This is no expat restaurant with a main course of Wagyu beef raised on Neptune by monks, at HK$1,000 per gram, gilded with gold leaf, eaten by George Clooney’s guests at his wedding. This is no old chestnut of a restaurant resting on its laurels so long that it can no longer stand up straight, the kind of place you only say you like because you can’t withstand the social pressure to say otherwise and because you’re lonely and the waiters are kind. Or you like it, but, in fact, you’re ignorant.
You call to make a reservation at Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei for later that same evening and they tell you that they’re full, maybe you can walk in. You show up half an hour before they open and there’s already a queue. All Chinese. In fact, throughout the entire meal, you’re the only Caucasians in the joint. Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei is the real thang. Delicious, intensely flavourful food from North China, for the most part, that’s ridiculously inexpensive. If you don’t come here, it’s an act of self-damage, and be it on your own head.
Though the restaurant tilts Northern Chinese, it has the best Peking duck you’ve had in Hong Kong, almost as good as the top duck dispensaries in Beijing, at a fraction of the cost, a mere HK$298 for an entire duck. The skin is crisp and perfectly lacquered, most of the subcutaneous fat gone, the meat moist and inconceivably ducky. The sher ping (pancakes) are thin, warm. There are cold slices of cuke and spring onion and a bowl of hoisin. They dispense with the ceremony of a carver in white gloves tableside, but for all the exotic food you’ve eaten in Hong Kong, you’ve never eaten (nor shall you ever eat) a white glove, so this is no loss.
There are long-braised, deep-fried boneless lamb ribs. True, they are a bit greasy, and the grease coats your heart valves. In the US, a good valve job with lamb grease costs thousands, requires local anaesthesia and is not covered by insurance. So this is a sweet deal indeed. The meat is crisp and so lamby, with not a hint of mutton. There’s a dipping sauce that contains soy sauce, vinegar, garlic, coriander, chilli, perhaps a hint of sesame oil, astringently perfect. You bleat with happiness.
Another dish of lamb with cumin might better be called mutton with cumin. Besides the fact that you’re no fan of mutton, it is fatty mutton, and the dish is strangely underamped, with far too little cumin and chilli.
That classic dish, green beans with minced pork, garlic and chilli, is one jot off: the beans aren’t blistered. Had the wok glowed smithy red, the dish would have been great, not merely good. If you’re seeking the paradigmatic rendition of this dish, go to Little Chilli in North Point.
Like almost all the Chinese noodles you’ve had in HK, those used in their dish of noodles and pork (with wonderful, mandolin-cut radish and cuke) are soft, not at all al dente. You speculate that this is because semolina flour is not in the mix. Chewy, ramen-style noodles or Italian-style noodles would certainly up this dish. And the sauce, in your view, could use more octane, more garlic, more vinegar, more everything. You like it, but it comes nowhere near making you convulse with pleasure. Were the boneless lamb hacked up and put over the noodles along with its dipping sauce, the dish would howl.
You do convulse over their very cold, al-dente mung-bean noodles, cut like wide fettuccine, capped by salty, ravishing meat sauce, strewn with julienned veg, aromatised by coriander. It jolts and satisfies like cold hands on your hot back. It’s one of the great dishes you’ve had in Hong Kong this year: hot, cold, crunchy, chewy, vegetal, herbaceous, meaty, saucy, wowza. Were it not for your marital vows, you’d definitely swipe right for this dish.
You get up to use the washroom – alas, no soap, no towels – and see there is a throng outside the restaurant’s entrance waiting to get in. This throng says it all. They’re not panting for mediocre, overpriced food. They’re fly.
You finish with apples with spun sugar, which Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei almost nails, but not quite. They bring it to the table with a bowl of cold water, into which you dip the apples in order to harden the sugar glaze, but by the time you get to it, the dish has cooled, the glaze has hardened and many of the apples have stuck together. If they had dipped the apples for you either before bringing over the dish or at the moment it reached the table, it would have succeeded perfectly. The apples should have been more flavourful. New Zealand Granny Smiths or American Honeycrisps would have been perfect. It’s your common lament, but why not make this dish with mango or guava or orange or pear (or apple and foie gras)? The chef who finally does this will become immortal.
Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei punches above its weight with Peking duck that almost rivals world contenders at a fraction of the cost, with cold mung-bean noodles as good as love (almost), with lamb to make your heart beat faster (and coat its valves) – and a small percentage of dishes that don’t quite work but might another day. The service is friendly and slightly flustered. The interior is pleasant. Its value for dollar is remarkable.
As you step out the front door of this restaurant, you move past a considerable crowd of locals jonesing for the culinary bliss you’ve just experienced. They know. They know.
It’s insane, but your wife insists the two of you go back to Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei the next evening for another dose of duck. Years ago, she chose you, and now she’s chosen Lao Zhang Gui Dongbei’s duck. Ah, you’re a lucky boy. You’ll bring champagne. It will be seraphic.
Shop 9–12, G/F, Peony House North Block, 55–65 Tai Kok Tsui Road, Tai Kok Tsui, 2572 8366
This write-up is based on an anonymous, independent visit. The meal was paid for by the author and no monetary compensation was provided in exchange.
For more reviews like this, like Foodie on Facebook