New restaurant puts focus on creativity, collaboration

It may sound like it’s named after the 1970s video game, but House of Pong Seafood & Grill is actually named after a local family.

The Claremont eatery, which opened its doors in December, is co-owned by brother and sister Calvin and Kaman Pong. It’s not easy working with a sibling, but Mr. Pong said they make it work.

“It’s yin-yang. What I’m good at, she’s okay at. What I’m bad at, she’s good at,” he said. “I’m the more passionate chef when it comes to creating dishes, and she’s the more stable chef. It’s creativity versus consistency.”

Opening their own restaurant is a big move for the Pongs, but it’s something they have been working toward their whole lives.

Born in Hong Kong, they moved to the United States as kids. Calvin, then in third grade, was enrolled in Mountain View Elementary School and continued through El Roble Intermediate and Claremont High School.

The elder Mr. and Ms. Pong made their living running restaurants, so it was natural for the siblings to gravitate to the food industry.

Mr. Pong got his start at 18 when he became a host and then manager at a Denny’s restaurant. When when he was 20, his family bought CK Café, a coffee shop in the Claremont Village, and he dove headlong into running the business.

Mr. Pong got his first kitchen experience at Benihana where he was trained as a teppanyaki chef. He honed his knife skills further while working as a sushi chef for an array of local Japanese restaurants.

Ms. Pong has taken a more stable path, serving as chef at the Shogun Restaurant in La Verne for the last seven years. At House of Pong, she runs the kitchen while her brother works the front of the house. The entrepreneurs’ facility with Japanese cuisine has served them well.

“Japanese food is all about presentation and taste,” Mr. Pong said.

Both are evident in House of Pong’s crab fried rice. It’s prepared to resemble a live crustacean, with heaped crab-fried rice for the body, fish roe-legs and real crab claws as pincers.

When it came to devising House of Pong’s menu, Mr. Pong drew from his sense of fun—an appetizer of mozzarella sticks covered with flaming hot Cheetos, anyone?—as well as his travels.

The ceviche with chips appetizer, which is $5 during happy hour, was inspired by a trip to Tijuana. After visiting Boston, Mr. Pong added a lobster chowder to the menu.

House of Pong’s menu is Asian-fusion. While the term sounds trendy, it is the very definition of Hong Kong cuisine. Its biggest culinary influence is Chinese cuisine, because it was a British colony for so long, the people of Hong Kong also have a taste for European food.

Meals in Hong Kong generally include rice or noodles, and both are available in profusion at House of Pong. These are rice bowls—accompanied by grilled tofu, chicken, panko-breaded swai fish, grilled salmon, ahi tuna, grilled steak or pepper steak—and concoctions featuring udon and ramen noodles.

The menu is sizable, featuring more than 30 appetizers alone, and even larger when you count House of Pong’s many off-menu items. Here’s a tip. If you’re feeling adventurous, pose this question to your server: “Do you have anything new or special today?”

The Pongs emphasize quality ingredients, using sashimi-grade salmon and tuna and locally-sourced produce. They also have forged partnerships with other local businesses.

House of Pong features beers from area breweries, including Claremont Craft Ales, and wine from Claremont’s Plume Ridge bottle shop. There is a Vom Fass Salad, which at $10 features radicchio, baby spinach, tomatoes, red leaf, cucumber, butter lettuce and vinegar and oil specially paired by Vom Fass.

House of Pong uses Bert & Rocky’s ice cream for their desserts, including some 21-and-older alcohol-infused selections. These include an Adult Root Beer Float, featuring Not Your Father’s Root Beer paired with vanilla bean ice cream ($8). Bert & Rocky’s has also whipped up batches of plum wine ice cream for House of Pong, an off-menu treat that can be mixed with plum wine for a “Plum Wine Milkshake.”

House of Pong is in a tricky location, the old Inka Trails  on west Foothill Boulevard that saw another eatery come and go in a matter of months. Still, customers are finding their way there, through word-of-mouth, positive Yelp! Reviews and a social media campaign with an emphasis on instagram.

Claremonter Alice Perrault has been there a couple of times and said House of Pong is excellent.

“The food was very fresh, prepared beautifully, and every bite was to be savored. The owner treated us like we were coming into his home and our server talked with us as if we had been friends for years,” she said. “I hope House of Pong sticks around. I suspect once word gets around it will be hard to get a table. For now, it’s a low-key gem.”

If you’re curious, you may want to take advantage of happy hour, held daily from 2 to 5 p.m. and Sunday through Thursday from 8 p.m. to close. House of Pong offers a $2 sake bomb, $4 draft beer or house wine and 10 of their appetizers on the cheap from $3 to $5. These include delicacies like “Green Bean in the Bucket,” sizzling cheesy corn and sautéd garlic shrimp.

House of Pong also features “Thirsty Thursdays,” where food specially paired with beer and wine. Yesterday evening there was an Old Stump Brewery takeover, featuring floats made from Old Stump’s Milk Stout beer and Bert & Rocky’s Milk Stout Beer ice cream as well as Old Stump’s Habanero Blonde beer paired with ceviche. On August 18, Thirsty Thursday will feature a tap takeover by Claremont Craft Ales.

The Pongs will be pleased to meet you.

“We want customers to enjoy themselves and feel like they are at a home away from home,” Mr. Pong said.

House of Pong is located at 1077 W. Foothill Blvd. in Claremont. For information, call (909) 625-7288 or visit House of Pong on Facebook.

—Sarah Torribio


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