Bootsy Holler
I WAS RELUCTANTLY (fluorescent lighting makes me crazy) introduced to Harbour City and the Ngo family two years ago by an avid fan, Bill. Twenty or so of us had assembled at the narrow Cantonese restaurant with golden duck carcasses hanging in the sweating window, to celebrate I forget what--eating, I suppose. Most of my good friends enjoy eating. Some of them live to eat. But only Bill possesses such focused gourmandism that at times it appears he may prefer eating to living.

Not one to waste words on adjectival wanking, Bill looked me in the eye and said, "Salty Chicken." I consulted my menu, but was unable to locate the dish. I soon learned that using the menu is not the preferred way to order food at HC. On a later visit, unaccompanied by Bill, I tried to order a noodle dish we had eaten three platters of previously. I didn't know what it was called (Shanghai Noodles, $6.75), so I described it. Soon, most of the Ngo family had gathered sympathetically around my table, nodding at my frantic hand gestures. (Which is how I found myself touring their spotless kitchen with Kathy Ngo, who brought me at least seven varieties of noodles, until we encountered THE noodles in the walk-in.)

But back to Salty Chicken. Possibly the blandest, beigest dish I have ever encountered, Salty Chicken is more minimalist vision than culinary delight. Considering its incredible lack of flavor, I venture that SC is boiled, then served with, yes, salt. A challenging amount of salt. I still can't ascertain if Bill eats it to show off, or because he really likes it.

Salty Chicken aside, thanks to Bill, I have become a dedicated devotee and expert eater of Harbour City's specialties. Sizzling Spicy Eggplant with Chunks of Pork ($7.95) is cooked in a clay pot, caramelizing the onions and chilies into a spicy-sweet stew with long, slender Asian eggplants, halved and still firm enough to hold up to chopsticks. I discovered it on the specials board once, and, if they have eggplant, HC kindly whips it up for me.

I highly recommend making oneself available to the Ngo's seasonal vegetable selection. Last Friday, it was onchoy, a kind of swamp cabbage ($5.75). Stir-fried with garlic and ginger, the onchoy is rich and tasty--simplicity itself. Whenever I attempt to fry up pea vine or Chinese broccoli for myself at home, mine turns out mushy and yellow. Kathy explained that it was the high-powered flame exploding from HC's range that does the trick, instantly cooking the vegetables at eyebrow-erasing temperatures. Which confirms the fact that I will have to continue eating my leafy greens at 707 South King Street.

The Wonton Soup ($3.50), with its clear, complex broth, emboldened with fish, tastes a bit of the sea, wrapping strong arms around the made-to-order pork-stuffed wontons and baby bok choy, floating and abundant like waterlilies.

Kung-Pao Chicken ($6.95) is a continual crowd-pleaser at Harbour City, featuring chicken, carrots, water chestnuts, and onions lovingly diced into green pea- and peanut-sized morsels, rendering a masterful and slightly spicy rendition. Toddlers and picky relatives from the Midwest will eat this dish without fuss, while the food-obsessed can simultaneously consume it with vigor and passion. Kung-Pao may be a holiday-saving compromise between eel hot pot (call ahead and Harbour City will stock their gigantic fish tanks with eel if you desire, and it is out of this world) and another watery ham.

I sampled the rich eel one evening, gathered again around the big table to celebrate a friend's 30th birthday. Everyone wore white--all white--and lingered over the 13-or-so-course meal, which included one of my all-time favorite dishes: Peking Duck (price varies), served with sticky sweet buns. After the dinner party, we all walked down the street, the slightly fecund air curling heavy and sluggish around our white hats and gloves, trousers, and shirtsleeves. Bill appeared to hover an inch or two above the concrete, his whiter-than-white ensemble flaring under the streetlight. A few people don't die. Sometimes a fiery chariot just shows up, pulled by horses of fire, Elijah holding the reins. You get in.

Harbour City: Barbecue House Restaurant

707 S King St, 621-2228. Tues-Sun 11 am-10 pm, closed Mondays. $

Price Scale (per entrée)

$ = $10 and under; $$ = $10-$20; $$$ = $20 and up