Hong Kong Noodle starts with a serious strike against it: Few things inspire less gastronomic confidence than a 382-item menu. The infinite bill of fare is a symptom of the malaise that lingers over most Chinese restaurants in America: hundreds upon hundreds of ways to serve the same low-quality, soulless people kibble served at thousands upon thousands of nearly identical restaurants. Few cuisines have fared as poorly as Chinese cooking when interpreted by American restaurants — in the wok of lowest common denominator standards has been born uncountable billions of generic kung pao chickens, grade D Mongolian beefs and leaden, uninspired eggrolls.
On this last count, at least, Hong Kong Noodle is as guilty as the rest: the restaurant’s greasy eggrolls tasted as though they’d been recently poured from a 10-gallon plastic bucket, thawed and nuked. Otherwise, however, the U. of M. campus restaurant is a minor gastronomic revelation clad in utterly workaday decor.
The first tip that you’re dining somewhere different flies invisibly through the air; it’s the lively, continual sound of Chinese (these ears can’t discern Mandarin from Standard Cantonese, so that’s where this observation must end). Hong Kong Noodle serves a legitimately mixed clientele, always a positive sign — if folks from the homeland are digging the food, it’s a reliable indicator that the chef is doing something with real soul.
The use of crisp, fresh vegetables is a nice change from typical strip-mall Chinese food. The Popular Chow Mein ($6.95) was a texture-driven dish, popped above the norm by the use of crispy celery, fried noodles, and peapods. Ma Po Tofu with Pork ($9.95) had a funky, earthy, spicy musk to it — certainly not a ball-breaking example of the genre, but heartfelt and mellow, well matched with a bed of white rice. Five Spice Duck ($7.95) suffered from a surplus of bones but boasted a subtle and legitimately deep flavor profile that alternately crackled with cinnamon, sweetness, and pepper.
A BBQ Pork Soup with Wontons and Rice Noodles ($7.50) boasted beautifully balanced sweet/spicy slices of meat and delicate rice noodles; the wontons were underseasoned and drab, but they were adequate in the role of understudy to the more elegantly executed aspects of the dish.
Servings are big, driven no doubt by the pythonic appetites of local students; if you’re a normal eater, each entree should get you through a couple meals on its own, without even factoring in the impact of appetizers.
Two visits and eight or nine orders didn’t even begin to crack the crust of this culinary egg’s shell. There’s fish maw soup; Chinese sausage with Chinese broccoli; squid with preserved vegetables; Congee of all varieties including clam meat; hot pots, chow fun, fried rice… well, and so on and so forth. A dozen visits with four people might fully do the offerings justice. Uneven execution and uninspired decor keep Hong Kong Noodle from offering the kind of experience you can get at Tian Jin in Chanhassen, but fresh vegetables and a truly dizzying array of interesting food puts Hong Kong Noodle in a different league than most of the Chinese holes-in-the-wall that dot the Upper Midwest.
Chinese on U. of M. Campus
901 Washington Ave SE
Minneapolis, MN 55414
RESERVATIONS: For large parties
VEGETARIAN/VEGAN: Yes / No