Hong Kong's unsung noodle shops
Hong Kong noodle shops are a staple of the local dining scene. (Associated Press)
The 2011 Hong Kong/Macau Michelin Guide is doing its best to keep pace with the idea that food does not have to be expensive to be excellent. Beyond its typical nod to high-end establishments at the Four Seasons and Mandarin Oriental, this year the list also included a few cheap and simple noodle joints.
"You'll definitely get a taste of Hong Kong going to a typical noodle shop," said Adele Wong, dining and lifestyle editor at HK Magazine. "You might get to enjoy a Cantonese drama blaring off screens while you slurp away and possibly have to share a table with strangers. You'll get a booth seat if you're lucky, but might have to settle for a simple stool."
Even as the famous food guide moves to acknowledge the greatness of the Hong Kong noodle shop, some say the experts' choices overlooked longtime favourites that are a staple of the local dining scene. So pull up a stool and start slurping at these spots, which should be included in any comprehensive guide to Hong Kong cuisine.
Kau Kee (21 Gough Street, Central, 852-2850-5967)
This institution is popular with local celebs, politicians and workers on their lunch break. It offers one specialty: tender beef brisket with fat oozing off of it that melts in your mouth, served in either clear or curry broth. Expect gruff service, no spoken English and cramped seating -- plus a touch of MSG. But that is to be expected in a city where huge bags of the additive are sold at local supermarkets.
Wing Wah (89 Hennessy Road, Wan Chai, 852-2527-7476)
Located around the corner from Wan Chai's neon nightlife district, this old-time shop is a stark contrast to the surrounding girlie bars. Wing Wah is famous for its shrimp wonton soup, which comes with springy, curly noodles that are still made by hand. (This fact is boasted via multiple signs and newspaper clippings around the dated restaurant.) The more adventurous eaters should not miss the rich dessert soups, like the red bean puree with sweet glutinous-rice dumplings. The floor is linoleum, you sit at stools and Wing Wah is not entirely clean, but at least the menu is in both English and Chinese. On a rainy day the soup is comfort food at its finest.
Australia Dairy Company (47 Parkes Street, Jordan, 852-2730-1356)
A traditional Hong Kong breakfast is pretty much the perfect meal, adored by taxi drivers and expatriates alike. Light fluffy eggs -- scrambled with milk from Hokkaido, Japan -- are served on thick toast, accompanied by the super-sweet local favourite drink of either iced lemon tea or iced milk tea. A side of toast slathered with condensed milk enhances the sugar high. Each meal comes with soup, dotted with macaroni noodles and pieces of ham. Soup for breakfast? It is the perfect hangover cure, or just a way to go completely native.
Crystal Jade does not qualify as an undiscovered gem -- this is a well-respected, Singapore-based chain with branches across Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. Though the Michelin Guide did name it a "Bib Gourmand" -- a place to get "top-quality cuisine at affordable prices" -- Crystal Jade is so much more to those who live in Hong Kong. For one, it is a go-to spot for dim sum on weekends. The general wisdom in Asia is to not discount franchises, even those located in mega-malls. Crystal Jade has multiple outposts across the city, including IFC Mall, Harbour City and Times Square. The dan dan mian (noodles smothered in a sauce of peanuts, sesame and chilis) are among the best in the city and makes stumbling into one of Crystal Jade's many outlets worth the trip.
Butao King (11-12 Wo On Lane, Central, 852-2530-0600)
Local food journalists and bloggers have gone gaga over this hole-in-the-wall, a tiny ramen joint in the middle of garish party district Lan Kwai Fong. A Japanese native opened the shop late last year and has quickly appealed to Hong Kongers' penchant for exclusivity by only dishing out 200 bowls a day. Creative chef and owner Ikuta Satoshi offers not only traditional pork bone broth but also versions with squid ink and spicy miso, plus an Italian-inspired variation with parmesan, basil and olive oil. Some nay-sayers deem the ramen overhyped and salty, but that does not stop hungry folks from queuing up starting at around 10 am.