The dough was delicate. One wrong move or slip of the chopstick, and it was going to be all over. I somehow navigated it onto the spoon and took a tiny nibble to release a burning-hot liquid. One slurp later, and I lifted it into my mouth to experience something I managed to miss in all of my food travels. The item was an authentic Xiao Long Bao, which is a Chinese soup dumpling. The place was a familiar one: Middletown’s House of Chong. As previously reported, the restaurant now in its 50th anniversary year is in a transition phase from father to son in terms of ownership. The “new” owner, Danny Chong, was kind enough to invite me to see some of the changes he has planned. The first to be unveiled is a menu of traditional dim sum, which contains the above mentioned soup dumplings along with Har Gao (shrimp dumplings), Shu Mai (pork and shrimp dumplings), and Char Sui Bao (roast pork bun).
While waiting for the food to hit the table, Danny chatted with Justin and I. The conversation ranged from his own family history to the history and evolution of Chinese food in general. As someone who has traveled the world (and even lived in South Africa for more than a decade), Danny was proud to note the influence of the Chinese people in terms of their contribution to food around the world. “Chinese food is everywhere because there are Chinese people everywhere. Go to a town in the middle of nowhere in Africa, and you will find a Chinese restaurant.” There is no shortage of such restaurants in our part of Monmouth County, but not many of them are churning out food of this quality and magnitude. Even less than that have a full-service bar offering classic cocktails such as the Mai Tai.
House of Chong first opened in Brick in 1969, and had a run which lasted until 2007. The Chong family opened up a second restaurant which ran simultaneously with the first, in Middletown in 1976, before moving to their present location (still Middletown but with a Red Bank address) in 1991. Much of the staff, both in the front of the house and back, have worked with this business for decades. Some trace their start to the original Brick location.
The changes coming to House of Chong are going to be gradual and minor, such as these menu additions. Danny told us that he is not afraid to bring old stuff back while interjecting new ideas to keep the legacy of his parents intact. After all, they have been successful restaurateurs for five decades—they know what they are doing. What they have here is something special. There’s that stuck-in-time feel, no doubt, but now there appears to be a bit of an edge developing. Danny is bringing something to this area that is extremely hard to find: traditional dim sum. There are not many places in Monmouth County where you can get it done right. We are talking dumplings handcrafted with care, one by one, not frozen and shipped out in mass amounts. But where did this idea come from?
Mr. and Mrs. Chong happened to be eating at a food court stand in Edison a few weeks ago when they ate some of these miraculous dim sum. They brought some home for their son to try. He was blown away, “I was eating them cold out of the fridge and they were the best dim sum I’d ever had”. He had a conversation with his father about bringing in the chef. Three days later, they returned to the location to talk to him, and before the words even came out of their mouths, the chef said that the food court was shutting down. The Chongs jumped at the opportunity to ask, and as fortune would have it, he became available to begin cooking for House of Chong. Each piece is handmade, and the quality is apparent both by sight and flavor.
Danny went into the kitchen to retrieve the four steamers. He set them down and then explained a little bit of their history as well as how to properly eat a soup dumpling (they are literally filled with broth in addition to their meaty contents). We tried this one first—I could see Anthony Bourdain on one of his adventures trying to do it correctly. The dough was paper-thin. It is no joke that if you are not careful, the skin would break and the soup would be lost before you could eat it. Next came the shrimp dumplings which were equally pleasant. They burst with a seafood flavor and the dough gave way with every bite.
The shu mai were probably the largest I had ever seen. Left open on top, they were sealed with a whole shrimp that hid the pork and mushroom contents below it. At this point, it was hard to say what I enjoyed more, but then I tried the last item remaining on the table, which was the roast pork bun. Within one bite, we had a winner. The dough was like a pillow. It was soft and melted away in my mouth to reveal a slightly sweet and savory roasted pork filling. Having had pork buns in the past, these were quite different: the almost bread-like dough did not get stuck to the roof of my mouth, it literally melted away. The inside was soft, chewy, salty, and sweet, which is all you could ask for. Justin and I agreed that while we enjoyed everything, these were the best. We loved them so much, that we were given a second order!
Danny asked what we thought, already knowing the answer based on our reactions. I responded, “The less I talk, the more I like it”, before adding, “I really don’t know what to say besides this is some of the best Chinese food I have ever eaten.” There was practically silence at the table as I took in the flavors, aromas, and textures. The items are a semi-secret right now, having been launched only yesterday. I am hoping that will change with this post. You can also check out the prices on the picture of the menu. They are a deal for food of this caliber.
This restaurant already makes their own noodles and sauces, and will now be bringing in this dim sum. If it takes off, the new menu will be expanded to include more offerings. There have not been many changes here over the last 50 years, but with something as traditional as this making its way onto the menu, I cannot think of a better way for Danny and his family to enter into a “new era”.
He told us how important the restaurant is, saying how it means the world to him and mentioned some of the special moments to occur there for him, his family, and friends over the years. His passion and knowledge gushes with each sentence. Danny also has a fondness for their location, telling us toward the end, “We’re very lucky to have established ourselves in Middletown. I love the people. I love interacting with the customers on a daily basis.” I hope the community will turn out to see this new menu in action. I told him before we left that what I will have to say about the dim sum is no exaggeration—it was that good. They will be available in limited quantities for now, and all I can say is you better get there before they run out!