There’s a luxuriant aroma wafting through the air at a new eatery in Chinatown. It comes from New York by way of Fujian Province in China and features a delicacy many Chinese tastebuds relish: the fish ball.
But it’s not just any fish ball. It’s the famous specialty known as yu wan, authentically made from mincing firm, white fish into a springy, fluffy paste with a bit of starch, egg white, garlic and spring onion juice, formed into a ball. Each ball has a surprise: a bit of mouthwatering, marinated pork filling in the center.
The Yi Zhang Fish Ball restaurant in Houston has Chinese roots and connections to New York, where proprietor Zenglin “Tony” Liu and his family own two successful fish ball restaurants. The new Houston restaurant in the Metropole Center at 9330 Bellaire Blvd. opened in the Southwest Management District in February, and Liu remains here to oversee its operations.
“Restaurants are a long, family tradition. My father had restaurants in Fuzhou (in Fujian Province in southeast China) before we came to the U.S.,” said Liu. “So this restaurant is named for him (Yi Zhang Liu), and it’s very important to us to keep our cuisine alive and make sure it is authentically Fujian.”
Liu said he chose Houston for his newest location for two reasons: Friends here encouraged him to take the leap, and fish balls are bound to appeal to a wide range of customers who come to Chinatown looking for the latest special delicacy.
Fish balls as cuisine seem to have originated in southeast China thousands of years ago. The delicacy spread in popularity throughout China, and many Hong Kong and Singapore foodies can’t live without them.
In Houston, capturing the tastes that Chinese-away-from-China value means long hours and a commitment to quality, Liu said. Each order must be cooked with care and attention so as to never over-boil the fish balls.
“That’s how we keep them juicy when they’re served and eaten,” he explained.
On a recent weekend, we had fish ball entrees with added noodles (your choice of which kind). I chose thin, vermicelli-style noodles, and they melted in my mouth.
Big, steaming bowls were generously filled with an occasional mini-wonton making an appearance in the fragrant broth. As promised, our fish balls were juicy and a delight to the palate.
We ordered a side of pan-fried dumplings and taro cake, a dim sum-style appetizer with a crunchy outer shell. Each side was a perfect enhancement.
The menu also includes beef and lamb stews and soups, with almost every item priced between $4 and $16.50.
Liu said lunch traffic has been brisk on weekdays and weekends. He hopes to draw larger evening crowds by expanding the menu. He is now searching for a chef who can craft fish balls and prepare other Fujian-style dishes.
“It’s hard to find people who really know the Fujian methods of cooking,” he said. “There’s an art to making fish balls. Not just anyone can master it.”
Yi Zhang Fish Ball
9330 Bellaire Blvd.
Open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day