This post consists of five email dispatches sent from my mobile phone, with barely edited photos. I had been in Hong Kong since Friday, May 9th, for the Annual Meeting of the International Trademark Association (INTA).
Thursday 15 May 2014 at 4:11 PM: Hong Kong local breakfast
After 5 days of eating at conference functions, fancy receptions, and hotel buffets, today I was on my own. I thought it would be no problem to wander the nearby streets at 9 a.m. on a Thursday and discover some local food. Problem is, I neither read nor speak Chinese.
I looked at a dozen local menus which offered 5 or 6 breakfast sets featuring bizarre pasta dishes like macaroni and luncheon meat, or packaged ramen noodles with a little chicken. Places with steamer baskets of dim sum looked more promising, but unfortunately the menus were indecipherable to me.
After an hour, I circled around to a noodle shop I’ve been passing at least once a day on my way to the subway station (MTR Wan Chai). The menu card is in English and the aroma of the broth is intoxicating. My shirt is soaked with sweat, it’s over 80 degrees and over 80% humidity. So of course I have to get the soup. I hedged my bets with the “Combination of Balls.” And an iced tea.
Good! Especially the beef ball and something like a tortellini made from thin rolled fish ball stuff and a filling of ground pork. Maybe this could work back home. Unfortunately I didn’t get a photo before it was all in my mouth, but here’s a shot of the menu card in case it is needed by medical investigators.
Less than 24 hours left in HK and a million restaurants to go…
Thursday 15 May 2014 at 4:52 PM: Hong Kong local lunch
Near my hotel is a teaware museum showing some fantastic purple clay teapots, many of which are hundreds of years old. They also are showing some of the best of an annual competition, including ceramics by schoolchildren. So fun, but so sad that no photos are allowed. The gift shop prices were a bit steep so I headed out for local shopping. Other than a couple of alley markets of vendor stalls and a fancy gallery of Chinese crafts, the Central area seems to be dominated by boutiques featuring Western brands from J.Crew to Armani, and everything luxe. I satisfied myself with a bottle of water and headed back to Wan Chai.
The TripAdvisor app wasn’t finding me anything interesting, so I tried OpenRice. I made my way to 2014 Award Winner Joy Hing Roasted Meat. Although other winners, such as the cafe at the nearby JW Marriott Hotel, made me wonder about the scoring, the individual reviews for Joy Hing sounded quite good.
Finding the restaurant was a bit tricky. Its street address is on the main drag, but the storefront itself is around the corner on the side street. I was concerned to find no English menu. And the crowds pushing in the door seemed quite intense. I used a feature of the Google Translate app to try to decipher the menu. You instruct it to snap a picture, and it searches for the Chinese characters. Oddly, the very first item on the card I photographed was duck penis bone.
I decided to check out a different place near by. When I peeked into the dining room and saw the tablecloths and well dressed ladies, I knew that this was not for me. When I returned to Joy Hing, a man motioned me in and seated me at a small table with four stools where another patron already was enjoying his lunch. Sensing that I required assistance, he suggested BBQ pork to which I eagerly agreed. He then pointed to the adjacent table and asked whether I wanted choy sum which he then helpfully described as vegetable. Yes please. (No idea what other variations were possible with this set.) He placed a small slip on the table reading 37, which is about $5.
By the time I poured some of the tepid tea into a small paper cup from the communal pot, my food arrived. Immediately I had to reposition my plate as the overhead A/C vent was a bit drippy. The pork was not (artificially) colored bright red and it had a very supple quality, quite unlike the stiffer BBQ pork I get in the Bay Area. The sweet fat was very generous, so it could be a different cut/breed of pig. The bed of soft rice was piping hot. The man encouraged me to pour on the sauce provided on the table, which seemed part soy sauce and part broth, perhaps enriched with drippings. I didn’t know BBQ pork could be so good.
The choy sum was served in a bowl on the side, topped with something like a sweetened oyster sauce spiked with sesame oil. Not too salty, but the vegetable could have been better drained.
A definite step up from breakfast. How can I have an even better dinner?
Thursday 15 May 2014 at 9:00 PM: Hong Kong local dinner
On the far side of Central is a hilly area replete with alleys full of hawker stalls. Among the winding streets you will find Kau Kee, a noodle shop renowned for its beef brisket noodles. It also commonly has up to a 30 minute line down the block, but luckily I waited only about 5 minutes before being summoned in.
I joined a table of 5, which actually was a table of 2+2+1, with a pair of schoolgirls on one side of me and a pair of nicely dressed Aunties on the other, and another solo male opposite. Each of us at the small round table perched on an uncomfortable stool.
I ordered my brisket with flat egg noodles. The 40 HKD tariff also happens to be the minimum order, and it’s certainly more than enough calories.
The broth is rich and slightly sweet, with an unctuous body that hints at hours of simmering. There are communal bottles of red vinegar, soy sauce, hot sauce and MSG, but none are needed. The noodles are so tender they tempt you to swallow without chewing; I’m not the only person I heard cough after a particularly large mouthful. The only disappointment was the beef, which was a bit tough.
As with all my local choices so far, napkins are not provided. The Aunties finished shortly after I started my slurping and were replaced by a young couple. I noticed they had brought some small pieces of paper for use as a napkin, although the guy used his as a refuse bin for his unwanted green onions.
The schoolgirls were replaced by a pair of young women. In each of the pairs of newcomers, one photographed her meal while the other did not. It seems the urge to document and the urge to eat pose a universal conundrum, or that sharing your noodles digitally is a thing here.
I was quickly finished. After paying the cashier I headed out in search of dessert and a foot massage. I found neither nearby, and since my phone battery was getting low, I headed back to my room with a papaya juice to cool down and prepare for the next assault. I suspect it will involve even more carbs.
Friday 16 May 2014 at 2:39 AM: Hong Kong local late night snack
My next adventure began around the corner in the basement of the Metropark Hotel. This foot massage spa was recommended by the front desk of the hotel, who provided a 20% off coupon. Even after discount it’s a bit higher than in Palo Alto ($22/50 minutes vs. $25/hour).
Unlike the hushed “please whisper” ambience in our local Happy Feet Foot Spa, this place filled rapidly and became quite raucous. Once our 10-minute foot soaks were over, little was heard other than the comforting notification sounds of our various electronic devices. My masseur had some sniffles, but not enough to be nervous about. After a lot of pushing and squeezing and thumping, I came out seemingly in better condition than I started.
Time to walk Lockhart Road. This is where many men can be found this time of night in Wan Chai. It’s important to be on your toes here, since the aggressive barkers will grab your arm and try to pull you into bars, strip shows and perhaps all the short skirts signify something more.
Okay, actually, no, I don’t want to do that right now when I’m fuzzy brained from a massage. Still, I somehow need to work up an appetite for another bowl of noodles. Guess I better start packing for my morning departure…
Nearly midnight and time to brave the torrid night air one more time. The Weather Channel reports we’re down to 77 degrees and 97% humidity. I won’t miss this.
Wing Wah Noodle Shop is not busy, despite being praised by Le Guide Michelin and various foodie shows for its old school noodles. The dough is pressed using a bamboo pole, yielding very firm noodles that hardly soften in the hot broth. From the article on the wall it looks as though it could be a painful process.
Menu item #1 pairing the noodles with pork and shrimp wontons totally reminded me of 2 a.m. runs to Sun Hong Kong in Oakland back in the day. From the peculiar way the wonton are wrapped (scrunched up like siu mai) to the oddly fishy-tasting broth I affectionately used to call shrimp piss, they clearly are cousins. The difference is the noodles. Where normal thin egg noodles flatten under pressure, Wing Wah’s noodles seem to snap. You do not chew them so much as chop them.
Interesting texture, but I don’t think any more satisfying than the more conventional noodles served elsewhere. The side of Chinese broccoli with shrimp’s egg and oyster sauce was good. I was tempted by the mango desserts but I’ve been told you should not eat a big meal immediately before going to bed. Tonight I’ll take that advice.
Friday 16 May 2014 at 11:23 AM: Hong Kong local departure
Wanting to avoid getting sweaty prior to my flight, I gambled on airport food. By gambled I mean I read Chowhound for tips and checked the airport website for options. So I know I can get local food there. And sushi; every airport with international flights has a sushi bar now.
I was taking the express train to the airport, so I only needed a taxi to the station. It was my worst cab ride in this town. But since I don’t know the Cantonese for “Stop driving like an a__hole” — and saying that might have led to worse service — I just made audible complaint noises every time we almost hit someone. Double parking and blocking traffic by unloading my bags in the lane was the fitting finish. From that point on, thankfully, the system worked efficiently as designed.
One of the most “local” dining choices is a fast food chain named Café de Coral. Its “A1” local breakfast of BBQ pork over twisty macaroni in soup broth, with a sweet bread bun and scrambled eggs on the side, looked awesome in the photo. It was not awesome. I ate as much as I could of the animal products, showing respect for the pig and the unborn chickens, but discarded much of the carbs. It probably wouldn’t be my favorite anywhere else either, considering the very different competencies to make great pork, great broth, and great scrambled eggs.
Well, there remains so much left to eat in Hong Kong, it seems that many return visits will be necessary to complete the investigation. Until then…
-Jefferson (via mobile)