[Sidebar] February 17 - 24, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Gourmet House

Cheap Asian eats for the masses

by Ian Donnis

787 Hope Street, Providence, 621-9818

Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access

There's one school of thought that casts skepticism toward any restaurant that includes the word gourmet or similar superlatives in its name. But as evidenced by the gaggles of college students and East Siders who flock to Gourmet House, this place has had little difficulty in developing a following.

Located in the amiable retail district between the Rochambeau branch library and the Pawtucket line, Gourmet House offers an extensive menu heavy on Thai dishes and Americanized Chinese food, along with a smaller number of Vietnamese and Cambodian selections. A little money goes a long way here, and the portions are generous.

Formerly a Chinese restaurant, Gourmet House was opened about five years ago by Kimko Sor, an ethnic Chinese native of Cambodia, who operates a well-regarded Thai restaurant in New Haven, Connecticut. As the eatery's repertoire expanded, egg rolls, orange flavored beef and other Chinese dishes were retained to appeal to old customers, manager Chan Tantiyanon explained in a telephone interview.

Gourmet House has a homespun feel about it, from the folk art on the walls and Thai statuettes in the front window to the heart-shaped pink and green neon sign that cheerfully tells passersby, "open daily." The restaurant is divided into two rooms: a main section with funky '70s-vintage wood paneling and a slightly more polished side room. Adding to the atmosphere, the staff is friendly and service is prompt.

Nime chow ($2.95), a pair of the Vietnamese-style fresh rolls filled with lettuce, bean sprouts, a burst of fresh Asian basil, accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce, was delicate and refreshing, although a little skimpy on the advertised shrimp. Lot ($2.50 for eight pieces), a purportedly Cambodian appetizer of minced pork in a fried wrapper -- somewhat like mini-eggrolls -- seemed contrived and was not particularly appetizing. Fried ravioli (eight pieces for $4.75) are the typical tasty pork pot stickers, made more appealing by a dipping sauce with a robust ginger kick.

Gourmet House's menu is not for the indecisive. Moving past the 24 appetizers, there are 11 special soups, 16 more rice and noodle soups, 19 seafood dishes, 8 kinds of fried rice, 16 chicken plates, 23 luncheon specials, six pad Thais, 10 Vietnamese entrees, 13 chef's specials (from the ever-popular General Tsao's chicken ($7.95) to market-priced fish with special bean sauce and ginger) and a whole lot more. But given the menu descriptions and the general familiarity of Chinese and Thai food, it's easy to navigate these choices. There are also five wines by the glass and a good selection of bottled beer, from Singha to Rolling Rock.

Beef banh hoi ($5.75), a Vietnamese dish of seasoned beef strips served on a platter with fresh lettuce, bean sprouts, basil, cucumber, vermicelli noodles and a side of peanut sauce, is a fine bargain and very tasty. Crispy fried yellow noodle with chicken and vegetable ($5.25) was solid if uninspired. For such occasions, the table side containers of hot sauce and hoisin sauce come in handy.

After not having this venerable standby for years, it was fun to fold some of the thin-sliced mooshi chicken ($6.25) with vegetables and a dollop of hoisin sauce into the thin pancakes that come with the dish. But although my companions had no gripes, the mooshi's thin brown sauce tasted off the mark to me and typical of a formulaic handling of some of the Chinese dishes.

From the Thai side of the menu, chicken pad Thai noodle ($5.50) and spicy shrimp with lemon grass ($7.75) were far more successful. The pad Thai offered a prototypical rendition of the classic combination of thin noodles, chicken strips, bean sprouts, lime juice, crushed peanuts and crunchy scallion stalks. The satisfying and flavorful (although not spicy) shrimp dish offered a generous amount of the crustaceans, with baby corn and slices of carrot, green pepper and onions, in a coconut milk broth.

Given the budget prices and plethora of appealing pan-Asian choices, it's no wonder that Gourmet House is a favorite with many customers. Or as explained by Tantiyanon, the manager, there's real-world enmity between some of the nations whose cuisines are represented at the restaurant. But in Gourmet House's multi-national kitchen -- and on the menu-- everyone gets along.

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