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Nov 17, 2008 10:30 PM

Houa Khong Restaurant, Merced; two big thumbs up for home style Laotian and Thai….

My son was visiting me in Merced, so I asked him if he was up for an adventure…I explained that I had discovered a restaurant that I thought looked interesting, but that I knew little about, other than that it looked to be very basic and was located in a part of town I was a tiny bit nervous about visiting alone at night….son’s not necessarily the adventurous sort, but I was buying, so he acquiesced and we set off for Houa Khong…

I had originally spotted Houa Khong by getting lost (isn’t that how all good adventures begin?) …it was closed the first two times I drove by (both times trying to figure out the maze of streets near Highway 99)……nothing about the signage told me anything about the restaurant other than that it was obviously Southeast Asian (no signs in English at all, other than the ‘closed’ signed on the door). The location in a low income residential area was not necessarily encouraging.

Did a quick search, but there were no reviews on CH, or anywhere else that I could find.

However, I did find a website:

The menu on the website was definitely the most interesting I’d seen from a Merced Asian restaurant (though not recently updated: prices have risen)…

I noticed the reference to catering of Hmong events and wondered if it were possible that the place was Hmong owned. After all, Merced is home to one of the largest concentrations of Hmong immigrants in the United States. I made a promise to myself to try the place soon…

Now that I’ve been, I’d guess the web site is or was a college project of the son of the owners; quite possibly the same son who waited on us….However, it isn’t Hmong owned: son told us that his family is Laotian, but not Hmong…his mother and father do the cooking…

but enough preamble, on to my report:

When G and I pulled up, he looked at me with a bit of trepidation:, ‘um, Mom, are you sure about this: it looks more like someone’s house than a restaurant’...sure enough, the front room consisted of a cash register, a computer/office area, a door to the kitchen, and two formica tables filled with condiments. The spot isn’t as small as it appears, however, as there is a large back dining room.

Actually, as it turned out, G’s description wasn’t far off: Houa Khong is like eating at your Laotian or Thai’s Grandmother’s house, assuming she is a great cook!

We were warmly greeted, and chose one of the front tables. Our server immediately brought menus (which are more extensive than the one on the website), and ice water. No alcoholic beverages served, so I asked for a lemonade. It was very good, and probably house made.

We ordered:

Fried meatballs: ok, I know, I am meatball obsessed. Perhaps I should have tried the fish cakes instead. These were our least favorite dish: not very meaty, and an odd, somewhat rubbery texture. It was a generous portion, about ten meatballs each slightly smaller than a golfball, served with fresh red leaf lettuce and a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.

Tom Yum Par: fish soup. This was wonderful: thick tilapia steaks in a spicy soup base of fish stock, tomatoes, chili, and lemongrass. The soup was very well balanced with a heat bite…the whole steaks were a delightful surprise and made this dish a meal in and of itself, though we did have to be careful of bones.

Neua-Num-Tok: beef salad. The grilled beef slices were served with cucumbers and a chili sauce that reminded me very much of the one I had with Hmong sausages in Fresno: fiery hot (I am guessing that habaneros provided the heat), with yellow and red onions and fish sauce. The beef was a tiny bit more well cooked than the rare I prefer, but otherwise the dish was a big success: That sauce was outstanding.

Penang Curry with pork: we asked for it between mild and medium and would have been happy with a bit more heat. It was delicious, with slices of Thai and baby purple eggplant.

My son is not a noodle fan, but our server told us that they are a favorite on the menu, so I will try those next, and perhaps ask him for his Mom’s favorites on the menu….

Our total bill was $44 with tax, lemonade and a soda. We brought home plenty of leftovers for two lunches.

Service was quite efficient in addition to being very friendly, and our meals were brought to us promptly despite a steady stream of business.

Bottom line: nothing we ate was refined, everything we ate was absolutely delicious. Houa Khong has gone to the top of my list of Merced eateries. Indeed, it could hold its own easily in a much bigger town like Fresno or San Francisco. I will be back very soon. Highly recommended.

By the way, now that I've felt the warm welcome from within, the neighborhood seems less daunting for someone dining alone: just find your way up the unlit street: there is a parking lot right in front.

Houa Khong is just a few blocks off the freeway, and if you have good directions to deal with the one way streets (Google does a better job than Mapquest), well worth a detour for those passing through town. Do call first; the website says they are open for lunch, but it was closed several afternoons when I drove by in mid-afternoon.

Houa Khong Restaurant
85 E. 13th St
Merced, CA 95340

Houa Khong Restaurant
85 E 13th St, Merced, CA 95341

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  1. Looks like you found a winner. That is an interesting and extensive menu. One of my favorite SD holes in the wall is Asia Cafe, a Lao place.


    2 Replies
    1. re: Ed Dibble

      yes, I was surprised at the depth of the menu given the size and location of the restaurant. I did moderate my ordering a bit for son's sake (though I needn't have worried, his bit of trepidation disappeared with his first sip of that soup!) , but there are a number of dishes I look forward to trying. They do have the Lao version of papaya salad, (as well as the Thai) and we had a brief discussion with the server about how he sees it as an aquired taste for those more used to the sweeter, less pungent Thai versions, though he prefers it 'since I grew up eating it'. There was also an amazing looking glazed whole poultry (too small to be a chicken, probably a cornish game hen?) dish that I saw go by; doesn't match any of the descriptions in the on-line menu, but as I say, the actual menu was more extensive (four or five pages). I also think the fried fish with green sauce sounds good and of course, I have to try the larb...just wish there was some sausage on the menu. Perhas I can work on that one! :-)

      1. re: susancinsf

        That menu looks fascinating, what a great find. They have Neuasavanh....which looks to be Sinsavan - a really tasty dried fried beef.

        The Lao version of Tam Mak Houng (Papaya Salad) often contains Paadek - fermented fish paste, which makes it very pungent.

        Since it looks like there's a Issan-Lao crossover on many dishes, you may want to see if they serve Neua Koi Soi - much like Nahm Tok, but made with raw beef. If the quality of meat is good, it's a waonderful dish.

    2. Great find and report Susan. Do these directions sound correct?

      Southbound 99, exit Martin Luther King (Hwy 59) turn right then immediately left onto 13th St. and continue just past G St. (can continue S bound from the G St. onramp)

      North bound 99, exit G St., left under the freeway and left on 13th. (continue N bound retrace back under freeway and left on 14th to MLK aka Hwy 59)

      1 Reply
      1. re: PolarBear

        That area still confounds me: but yes, it is a block or two south of G and you can turn onto 13th from G, so that does sound right. The key for me to finding it this time was to pretend the freeway didn't exist and to just to head down G from my home, but I hope that for someone just getting off and on the freeway it will be a little less daunting. Part of the problem is that 13th is broken up at one point by the freeway, and becomes one way at one point and...well...let's just say that for a small town, and for an address that is basically '13th Street near G' (which gives one the impression that the streets are a simple grid..hah!) that area can be very confusing.(and not well lit at night).

        The good news is that there is more in the area to explore, including a mariscos place, so if and when I get lost again.... :-)

      2. Thank you for the reports on the Merced locations, Susan. Merced has been just one of those freeway spots on the map for me, but now I've got to try Houa Khong. It is about time since per capita, Merced probably has more Hmong than anywhere else in the country.

        1. Susan,
          You are brave!!! The place has been there for years, and I always wondered if it was a real restaurant, although the food sounded good, this dive would intimidate the most jaded of tenderloin trolling foodies :) .

          Thanks to you, I gotta give this place a try.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Agrippa

            well, I might not have been so brave if my six foot two son wasn't with me, (not that he would really help, but it's a perception thing :-)) but honestly, once you walk inside, you'll find it completely welcoming.

            Please do report back. I've been in the City a lot, but really want to get back soon to try their noodles.

            1. re: susancinsf

              I'll let you know how it goes.
              My comment about your bravery was more in reference to being brave to try a restaurant that appears on the outside to have been set up in an abandoned house :) ...

              Now the 'hood is a different story, I liken it to 17th and Capp in SF.

          2. Update: after a few more really nice meals here, I had tried to go on two other occasions and found it closed at times I would have expected it to be open. Since signage is not this place's strong point, I assumed it had closed, another victim of our economy, and hadn't been in a long while. Well, perhaps they were just on vacation...imagine my surprise when a co-worker reported today that she ate there the other night, and even more surprising, that they had read about it in an article on the San Joaquin Valley in the August edition of Saveur! (the article specifically mentioned the fish soup and pork and eggplant curry...hmm...).

            So, I will be heading back again soon, it has definitely been too long. Co-worker reports that the food was delicious, no surprise there. Hope to have more updates soon.

            4 Replies
              1. re: Melanie Wong

                Wow, they lifted the two worst recos for Fresburg off of Urbanspoon and Yelp, and the two of the best in the remainder of the article from CH. Have no regrets about dropping our sub several years ago.

                1. re: PolarBear

                  Just curious, which ones were the worst?

                  1. re: Agrippa

                    US, iirc, picked Grand Marie's Chicken Pie Shop, an icon in the 70s/80s, but to my knowledge hasn't had a following since (would love to be corrected here) and the other was Nina's Armernian Bakery, which to a native and lover of all things Armenian in the area for over 50 yrs, was also new... would love to hear that it stacks up with all the old standards, but not holding my breath.

                    Just my $0.20 worth (adjusted for inflation and still not worth it)