By Jean and Peter Richards
Goodbye, New York. Sorry, London. Hong Kong has become our favorite city.
It’s exciting. It hums with optimism and commerce. It’s clean. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to get around and it works. It is a wonderful city for the older traveler content to wander its interesting streets, ride its superb public transport and enjoy some of the best food in the world.
If location is everything, Hong Kong has it all: a stunning island, densely packed with people and skyscrapers soaring toward its verdant Peak; a harbor vibrantly speckled with ferries and, at Kowloon, a mainland connection with room for even more sprawl.
Vestiges of British colonization and rule remain in street names and landmarks, but Hong Kong is more and more Asian and increasingly modern. It hugs the past and embraces the future, but the balance is tipping. At the current pace of development, within a few years Hong Kong could lose its traditional character and becomes just another boring domain of the monied.
The beloved, graphically glorious “Ding Ding” still courses the tram lines, but the high tech metro shines in a gamut of inexpensive public transportation that is clean and runs mostly on time.
Visitors ignorant of the merits of fish maw or ling zhi mushrooms still wander in confusion amongst dried seafood and fungi shops along Des Voeux Road; cognoscenti scoop up prize pieces whilst talking or texting on iPhones.
Apple is never far from the eye in Hong Kong. Its shiny flagship store dominates the street-side facade of the International Financial Center (IFC), home to traders, financial wizards, retailers and the man who may be the most famous cook in Hong Kong.
Mak Pui Gor made his mark as the dim sum chef at a luxury three-star Lung Keen Heen in the IFC complex. He made culinary history when his tiny shop in Kowloon, Tim Ho Wan, became the cheapest eatery in the world with a Michelin star. Now, he also makes his dim sum at the Hong Kong Station level in the bowels of the place where it all started and at two other island locations. The sign is only in Chinese. The queue moves quickly. The bi-lingual check-off menu of 28 items stays true to its origins. A fabulous meal for two can still cost under 10 U.S. dollars.
Tim Ho Wan typifies the Hong Kong tipping moment. The tiny, cramped original in Mong Kok, where aficionados often waited outside for hours, closed early this year when the rent would have more than doubled.
Rising prices are driving out long time apartment dwellers as new mega- buildings cater to the kinds of people who queue for entry to boutiques such as Hermés and Chanel. The moment may soon pass, but visitors can still spend endlessly interesting days immersed in the old Cantonese culture amongst the shops, trails, little museums and eateries of Hong Kong barely spending a sou.
Seven million inhabitants and millions more visitors, all with a penchant or need to eat out, can be spoiled for choice in a city with more than 10,000 restaurants, innumerable snack shops and localized food centers. Westerners may turn to Michelin for advice; Hong Kong people recommend their own favorites on the OpenRice.com website.
We’re not averse to upscale eating at places such as Man Wah, Nanhai No. 1, Yè Shanghai or our new favorite, Zhenjiang Heen, where many dishes are worth sitting up straight and paying the price. We’re happy patrons of the often excellent Crystal Jade and Din Tai Fung chain outlets and always take the Peking Duck at Spring Deer, but we learn most and often have the most fun at the homey restaurants, neighborhood noodle shops and dim sum houses that do something especially well.
Westerners can be squeamish about cleanliness, street food and eating things they can’t identify. We’ve never had a problem anywhere in China and often encountered a serendipitous delight.
A queue is a sure sign that there is very good food to be had and it will likely be cheap. Locals will make room for a stranger and offer advice by any means possible. Such is the experience at Kau Kee on 21 Gough Street in Central where brisket noodle soup — curried or plain — melts in the mouth, sustains the body and puts no strain on the wallet at roughly $5 a bowl.
No visit there would be complete without an afternoon stop at nearby Tai Cheong Bakery for the warm, crusty egg custard tarts and sugar puffs. The original outlet closed when its rent doubled in 2005. It later re-opened at 35 Lyndhurst Terrace and then expanded rapidly to 22 outlets including one at the Star Ferry Terminal on the Kowloon side. The quality is still high. The price is just less than $1, more expensive than tarts at other chain bakeries, but worth it.
Any excuse is a good one to take the splendid old Star Ferries for the brief trip across Victoria Harbor to Kowloon and a bus up to Yau Ma Tei for a large $7.50 bowl of brisket, tripe, ox tongue and rice noodle soup at Sun Sin at 37 Portland Street and post prandial turn through the restaurant supply shops of nearby Shanghai Street.
Dim Sum at Lin Heung Keen, 40-50 Des Voeux Road, Central, newer, neater sister of the legendary Lin Heung is an experience not to be missed. Young people refer to it as “traditional” in a slightly unhip way, but fill its tables readily after ordering roast meats at the counter and joining in the scrum to snag bowls and baskets of shrimp siu mai, bao, sesame pork buns and tripe from push carts circling the room with all manner of very good and inexpensive treats.
When we visited the mother ship, Lin Heung 160-164 Wellington Street, it was bustling on the interior. It is dark, dense, and packed at lunchtime. It’s decades old and it’s Chinese. We were a curiosity ultimately welcomed at a large table in the right rear. Two men indicated they were leaving soon and offered us their seats while the five other men and two women at the table eyed us warily until Peter spied some tripe being placed before one diner and asked for the same. A man next to me identified himself as “born in Hong Kong” and initiated a limited conversation which included his history in Denver, on the Great Lakes (shipping, he said) and in Newfoundland. After asking where we were from, he said, “Hong Kong is an open city. Here there is harmony between Eastern and Western.”
Dim Sum, 63 Sing Woo Road, Happy Valley is more upscale, more expensive and very good. Its Art Deco dining room is always our first day lunch stop in Hong Kong as we work our way through the menu mixing old favorites with new additions. One recent sampling included shine har gao translucent and straining under the pressure of the ample shrimp, char siu bao (steamed pork buns), giant clams braised with vermicelli and XO sauce, choi yuk soup with fresh minced pork wonton in a light broth with scallions, cha siu so (barbecued pork crisps with black sesame) and heung mon bo deen (fresh mango pudding with a little saucer of evaporated milk). The bill came to 358HK$ or about 45US$ for a very enjoyable lunch for two including tea.
Restaurants in China usually have large round tables because Chinese people often eat in groups — families, business colleagues or friends — enabling them to order with more variety. Small dim sum snacks make it possible for two people like us to sample more flavors and styles, but at restaurants we tend to order more than we need and sometimes follow the Chinese custom of taking the leftovers with us.
There are so many wonderful foods to be sampled in this city that our stays become longer as we re-visit favorites and find new places. Our two new favorites this trip were: Zhejiang Heen in the Wanchai District and Pang’s Kitchen in Happy Valley, both of which received Michelin stars in 2013.
Zhejiang Heen at 300-306 Lockhart Road, the more formal of the two, takes its name from coastal province and cuisine just south of Shanghai probably best known to travelers for its capital city, Hangzhou. The menu is diverse — from mounds of delicate, perfectly cooked tiny river shrimp dotted with tea leaves to spicy hacked chicken with chili paste, eggplant batons piled liked stack wood in a dense and dark sauce intensified with fresh coriander and a pork belly in soy sauce that made reminded me of the famous jade carving of pork belly in the National Museum in Taipei. This feast for two with tea and cover charges came to 470HK$ or 62$US.
We couldn’t resist having the shrimp and the pork belly again when we returned with a friend and happily added a shredded chicken with rice noodles and sesame sauce, a crunchy cucumber and garlic salad and smoked chicken with duck eggs. A seasonal treat of fresh pea pod leaves topped with sliced, preserved ham cost 200$HK or 28$US, one of the more expensive dishes on the menu.
The owner of Pang’s Kitchen at 25 Yik Street, Happy Valley, expressed concerns to the South China Morning Post that his rent would rise and that his 40-seat restaurant couldn’t accommodate the business the new Michelin star might bring. On our first of three visits we snagged the last table for lunch and ordered the tasty house specialty of sweet and sour pork with strawberries, fried salt and pepper squid and a spectacular casserole of prawn and bean noodle all for 440$HK or about 62$US.
The Chinese couple at the table to our right were Canadians returning to Hong Kong to visit family. They ordered #38 on the menu, which was fish head with ginger and scallions, and offered us a taste of the chopped fish head. It was bony, but delicate and pleasant. Then they told us about their adventures in our home state of Maine. “I got a speeding ticket,” he said.
One of the two young Hong Kong women at the table to our left asked where we were from. When we said Maine, she said, “My father went to Colby College in Maine.”
Copyright © 2013 Jean and Peter Richards