HONG KONG--Twenty years have passed since I left this gleaming metropolis on the South China Sea. Those memories came rushing back on a sweltering afternoon in a crowded stall with one perfect bite.
At Kau Kee Restaurant in the Sheung Wan neighborhood, my table--no bigger than a nightstand--sat six strangers, and in front of them, six bowls with steam billowing. In it were hunks of beef brisket so impossibly tender and offering so little tooth resistance, it risked prematurely sliding down our gullets. Instead, it melted in the mouth, the marbled beefy essence spiced with star anise glazing the palates.
Funny that moments earlier, we yelled over each other, calling for the waiter, blaring into our cell phones. The Cantonese language features a lot of lah suffixes, the way Americans use “like” as a conversational crutch. The air brimmed with lah this and lah that. And then, we just shut up and ate.
This, in essence, is Hong Kong distilled into a single paragraph: We are, after all, notoriously a loud bunch, our volumes amplified by the shoulder-to-shoulder way of life in this city of 7 million. We may be abrasive, we may not recognize personal space, but when food arrives on table, we acquire tunnel vision.
This is the food I remember, the dishes that remain in my head and on my palate, even 20 years later. On the occasion of the lunar new year of the ox, welcome to my food tour of Hong Kong.
Roasted goose at Yung Kee Restaurant
32-40 Wellington St., Central district
Upon arriving in Hong Kong, the first place I demanded the taxi driver take me was Yung Kee. This restaurant, shoehorned within Central’s bustling business district, needs no adjectives, descriptors or superlatives. Locals revere it; out-of-towners pack it like a tourist trap. They’re here for the goose, which is massaged, marinated, then roasted over a charcoal fire. The glisten of plum sauce, shellacking the tender, luscious, just-fatty-enough meat, induces swoons. Recent business expansions have dulled its “authentic” luster a tad, but people still deem the restaurant worthy of waiting in line for an hour.
Hainan chicken rice at Tsui Wah Restaurant
15D-19 Wellington St., Central district
Across the street from Yung Kee is Tsui Wah Restaurant, just as busy and the service twice as brusque (usually a good sign, actually). Here, the Hainan chicken rice is a must. Though the dish is unknown in America, this is spaghetti-and-meatball-level comfort food to Southeast Asians. “Hainan” stands for the South Sea, referring to the Singaporean and Malaysian influences that have spread this straightforward chicken rice dish east to Hong Kong. Quite simply, it’s poached chicken, accompanied by a sweet chili and ginger/scallion sauce. Avian flu jokes aside, the chicken here is the silkiest, most succulent and flavorful I’ve ever tasted. And the rice is just as tasty: plump, sticky morsels with a chicken-fat-enhanced sheen.
Wonton noodle at Mak’s Noodle
77 Wellington St., Central district
It’s possible that more great dishes exist per square mile in Central than anywhere else in the world. Perhaps it’s because this area is the financial capital of Asia, and high-powered suits crowd these restaurants by the thousands come noon. You’ll see plenty of white collars and ties at Mak’s Noodle, where wontons are the be-all and end-all. A quick lesson: Westerners are familiar with taste textures such as crispy and crunchy, but the Chinese have the concept of “songh.” It’s a springy mouth feel, a sensation that evokes brightness and freshness. At Mak’s Noodle, shrimp wontons have that quality, with five or six ethereally smooth dumplings accenting the bright, perfectly al dente soup noodles. A splash of red vinegar adds complexity and bite.
Pineapple crust at San Cheung Hing
13-15A Yik Yam St., Happy Valley
Until 1997, Hong Kong had been ruled for a century and a half under the British flag. Thus, many Hong Kong restaurants have an Anglo tinge. Places called cha chaan teng (or tea restaurant) are the best example of this. You’ll find milk tea, beef sandwiches and macaroni soup with sliced ham in these types of restaurants. My mother’s favorite dish can be found in the Happy Valley district, in the shadows of the famed horse-racing track. At San Cheung Hing, pineapple crust is a baked bun that contains no pineapple but is called this because its golden crisscross sugar crust resembles one. Inside the bun is a pad of the creamiest, sweetest butter a cow has ever bestowed, and the bread is warm and pull-apart soft.
Beef meatball noodle at Tak Fat
Located at “Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar” at Haip Hong Road near One Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui district
Tak Fat won’t be found in any Zagat’s guide. It’s what is known as a dai pai dong, or the street market food stalls found in working-class neighborhoods. Dingy and without anyone likely to speak English, a dai pai dong, nevertheless, provides food that comes out lightning fast and is slurpably soothing. Like the wontons at Mak’s, the meatballs at Tak Fat are delightfully snappy. How is this accomplished? Unlike American meatballs, which are ground, Chinese meatballs are pureed, pounded then formed, giving them a smooth texture that offers a rubber quality. Five golf-ball-size beef meatballs swim in thin egg noodles, with scallions and Chinese broccoli.
Chicken wings in Swiss sauce at Tai Ping Koon Restaurant
Three locations, original at 19-21 Mau Lam St., Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon district
This dish, thought to have originated at the 150-year-old restaurant, has been emulated so many times it’s become Hong Kong’s equivalent of the Buffalo wing. Despite the Swiss reference, there is no connection to Switzerland. The story goes that a Westerner visited this restaurant in the 1930s, and upon tasting these plump, rock-sugar and soy-sauced wings, proclaimed “Sweet! Sweet!” The chef thought the gentleman said “Swiss! Swiss!” A dish was born.
Veal goulash at Islam Food
1 Lung Kong Road, Kowloon City
You may not pair Islam with China, but the northwestern part of the nation is largely Muslim, with some 20 million people of that faith. In Kowloon City district, the aptly named Islam Food reflects that region’s hearty halal cuisine. Famous is the curry mutton, which is spicy and thick and pungent in the best sense. But even more renowned is what’s listed as veal goulash, which is incorrectly translated. It’s more like a beef fried bun. Imagine a xiao long bao (the indescribable Shanghai soup dumpling) that is pan-fried instead of steamed and filled with a minced beef patty the size of a hockey puck. Bite into the crispy bun, and an explosion of soup and sauces fills the mouth, full of juicy marinated beef. Warning: The line to get in this cramped restaurant may be ridiculous.
Beef brisket noodles at Kau Kee Restaurant
21 Gough St., Sheung Wan
See the beginning of this story. Makes my short list for a perfect dish. Expect long lines.