At Hong Kong restaurant, which underwent a change in ownership last November, the menu consists of authentic Sichuan cooking, characterized by heat and abundant spices, drawing many Chinese students from nearby Michigan State University's for a taste of home. "It's really Chinese food," co-owner Yan Wan L. Saunders said.
Saunders moved to the United States 30 years ago from Taiwan, settling in Kentucky before finding a job at MSU, where her husband is a professor. Although her experience in food service is limited, Saunders leans on her daughter, Norah Saunders, to manage Hong Kong and run the day-today operations of the restaurant.
Before Hong Kong, Norah Saunders worked at a pizza joint for more than a decade, and she said the change has been welcome. Norah moved to the United States with her family as a 10-month-old, and she has been back to China for only a few brief visits. "Meeting the different people, it's interesting," she said. "My Chinese has definitely improved since I started working here. I like it. It's a challenge."
With authenticity, communication can sometimes be an obstacle. So Norah Saunders, as pierced and tattooed as anyone you might happen by in urban America, often finds herself in the role of translator, especially when it comes to informing non- Chinese diners about the food.
From pig's blood (which Saunders said looks and is served like slices of tofu) to beef and tripe with rice, genuine Sichuan cuisine fills the menu, transliterated into English and written in Chinese script. (Sichuan is a mountainous province in southwest China.) The spicy sesame chicken ($5.95), a cold noodle salad served with tender lo mein noodles, offers a perfect glimpse into Sichuan cooking — rich in flavor and full of heat. You just might need a few extra napkins to dab at your eyes and nose, as the spices loosen the sinuses.
The beef and pork tripe ($5.95), an admittedly bold choice for this writer, is also served cold with rice. Tender beef is mixed with bumpy, spiked slices of tripe (stomach lining from a pig), and while unaccustomed diners like myself might hesitate to fully relish the dish, Norah Saunders said it's one of the most popular, regardless of ethnicity.
"We had a Polish guy who came in for the first time, and we were all shocked because he ordered the spicy pork tripe in a hot wok," Norah Saunders said. She was worried the man might not be familiar with what he was ordering. "He came to me and he was like, 'That's the best thing I've ever had. I'm Polish and all we eat is sauerkraut, which is rotten cabbage. This is so great.' So he's been back, bringing other friends, but they stick to the dishes they know," she said, laughing.
The breaded eggplant appetizer ($8.95) almost doubles as a dessert. The little fried delights, bathed in a sweet and tangy sauce and flavored with sesame seeds and oil, bring a pizzazz to what can sometimes be a pretty boring vegetable. Plenty of vegetarian dishes populate the menu, most of which go beyond the chow-or-lo-meinwith-vegetables type of dish many restaurants lamely offer as a non-meat option.
While the menu includes many familiar items (lo mein, chow mein, chop suey and fried rice), the real fun is trying something new. A boiled fish dish served as a rich soup is filled with vegetables and chunks of “nong li,” a tender white fish traditionally from Vietnam. The hardy broth is thicker than most, with a base of oil and water, and it's big enough to take some home and pour over rice for a delicious day-after lunch.
Although the full menu is available all day, a lunch buffet is popular with midday diners, mostly Euro-American in ancestry, before more Eastern ethnicities populate Hong Kong's confines in the evenings. And monthly specials keep the menu evolving, some falling away after a brief stint, others finding a permanent place on the menu. But to continue to draw the crowds, Saunders said the key is building on the heritage of Sichuan cuisine. “It's the dishes,” Norah Saunders said. “The dishes are unique."
Hong Kong Sichuan Restaurant, 315 S. Homer St., Lansing. (517) 332-5333.
11 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily.