Featuring enough balloons to satisfy the snottiest of birthday kids, one of Riga's oldest Chinese restaurants, Honkonga, just opened the gates to its new premises on Dzirnavu iela. At first glance, this is your standard, run-of-the-mill Chinese restaurant. You would have hoped that since they were renovating their new premises anyway, they would have been inspired and gutsy enough to break the monotony you encounter at every Asian place you go to in Riga. Instead, you have the standard red lanterns, the standard Chinese wall decorations, the standard Chinese Toni Braxton copycat on the sound system... You'd hope that their cooking has more balls than their interior decorator.
”NO, NO COJONES HERE”
A brief glance at the menu tells you that no, no cojones here. Honkonga serves pretty much the same dishes that all the other Chinese places do. There are normal dishes, hot pot dishes and hot plate dishes. It strikes me as somewhat peculiar that none of the Chinese restaurants in Riga has a unique selling point, to borrow a business jargon term. One obvious way to stand out from the crowd would be to specialize in, say, cuisine from the Hunan or Sichuan regions of China. Instead, they now all compete with the exact same food. Therefore, the only reason to choose one restaurant over another is if you find that one has better cooks than the others, or simply one that is more conveniently located. So, is there a good reason to choose Honkonga over any of its competitors?
”LIKE SHAKING HANDS WITH A LIMP PENIS”
After trying about four different dishes, I'd say that this is a place where you would take people who don't particularly like Chinese food, and certainly not spicy food (i.e. your parents). Honkonga readily admits the latter part. In the words of the waitress, what they serve is ”European spicy, not Chinese spicy”. And it's a shame, really. Eating at Honkonga is a bit like shaking hands with a limp penis. When I go out for Asian food, I don't want a restaurant that apologizes for its mere existence. I want violence, I want sex, I want to be grabbed by the ears and shaken silly! And maybe this is exactly why Honkonga seems to have such good reputation among locals. Latvians don't necessarily like to walk into a street fight when they enter a restaurant, instead they want to be gently caressed by an angel's feather.
”I JUST MISS THAT OOMPH”
Not to say that Honkonga's food is bland, because it most certainly isn't. Everything I have eaten here has the potential for greatness, were they not so cautious in their seasoning. The flavors are rich and appealing, their ingredients are fresh and cooked to perfection (rarely have I been served beef this tender), I just miss that oomph. My utopian wish is that Honkonga would dare to throw their Euro-Chinese approach overboard and start cooking Chinese like it's meant to be cooked. They would surely lose some regulars, but I'm convinced that they would gain even more new ones.