The most important thing I learned while living in Hong Kong in 2012 was that this city demands impulsive acts of eating. The best bites present themselves when you’ve just finished breakfast, you’re en route to another restaurant, or you’re wandering through Central in search of a post office. That dumpling shop with a queue snaking down the street? Join it. Even if you’re in a rush. Nothing indicates the presence of a fantastic meal more than a line of locals standing in the midday heat or pelting rain. Pass up an opportunity to try something new and, like me, you could spend the next five months trying to find it again. Instead, simply loosen your belt and dive face-first into one of the world’s most exciting food cities.
Any attempts at self-restraint aren’t aided by the fact that every second shopfront in Hong Kong seems to be an eatery. I lived in Sai Ying Pun, an up-and-coming suburb west of Central, and my studio was just 50 metres from the wet market, where fish, meat and herbs are haggled over from dawn till dusk. Fanning out from there are stalls selling handmade tofu, brightly lit fruit displays and barbecue joints hung with glossy roast ducks, lacquered goose (above) and sides of suckling pig.
Other daily distractions include the dim sum joint on the corner of my street, where the wizened old woman out the front dumps bamboo steamers of piping-hot har gau (prawn dumplings, above) straight into plastic shopping bags. There are the mango pancakes and almond cookies in the bakery I rush past every day, and the bau shops sporting soft buns filled with a lucky-dip selection of char sui (barbecue pork), tuna, sausage or cheese.
Compared to neighbouring Sheung Wan, a hip enclave that’s home to cool cafes, cocktail bars and cutting-edge galleries, this is still largely a locals’ haunt. Restaurants are cheap, though not always cheerful, and the menus are rarely in English. Eating out here is of the ‘point and hope for the best’ persuasion. It’s high-risk dining and on many occasions what lands on the table is unexpected.
To avoid playing Russian roulette with your order, seek out places that specialise in one dish, or cha chaan tengs (tea houses), for a filling, fabulous lunch for around $4 (HK$35). These aren’t places to linger, however; stools are tiny, tables are shared, and you’ll likely have someone hovering behind you waiting for you to finish. At Kau Kee (21 Gough St, Sheung Wan), queue from midday for a bowl of their famed beef brisket noodle soup (above).
Across the road at Sing Heung Yuen (cnr Gough and Mee Lun sts), tuck into crisp buns slathered in butter and condensed milk, or noodle soup with fried ham and eggs (above) , which is infinitely better than it sounds. Unassuming For Kee (Shop J-K, 200 Hollywood Rd, Sheung Wan) works wonders with pork chops, simply served over rice with a drizzle of soy, or in Tip Top-style sugary white buns with mayo and tomato. Back-alley Kwan Kee Claypot Rice (behind 263 Queen’s Rd West, Western District) turns out the best claypot rice, cooked over charcoal and studded with fragrant, fatty lap cheong sausage. Mak’s Noodles (77 Wellington St, Central) has made its name in wonton noodle soup doled out in petite blue-and-white ceramic bowls.
Dim sum comes with its own set of rules. In the less salubrious settings, you’re given a glass of weak black tea as soon as you sit down – don’t start sipping, this is meant to be used to clean your bowl, spoon and chopsticks. At Lin Heung Tea House (160 Wellington St, Central), one of the few remaining dim sum joints with trolleys, don’t wait for the prime dishes to be wheeled to your table – join the throng at the kitchen door duelling over glutinous rice dumplings and lin yeung bau (buns filled with a sweet lotus-seed paste). At Luk Yu Tea House (24 Stanley St, Central), another old-timer, there are no trolleys, but the notoriously cranky staff may hand you an English tick-box menu and you should eventually get what you want.
This is an edited version of my Hong Kong restaurant guide, which appeared in the April 2013 issue of Delicious Magazine.