Li Ho Fook 807 Seventh St. NW. 842-1628. Open Monday through Friday for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner seven days a week 3 p.m. to 3 a.m. Dim sum served at lunch, Tuesday through Friday. Reservations suggested for large groups. AE, V, MC, Choice. Prices: Dim sum $1.60 to $2.80, appetizers $1.25 to $2.95, entrees $4.50 to $18
LI HO FOOD
501 H St. NW. 289-2059. Open daily for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., for dinner 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. No credit cards. No reservations. Prices: Main dishes $2 to $9.50, most under $7; cafeteria entrees all under $3. Full meal with tax and tip, $5 to $10.
LI HO FOOK looks like the kind of restaurant you dream of discovering: so devoid of any but the most accidental charm that you figure the food must be cheap and good.
You'd be wrong.
Not only is Li Ho Fook a barn of a place, a resoundingly bare room, but its food is as indifferent as the decor.
No, on second thought, the decor is better than the food. It has a certain '50s Chinese American classic look, with aqua leatherette chairs and yellowish wallpaper. Once entrepreneurs have restored every roadside diner in the United States, they'll come looking for places like this to turn into wonton-soup-and-egg-foo-yong revivals of yesteryear.
The place lulls you into anticipating wonderful authentic Chinese food. First, there is the eel tank in the entrance -- though the eels have looked a little peaked on my visits and I found no eel on the menu. Second, the menu leads with, "Our restaurant was established, in view of the fact that various local eating places . . . are presently unable to provide the pure and original Cantonese style of taste . . . " And it goes on to an ambitious list of dishes from five shark's fin soups and three bird's nest soups to one section called Barbecued & Soya Sauce Dihes, another of Abalone, Sea Cucumber and Fish Lips, six casserole dishes and two pages of seafoods. There is a dim sum menu daily at lunch.
How in the world does such a restaurant wind up serving routinely bland, tired, oversalted food? The stuffed crab claw was fried to a pale ivory rather than golden brown, its shrimp stuffing could have bounced off a racquetball court and the crab inside was stringy. Barbecued mixed meats were so shopworn, shriveled and soggy that I ordered them again another time, thinking they couldn't be that bad twice. They were. Mixed seafoods, stir-fried with vegetables, were half raw. And a bird's nest soup with crab roe was preceded by a fishiness reeking from the bowl; we rejected about $11 worth of the $12 serving.
Not that everything was dreadful. Clams with black bean sauce were pretty good: the sauce was smoky-salty from the beans, gingery and peppery, but the cherrystone clams themselves were chewy, as they tend to be when cooked. Salt- baked shrimp were not as large, crisp or juicy as I have had them elsewhere, but their flavor was fine, and they were enhanced by stir-fried leek greens. And a casserole of roast pig with oysters was crusty and flavorful, with fatty chunks of pork, dried bean curd that had absorbed the wonderful cooking juices, plump black mushrooms, carrots cut into flowers and unctuous scallions. But the oysters tasted either overcooked or out of a jar. Most successful was Homemade Soft Noodle with Ginger and Spring Onion -- innocuous but nice, firm, wiry noodles tossed with shredded scallions and ginger. And the dim sum selection was quite decent, with nicely seasoned fillings and very reasonable prices.
The Chinese eating in the restaurant should have been our clue: They tended to eat dim sum at lunch and hard crabs or whole steamed fish at dinner. An even better clue, though, is the crowd at Li Ho Food, the cafeteria that spawned Li Ho Fook. This tiny luncheonette is not as inexpensive as you would expect; in fact, except for the steam-table choices, which are all under $3, the cooked-to-order main dishes are only about a dollar less than at Li Ho Fook.
But the luncheonette's service is energetic and friendly -- whereas at Li Ho Fook it veers from harried to lackadaisical. And the food at Li Ho Food -- at least the cooked-to-order food -- tends to be much better. The most startling example
is that combination of
barbecued meats, here
Dish. At $6.50 it was a
huge portion of supple
and succulent roast
pork rimmed with a
pink edge where plenty
of aromatic seasoning
had been rubbed in.
The chicken was nearly
dripping juiciness, as was the duck, with crisp skin that had the fat roasted of it. The clams with black beans at Li Ho Food were not quite up to those at Li Ho Fook, but only because the sauce was greasy. While I wasn't in a position to choose from the part of the menu written in Chinese, the waitress did direct me to an outstanding fried flounder with ginger and scallions -- butterflied and deep-fried so that the smaller bones were crunchy enough to eat, yet the flesh was moist and tender, with the roe intact as a delicious surprise. Otherwise Li Ho Food has straightforward, decent Cantonese food of great quantity but no special distinction. Even so, it is a distinctly better value than the Seventh Street restaurant, producing generally adequate-to-superior food from a rather large menu and an infinitesimal kitchen. Maybe Li Ho Fook didn't have quite enough obstacles to overcome.