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April 2, 2013

Alice Eats: HJ House

IMG_543895 St. Paul St., Burlington, 881-0336

Since its opening, I've been a fan of HJ House, especially its inexpensive lunch deals. The $7.99 bento box filled with spicy, cold noodles; tomato-and-cucumber salad; calamari; and a bowl of miso soup is one of my favorite workday lunch deals.

But when I reviewed the spot in 2010, I was less than impressed with the ramen. Now, I'm ready to endorse it.

In recent months, the noodle soups have become one of my go-to meals when I'm downtown. The problem is, I'm in the minority. Despite good food, low prices and a friendly atmosphere, I'm usually one of the only patrons at HJ House when I visit.

IMG_5434People should be flocking to the place, and here's why: Curry ramen.

When I first tried it in 2010, the soup was bitter and underseasoned. Today, the broth is addictive, with aromatic notes that give way to a sexy afterburn of subtle heat. The noodles can't compete with homemade ones you might find in big cities, but they're cooked to a pleasant al dente and soak up the curry broth admirably.

The veggies within are what I might call an "accidental fusion." With Chinese owners, the bok choy, bean sprouts and mushrooms definitely recall a homecooked meal from that part of the world. Fish balls, which have replaced the more Japanese egg in the mix, are another interesting Chinese innovation. The chewy, slightly briny surimi wrapper gives way to meat and vegetables inside.

IMG_5433I usually get the barbecue pork curry ramen, with chunks of sliced meat bobbing in the broth. Last night, I felt like a splurge and ordered the fried chicken version instead.

The panko-breaded breast was exceptional. Drizzled in a soy-garlic sauce, the crisp-but-moist meat wasn't the katsu I expected. The same subtly sweet sauce was on the side for dipping. I alternated between using that and dunking the chicken in the curry broth.

The HJ Deluxe Ramen features a more classic soya broth. Last night, it could have used a little extra salt, but still had a buttery mouthfeel and comforting taste aided by the addition of a scrumptious pork pairing of braised shoulder and fatty, tender roasted slices.

IMG_5436Though I often order a fruit roll, with artfully sliced kiwi or mango, I decided to try something a little different last night. To offset the starchy noodles, I ordered one of HJ's five low-carb rolls.

The Green River Roll reminded me of a chocolate truffle made savory. My dining partner was bothered by the soft-on-soft texture of thin avocado wrapped around chopped spicy tuna and tobiko, but I found it luxurious.

Usually chopped tuna is a deal-breaker, but this was so nicely spiced, and worked so well with the avocado, that I didn't mind. A tangy ponzu drizzled over the whole thing made soy sauce unnecessary. That was lucky — the rolls were so delicate, I could barely lift them intact with my chopsticks. They never would have survived dipping.

Hopefully, such uncommon treats will eventually bring in more business. I need my fix.

Alice Eats is a weekly blog feature devoted to reviewing restaurants where diners can get a meal for two for less than $35. Got a restaurant you'd love to see featured? Send it to [email protected]

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