's transaction total. Without fail he'd be upset with the sum and take his frustrations out on everyone. Hell hath no fury like a Chinese father who doesn't like the day's receipts. This was his family's livelihood and things weren't going well to say the least. I just could not wait for Sunday.

Susanna Hoffs and I both like Sundays. It's her "I don't have to run day" and it's my "I don't have to bus plates of uneaten food piled on by wasteful customers who then pathetically cover up the food with a thin napkin day". On Sundays I like to just forget about the restaurant and go check out my new hometown. Sometimes I would just drive around Sugar Land hoping to find Texas kind of things. Things that I never see in the O.C. or Los Angeles like Texas Longhorn steer. Once on an aimless drive I came across a tiny town that had a small church with a steeple and a white picket fence, a wee firestation and a cute little red school house - all on the same block. I wondered to myself how long they'd be around.

I would also explore Sugar Land's vast system of rivers and creeks. An impressive number of wildlife - like many varieties of fish, white-tail deer, turtles, coyotes, waterfowl, newts and alligators - still reside in the ever-developing suburbs of Sugar Land. During all my wanderings the one creature I never spotted was the alligator. Sadly, the gator sighting would have to wait because after six months of living and toiling in Houston I could no longer hack the family restaurant biz and gave notice to my dad that I was quitting and going back to Cali. Alligator tears all around...or is that crocodile tears?

On my most recent visit to Houston/Sugar Land, almost thirteen years had passed since I worked at our doomed restaurant. The Hong Kong Café, besieged by bigger and cheaper buffets, gradually lost most of its fickle clientele and went out of business in about two years, thus fitting neatly into the average time frame for failed restaurants.

There is sort of a shell shock I experience whenever I'm in an all-you-can-eat buffet. It doesn't matter if I'm eating at a mom and pop shop like my family's restaurant or a mega-Vegas, corporate buffet where the hosts will gladly remove your plates no matter how much food is left on it, I am always transported back to the Hong Kong Café and it saddens me. The funny thing is, even with our family's restaurant trauma, my parents still love buffets. They sincerely enjoy them. Not for the quantity of food either but for the variety. They go to buffets to nibble on a little bit of this and a little bit of that. They usually finish everything they bring back to the table because they're not out to gorge themselves. They just want a taste. When I was in town I ate with them a couple of times at an American buffet. Both of my parents are grayer (actually my dad's hair is all white) and have aged much in these past thirteen years. The Hong Kong Café must've prematurely added on at least seven years to each of them. And as I dined with them, watching my dad slurp up his cherry jello and my mom clean off a barbecue drummette, I couldn't help but replay in my mind those difficult days when we tried all kinds of ideas to save the business.

There was the subscription home dinner delivery service which inevitably flopped because every subscriber family wanted their dinners at almost the same time every night. Too bad for us, the delivery service comprised of my dad, my little brother and our beat up Buick. Also the mad rush combined with the staggering pressure to get these dinners out every night resulted in many a shouting match and almost in divorce for my mom and dad. We were on a sinking ship and bailing out water with a ladle. To cut costs, my mom would occasionally send me to one of the highly successful seafood banquet restaurants in Houston to buy their surplus chicken wings. Our Chinese fried chicken wings were very popular and this was a way for us to hopefully make a few more cents on each sale. However, as I am led into the kitchen of one of these "real" restaurants, I couldn't help but feel inadequate. Here I am standing in a full kitchen, perhaps five times as big as ours, the huge staff busy prepping, cleaning, chopping, marinating, steaming and stir frying. All these people in concert keeping this oceanliner humming smoothly. All I could think about was my mom having to do all of that stuff with the help of only two other guys in her cramped inferno of a kitchen. At the end of every night, I'd glance at her knuckles and they'd invariably be raw from the work, the hard grind. This memory gradually fades as I return to watching my mom gnaw on another drummette. To hell with the buffet. I couldn't do this anymore. Ixnay on the buffet.

It was Mother's Day - a special Mother's Day because not only were we celebrating my mother but my wife as well who, a month prior, just delivered our first child Chloe. My brother Jimmy picked the restaurant - Phat Ky, a Vietnamese/Thai/Chinese restaurant in Houston. It is a well-lit and clean restaurant with a wonderfully elegant and cheesy blend of design sense (think traditional Chinese darkwood chairs and goofy animated beer signage) and, above all, not a buffet in sight. The pre-dinner chatter was of me and my wife Diane's adventure through the bayous of Sugar Land. We shared with everyone the interesting critters we spied. However, my dad was quick to remind us of the thing he has twice seen and we have yet to see at all and that is, of course, the six-foot alligator of First Colony (the name of my parents' community is First Colony). Then the menus arrived.

The one really exciting thing about dining at a new restaurant is the anticipation, the fragrant wonders in store. The other even more exciting thing is serendipity. If I couldn't go to the alligator, then, I suppose, the alligator would have to come to me. But who would've guessed it was to be in the form of stir fry? There it was on the menu - lemon grass stir fried alligator. We were destined to meet our gator after all. The prospect of this beast was heady and when it arrived we were awestruck. It was a beautiful dish. Garnished with dainty petals of white onions, the strips of alligator glistened under the restaurant's gallery lighting beckoning us to sink our teeth into it as it once did to lesser creatures on the food chain. The first taste made me think pork. The next few chews brought to mind fish. Each bite was a savory symphony of lemon grass, spices, chili peppers, onions and gator. One of the absolute delights of traveling is the regional accents or, dare I say, twangs that are manifest in the local cuisine. In this case, a lemon grass stir fry that is remixed with Texas alligator.

The next day Diane and I went to the bayou looking for the gator. It still managed to evade us. Where could it be? Maybe it ended up in the Phat Ky kitchen. Maybe we ate it. That would be weird. Later that day my dad would report to us his third sighting of the alligator of First Colony.


wangerz said…
I grew up in Sugar Land. When was Hong Kong Cafe open? BTW, came across this blog in a Google search.
Eddie Lin said…
hi wangerz,

thanks for the comment. we owned hong kong cafe until 1993. it was located in houston at chimney rock and richmond.
Anonymous said…
Another reason to love your blog... you're a local boy!
DocChuck said…
Well, about 65 years ago, I was born in Houston, Texas. That's when it was a REALLY nice place to live . . . I even graduated from the same high school that my parents and all of my aunts and uncles attended (Reagan high school).

But I digress. I had never eaten alligator meat until I tried it at the Outback Steakhouse in Branson, Missouri, about 7 or 8 years ago.

Simply LOVED it. Now my wife has it over-nighted from Louisiana, and we have prepared it in many ways . . . always a real treat.

Thanks for reminding me that we aren't the only "weird" people that love to eat those critters (well, at least their tails).

P.S. My wife, E, is a descendant of Gen. Sam Houston . . . I think that is way cool!