There's a time and a place for fancy-pants Michelin starred and high-end restaurants. I enjoy them but what I really love are the down n' dirty local places, where normal people eat, that are devoid of business lunches and celebrating families. Day-to-day places that feed you well and cheaply are plentiful in Hong Kong. Cha chaan teng means 'tea hall' - well, 'tea food hall' technically - where you can eat at all times of the day affordably, sometimes under strip lights, sometimes uncomfortably close to a stranger slurping their noodles.
We visited one for breakfast one morning and the choices were simple; macaroni and ham in soup (top) with fried eggs and a bun on the side, or satay beef instant noodles, with scrambled eggs and a bun on the side. It made me really very nostalgic; I used to go to a cafe with my grandmother in Shau Kei Wan to eat this. Sometimes I would have a crispy-fried slice of spam in place of the ham, and a fried egg on top. Hong Kong-style hot strong tea made thick with evaporated milk is best sweetened with a heavy hand and for a handsome breakfast you would pay about £3. You can find these places all over Hong Kong, but perhaps the most famous are Tsui Wah (best known for an extensive menu and staying open for 24 hours to feed drunken revellers) and Australia Dairy Company, best known for their egg sandwiches. It doesn't sound like much, but for me it is comfort food and typically Hong Kong.
Likewise, dai pai dongs (street restaurants - usually just a bunch of plastic chairs / stools under cover) were a much more common sight when I lived in Hong Kong, 14 years ago. The numbers have dwindled since the authorities cracked down on hygiene, but one that has stayed through time is Lan Fong Yuen in Gage Street, Central. It is barely detectable, hidden behind fruit stalls and given away by businessmen and students alike patiently queuing for a seat at lunchtime. The food is junky but delicious, like the french toast (above); thick sliced bread dipped in egg and then deep fried. Golden syrup is poured over it liberally at the table and it really is artery-clogging, but wonderful. If I wasn't still suffering from that morning's dim sum binge I'd have nailed that plate on my own.
My lunch of instant noodles was dotted with some token vegetables and topped with a whopping pork chop. For a mere £3 or so, this was a filling lunch with a decent amount of noodle. We also had the chicken chop on the side which is not to be missed; crispy skinned and succulent meat, it was doused in a soy and spring onion sauce. Finishing that off did me in and I retreated back to the hotel for a lie-down.
We had a day off free from the confines of the itinerary and I knew I had to go to Din Tai Fung. With branches all over the world except London (sob) they are widely regarded as being excellent makers of that revered soup dumpling, the siu long bao. We arrived at the Tsim Sha Tsui branch half an hour early from its 11:30am opening. By 11:15 a queue had started to form. We were seated and had ordered by the time 11:35 had rolled around.
The instruction card tells you to carefully dip the dumpling in the sauce you're to make yourself, concocted of 2 parts soy to 1 part black vinegar. Shreds of ginger were placed in each saucer for each person at each table of the restaurant - we guestimated at around 70 tables. Pity the poor person that has to do that slicing. I'm not in entire agreement with the instructions though, as they tell you to pierce the dumpling onto your spoon, slurp the soup out and eat. I prefer to go for the more dangerous approach of stuffing the entire thing in your mouth and biting down on it so that it pops like a balloon. It's a risky strategy this one, as if your dumpling hasn't cooled sufficiently you are in for some mouth burns. So that's my disclaimer if you decide to emulate my renegade approach. It is infinitely more satisfying though.
Aside from the classic pork dumplings that were suitably porky and with a nice gingery broth, we also chose prawn and vegetable. Light in flavour but clean-tasting from the sweet prawns, these were a nice deviance from the norm.
Even more impressive were the pork and crab roe siu long bao - they had some serious crabby flavour to them. Slightly granular in texture, they were the essence of crab with some pork-flavour behind it. My friend was in raptures over it and rather rightly so. We stopped there, as we had a lot of eating to do that day. While waiting for the bill we admired our neighbour, sat alone with 2 vegetable dishes in front of him, 2 baskets of dumplings and slurping away at a bowl of noodles with ease. We paid around £17 for 3 baskets of 6 dumplings.
We should all go and sign Mr Noodles' petition and bring Din Tai Fung to London. PLEASE.
Din Tai Fung
Shop 130 & Restaurant C,
30 Canton Street,
Tsim Sha Tsui (there is also a Causeway Bay branch)
I couldn't leave Hong Kong without a decent noodle binge. Last time I visited I was told Mak's Noodle make the best wonton noodles. I've since heard that many people are split between them and Tsim Chai Kee, directly opposite on the same street so this time it was Tsim Chai Kee's turn.
Not a large bowl by any means, but my combo was packed with 2 huge handmade fishballs and 2 wontons ($27 - around £2). The noodles were decently springy, the fishballs spiked with ginger and adequately bouncy, a property sought-after in fishballs. The wontons were slippery and filled with big crunchy and sweet prawns. I couldn't tell you who my favourite was really. I suspect on my return (whenever that may be) Mak's Noodle might take precedent due to the larger variety of dishes on offer. Avoid lunchtimes as you'll have to queue, for both places.
Tsim Chai Kee
98 Wellington Street
Hong Kong Island
Immediately afterwards I took myself off to Kau Kee, on Gough Street just round the corner. Famous for their beef brisket, I'd been before two years previously and had the beef brisket in curry sauce but this time, given the wonton noodles a mere 10 minutes previous, I opted for the lighter. Traditional broth with brisket and ho fun noodles were again, a mercifully small bowl. The brisket was tender and flavoursome, deeply beefy. Another £3 spent and I left a happy fat thing. Again, avoid lunchtimes. I was there at 3pm and there was only 1 space left, though people don't linger here. Also, don't get it confused with Ngau Kee which is at the top of Gough Street - it's not the same.
21 Gough Street
Hong Kong Island
A favourite snack of mine when I was a kid was 'bolo bao' which translates as pineapple bun. There isn't actually any pineapple in it, but the sugary crust that tops the sweet, soft bun is said to resemble it. Oh..kay. A little internet research told me that Kam Wah Cafe, helpfully near our hotel was a good bet for these and after a little bit of getting lost, a few pleas for directions in my sketchy Cantonese, we arrived. A small place packed with people slurping on noodles and chowing down on buns, the waitress asked me if I wanted my bun stuffed with a pork chop. Alas, my breakfast was still sat in my stomach so I settled for one plain, warm and fresh from the oven. Heavenly stuff.
Equally as good was the egg tart, also warm from the oven with a custard that was just set, wibbling as you bit into it, the short pastry rich and slightly salty. I could have hoovered back at least 5 of these.
Kam Wah Cafe
47 Bute Street
Mongkok, Hong Kong
I wish I'd had more time / capacity to do more casual eating as I loved squidging into cafes and slurping down noodles so common and plentiful in Hong Kong, yet so rare in London. Next time.