The Hong Kong food trek

As mentioned in my previous post, our first meal in HK sucks big time. We had hoped it was an anomaly and we would have a better experience during the food tour that I planned for the next day.

After we checked into the Crowne Plaza hotel, I took Buddy to Popcorn mall next door to check out the retail scene and the dining options. There were some Singapore eateries available like Putien, Crystal Jade, and even a Toast Box. Looks like the HKers have a liking for kaya butter toast,  soft-boiled eggs, and the unique coffee. The menu is partly different from that in Singapore, like there’s beef rendang with bryani rice (which is not available in the Singapore menu), and it even caters to the HKers’ liking for macaroni with egg (which I don’t think is available in Singapore either). Some of the names of the dishes have also changed from local terms to more descriptive ones, like ‘Nasi Lemak’ is called ‘Singapore Coconut Rice’, and ‘Mee Siam’ is called ‘Rice Noodles in Spicy Gravy’.
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Of course we didn’t have any meal at Toast Box, but Buddy wanted a slice of Pandan cake. I don’t know why he would want Pandan cake in HK and I don’t even buy from Toast Box back home, but he insisted. Oh well, you never know kid’s taste in food.

We had a simple dinner at this restaurant, Praise House Congee and Noodle Cuisine, and the food is rather tasty. We ordered a pig liver and beef congee for my husband, while both Buddy and I shared a fried rice, and a plate of boiled Kai-Lan (Chinese kale) with oyster sauce on the side. We noticed that the HKers, or perhaps the Cantonese, have perfected the art of simplicity in vegetable dishes, which are cooked to the right crunchy texture, drizzled with a little oil, and accompanied with the oyster sauce dip. This simple but well-cooked dish is served at any self-respect Cantonese restaurants in HK.
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We had breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Hotel before setting off the next morning. The hotel offers a buffet selection of western, Chinese and Japanese food, with live stations offering waffles, noodles or eggs done the way you like. Near the entrance is the pastry table with a display of a ferris wheel with fake pretty cupcakes.

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Salad and cheese platter selection.

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Noodle live station.

To be honest, the food is average though my husband likes the freshly-prepared eggs., It’s typical buffet quality, so don’t have high hope despite the nice presentation. In fact my husband thought some of the food looked like leftovers from the buffet dinner of the night before.

Now, back to the main subject of the day: the food tour. I picked the venues based on recommendations from various bloggers, and they are conveniently located within the Soho area of central Hong Kong. There are five stops, starting from Central MTR station, and ending at Sheung Wan station. See Google map of the food tour, the entire distance is only 1.6 km. Well, that’s what it looks on paper.

Though the hotel being located at Tseung Kwan O, we only had to change line at North Point to reach Central, and the journey only took 25 minutes. Our first destination is Tsui Wah Restaurant at Wellington street, and so we took the D2 exit at central station. To reach the street level, we had to walk up a flight of stairs, which led to a dingy alley. It was pretty weird.

Getting to Wellington street requires us to walk up a slope, and that is the beginning of the food trek (literally). We realized, only back in Singapore, that there is an ascending escalator a stone’s throw away from Wellington street. Because of our ignorance, navigating the slopes and steps was akin to being in a Spartan race. Worse, upon reaching where Tsui Wah Restaurant is located, it was closed for renovation. Goddammit! It’s not even indicated in the bloody website! Moral of the story: call ahead to find out, which I didn’t think to do beforehand.

The next stop was supposed to be Yat Lok for roast meat like roast goose and char siew. But my husband didn’t want that at 10.00AM, and so we moved on to Mak’s Noodle for wanton mee (shrimp dumpling noodle soup). Unfortunately I didn’t take note of the opening hour which is 11.00AM. By then, my husband’s patience was running thin, especially since he had to carry a 15 kg (33 lbs) toddler around. (The pavement is narrow with a lot of steps, and there are even heavy vehicles on the narrow streets.) And I had to lug along the diaper bag with a first-generation ipad that weighs a ton.

We decided to get some egg tarts at Tai Cheong Bakery at 35 Lyndhurst Terrace before looking for a “Cha Chaan Teng” (HK-style café).
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I only bought two egg tarts at Tai Cheong (at HKD 8 / USD 1 each) for sampling since we were not sure if we could trust the food blogs, and my husband was not in any mood to try other pastries. I asked the staff at the bakery for a cafe close by as we wanted a drink, but they were not helpful at all. One went, “Cha Chaan Teng? Hmm, not sure what is close by..” Just then the phone rang and she promptly picked it up. After less than a minute she put it down and forgot about my question. As for the other staff, she conveniently left it to her co-worker to handle my query.

We left the shop and asked a passerby who directed us to a cafe just round the corner, less than a minute walk away. It turned out to be Lan Fong Yuen (兰芳园 /蘭芳園), a hole-in-the-wall place which is also recommended by some food blogs.

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When I pointed it to my husband, he exclaimed, “what cafe? There is no seating!”
“There are seats inside!” And I led the way in.

To be honest, if not for me being in the know, I wouldn’t have recognized this ramshackle place is a cafe. I didn’t pick this as a foodie stop because it was described as a place where you sit back to back with other customers. But beggars can’t be choosers, and besides we had the chance to check out how true the reviews are.

We were led to a table next to the wall right inside the tiny cafe, while staff instructed us, “Sit closer!” It’s true that the interior is rather cramped, and sharing table is compulsory if your group doesn’t occupy it entirely. In fact the staff try to squeeze as many people as possible inside the limited space.

I first placed order for an iced milk tea, an iced Ovaltine (I don’t see Milo around other than at Toast Box), and a Po Lo bun (pineapple bun). The staff then said to me dourly, “you’re still short of the minimum order.” I looked at my husband who only stared back at me grimly, without saying a word. So I had to order another Po Lo bun and a thick toast with butter.

It turned out we had entered a Nazi cafe, because each patron has to have a minimum order of HKD25 (S $4.60 / US $3.20), even for a toddler as long as he or she occupies a seat. Thank God they didn’t see the diaper bag that I placed on a chair under the table, otherwise I would have to order something for it too. But even if it could have a drink, it would have spat it out.

My husband’s face grimaced after he had a sip of the ice milk tea, “This is so crappy!”

Even Buddy didn’t like the iced Ovaltine, and  I could understand why. It didn’t have a chocolatey taste unlike an iced Milo, least alone an iced chocolate. It was basically a condensed milk  drink with a tinge of chocolate flavor. There were two Singaporean women who shared table with us, whom from their conversations, it sounded like they are residents in HK. So I guess they knew what to order, because  they had 7-Up soda. As for the food, the Po-Lo buns were surprisingly better than expected, and Buddy actually chomped down the thick toast. Perhaps this Nazi café is not known for its drinks.  I checked up on it back in Singapore and found that it’s more famous for its pork chop bun.

Anyway I mentioned earlier about heavy vehicles on the narrow street, the below picture shows what I meant. This was taken outside  Lan Fong Yuen. Look at the big truck going down the ultra narrow street, barely touching the stalls lined alongside. It doesn’t look like there are any traffic restrictions in place. I think this is an accident waiting to happen. If the driver loses control, it’ll be a disaster!

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While at Lan Fong Yuen, we discovered that the idiotic staff at Tai Cheong had given me two sugared doughnuts instead of egg tarts. We then marched back to ask for the switch. The same two staff were there, and they looked rather sullen as one replied, “You took so long to return these!” I told her point-blank that I had to look for a Cha Chaan Teng, and they reluctantly did the change. My husband tried the egg tarts later, and thought they were pretty good. Buddy also had a liking for them. But with such sully attitude, I’m not sure if I want to patronize the shop again. I mean, I know HK is known for its rudeness, but it will remain so as long tourists continue to tolerate the bad behaviors.

We then made our way to Mak ‘s Noodle at 77 Wellington Street, just after 11.00AM. It is an unassuming small restaurant, but the staff were friendlier. We were led to a booth table where we didn’t have to share with other customers. One old female staff even suggested that Buddy should sit next to the wall, so that he didn’t get spilled by hot soup.

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There is no minimum order at Mak’s Noodle. Both my husband and I each had a bowl of the Wanton Mee, and we also ordered a plate of boiled Kai-Lan with oyster sauce. Offhand I cannot remember exactly how much was each bowl, but it might be only HKD 35 ( USD 4.50) though it’s a small portion.  When the noodle was served, the wantons (shrimp dumplings) were hidden (top picture). You have to dig deep into the noodle to find them.

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From what I read on the Internet, Mak’s Noodle has supposedly received a Michelin star for its food. Seriously, I’m not sure how it justified that. Sure, the noodle is springy, and the wantons are tasty, but the broth is bland. My husband asked the staff for green chili, but was given the reply, “We don’t serve chili.” There is some dipping sauce provided, but we feel that the wanton noodle is best taken with sliced green chili which we do in Singapore. Maybe the HKers think that chili will overpower the taste, but when it is used appropriately, it can enhance the taste by adding another dimension to the flavor. Maybe we should have added some condiment to flavor the noodle and broth.  but I just feel that it is rather one-note, even the wantons, and is really no big deal. It baffles me that many foodies think this is “die, die, must try”. However, the Kai-Lan is good, and as mentioned earlier, the restaurants do know how to serve a good simple vegetable dish.

After the somewhat disappointing tasting experience at Mak’s, we moved on to Yat Lok Roast Goose Restaurant at 34 Stanley Street. We were lucky to be there before noon, and were able to get seats inside the (expectedly) cramp interior immediately. When we left, there was a line forming outside it.

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The kitchen is located at the back of the restaurant. I am not sure why the owner bothered to put up a TV on the wall; the customers are not expected to watch the screening drama while taking the roast goose leisurely. No, this is a “chop, chop, off you go” place.

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Because we had the wonton noodle earlier, we only ordered a plate of roast goose with char siew to share, which I think it was about HKD 35 or 40. Thank God Yat Lok is also not Nazi, and there is no minimum order as well. But there is also no chili available! (I guess the mantra of HK F&B outlets is “We’re HKers, we don’t serve chili!”) On the food, I must say the roast goose is pretty well done, the skin is rather crispy and there is no gamey taste. My husband thinks the char siew is quite good, but can do with a little more fat. In fact , there were these 3 blue-collared workers sitting across us at our table, and one of them (who looks like he is the supervisor) asked his colleague who didn’t seem to be enjoying his char siew with rice, “You don’t like it? Not enough fat?”

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I wouldn’t mind going for the roast goose at Yat Lok if there is no queue. But to line up for it, I’m not sure. It’s not exactly so fabulous that I must have it for my last meal. (Now, I will be willing to wait in line for Joe Stone’s Crab and the Havana Dream pie.)

The final stop of our food trip was Kau Kee Beef Brisket, located at 21 Gough Street. As we were walking along, checking out for street signs, we suddenly heard a loud pounding sound “THOMP! THOMP!” going non-stop in regular intervals. I was puzzled, wondering if it was some rock concert nearby. But who hold a concert in a claustrophobic neighborhood in mid-day, and how come the ground literally shook with each loud thud? Buddy looked a little scared. My husband turned to me and explained, “That’s the sound of foundation being pounded into the ground.” He continued, “In Singapore, if you get this at construction sites, the PAP would have been thrown out! You notice how it is relatively quieter at the construction sites back home, and no vibration? They used the high-tech methods like drilling.  The site here must be using circa 19th century  technology.” Around us, the locals walked about nonchalantly, as if they could not hear nor feel the poundings.  My husband then said, “it’s amazing the people here accept this!”

Luckily when we got to Gough Street, we couldn’t hear nor feel the pounding. But we could see a line outside Kau Kee as we got nearer, half of whom were tourists.

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I was feeling rather full then, and not exactly crazy over beef brisket noodle. As Buddy started to doze off on my husband’s shoulder, I suggested I would wait with Buddy for my husband since there were benches next to the line. It moved rather fast though, and it didn’t take long before he got a seat. So this food review was done by him who described the eatery as small and cramp (this must be the typical description of any low-cost F&B outlet in HK), and he had to share a table with a family and another individual. Like at Yat Lok, Kau Kee is also a “chop chop, eat and leave” place. But here is where it deviates from the previous tasting. He raved about the fabulous beef noodle which doesn’t require any chili to enhance its flavor, the beef was really tender, and the broth was amazingly flavorful. He called it “the BEST beef brisket noodle I ever had!”. He liken it to the moment when he was bowled over by the beef pho at Pho Gia Truyen at Hanoi. Perhaps I should have tried it too, but it would be difficult to carry a sleeping child while having a hot bowl of noodle soup. According to my husband, he paid something like S$8 (US$6.50) for it.

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That evening, we went to Crystal Jade La Mian Xiao Long Bao restaurant at Popcorn Mall for dinner. I know it is strange that we would pick a Singapore restaurant in Hong Kong, but my husband wanted a simple dinner with double-boiled soup for dinner. I was initially hesitant because Crystal Jade does not exactly serve very good food back home, and I feel that Imperial Treasures (its competitor) has better quality. But he thought that Crystal Jade might have upped its game in HK considering the stiffer competition there. So we gave it a try. There were people waiting for their turns at the entrance, and we actually had to wait for 10-15 minutes before we were given a table. .

We ordered (picture from top to bottom) a fried multi-grain rice with dried shrimp and conpoy, stir-fried Chinese spinach with broad bean, hairy crab with minced pork dumplings (it’s hairy crab season), and a double-boiled chicken soup.

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What can I say? My husband was right, and I was wrong. The food was better than expected. The fried rice has a nutty flavor because of the added grains, and the dried shrimps and conpoy give it a slight crunchy texture. It’s a multi-dimensional rice dish which is very tasty. The vegetable is, needless to say, very well cooked. In fact I think Singapore Chinese restaurants should learn how to prepare a simple but very cooked vegetable dish. The hairy crab dumplings are even better than the crab dumplings from Din Tai Fung. There’s this distinctive flavor of the hairy crab which adds a smoky flavor to the dumplings. As for the chicken soup, it has such a full-bodied flavor that I feel it’s truly medicinal for the body. I highly recommend this restaurant for a very satisfying meal.

To top it off, we decided to make a trip to Cong Sau Dessert (聰嫂私房甜品). I found out about this famous dessert shop from the internet, and it has three locations in HK. I had initially thought we could make it to the one at Causeway Bay for the second part of the food trip. But the Central food trek turned out to be too tiring for us and so we skipped round two. Cong Sau’s other two outlets are in the Tseung Kwan O area, which turns out to be more convenient for us. One of them is located at Hau Tak Estate, which is only 2 minutes’ walk from Hang Hau MTR station, one stop away from TKO station. So we went to look for it. Unfortunately we were confused by the signs, and went on a garden path before realizing Hau Tak Estate is only across the road from the station. (When you exit from the station, cross the road at the traffic light, and Hau Tak estate is right there.) The shop is not very big, but surprisingly it’s not as cramped as the usual cheap diners. Perhaps because we were there at around 9.00PM, it was not crazy crowded nor bustling.

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Many customers highly recommend the durian ice puree with sago, even those from Singapore/Malaysia whom you can count on being durian experts. However, my husband preferred  the milk pudding with ginger sauce, given that the evening was turning a little chilly due to the rain.

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Buddy and I went for the durian. Like us, he is a durian lover. But he kept asking for the durian flesh, which my husband mixed into the coconut-milk covered crushed ice. In the end I had most of it, which was fine by me, because it was reeeaaallly good! The durian taste like it was from Malaysia (which we get in Singapore), and I love coconut milk. So it was a perfect combo for me. I know that both have shockingly high calories, which I ignored for the sake of food  tasting.

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Buddy was not satisfied with the durian dessert. So we decided to get a mango dessert for him: cubed sized mango with soya bean curd in sweetened soup. Again, he only wanted the fruit, and ate most of the mango. Of course I had to try this for review, and it’s quite good, but I prefer the durian dessert. The bean curd (aka Tau Huey) is nothing special, though it’s rather smooth. But we get pretty good bean curd in Singapore anyway. However we don’t get the durian dessert in Singapore, and I don’t know why considering that durian is a favored fruit in the country. Each bowl of dessert is around HKD 25 (USD 3.23).

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So this was our food tour on the second of the trip. Our views are that in term of quality, Singapore has caught up in many areas, and there not many food where Hong Kong is better than Singapore. One thing we feel is that the local cuisine seems to have stagnated and there is little experiments with spices or a reluctance to do so. I have to go back to the use of chili. Singapore/Malaysia cuisines have become unique because of the marriage of cultures, and local Chinese were adventurous to add spices to their food and created interesting dishes as a result. We have learned to use pepper, chili, curry to make the food interesting and multi-dimensional. But the HKers seem happy to stick to the traditional Cantonese culinary style. Perhaps the high-end restaurants do have innovative dishes, but my husband feel that innovation should not  be the domain of only the expensive restaurants. 

My husband also made an interesting observation while we walked around the Soho area: segregation of diners by race in the different restaurants. The eateries that serve western cuisine tend to be filled with mostly Caucasians while the local eateries are packed with the Chinese. I am not sure if this is a true situation or just coincidence. It’s just that in Singapore, you see a good mix of both foreigners and locals in western restaurants though there are also lot more locals in local eateries here.

Anyway, during this trip, I admit we didn’t try as many food as we had wanted, like dim sum, seafood or congee. We didn’t go to Causeway Bay nor Sai Kung Town (though our hotel is relatively close to it). The food trek at Central was exhausting for us, plus inhaling the smog in the city also added to the toll. Though it’s convenient taking the subway, we now know that it’s not a good idea to bring along babies, young kids or old folks for a cheap food tour in HK. The problem is that unlike the newer MTR stations in the new territories which have disabled-friendly facilities like elevators, those much older stations located in central HK are lacking in them. When we walked around, we hardly see young children or babies, and the numbers of strollers I saw can be counted on just one hand.  There are not many old folks either, and needless to say, I have never seen anyone on wheelchairs. My friend, J, told me that most old folks are relegated to certain towns in the new territories. Honestly, with the central areas (inclusive of Tsim Sha Tsui/Kowloon) being so unfriendly to the disabled and the frail, this not surprising.

The city seems perpetually covered in haze during the days we were there.  The place is not littered with garbage, and generally clean. But the pace of life is rather frenetic, and people tend to rush about. I got bumped aside quite a few times at Central and was pretty annoyed because it wasn’t as if the path was packed with people and nobody offered any apologies. My husband suggested that I stick out my elbows. (He didn’t get bumped because he has a “don’t mess with me” look.) It turned out that I wasn’t the only unfortunate one, because J also got bumped too when she was here. She used her shopping bags to jab them back, and because she is taller than most (and HKers are comparatively petite), they tend to stumble, and would (quoting her) give her the “I am f**king hurt” look. She refused to back off because she felt that they could have walked around her instead of pushing her aside, and I absolutely agree.  These people just bulldoze their way through!

But my husband was more empathetic though.  He feels that the HKers live a generally hard life, and all they can care about is trying to make a living. They are like zombies, unthinking creatures moving about in pursuit of money.  Perhaps this is why they ignore the construction poundings, they don’t bother with politeness or graciousness, they allow the property tycoons to take charge (which cause escalating property prices beyond the reach of many), and they take risks (whether right or wrong). The city is a reflection of its people.

 

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