US swimmer Mark Spitz won seven gold medals at the 1972 Olympics. He had a pornstash. He planted the rumour that his stash was scientifically shaped to reduce drag, increasing his swim speed. At the next Olympics, Russian swimmers sported pornstashes.
Photo credit: Mark Spitz Facebook
Will fine restaurants (gold seekers, all) follow suit, every employee pornstashed? Probably. In the meantime, they lure their customers with stuff no less striking. You’ve been served olive oil from olives picked at the full moon, fish caught at extreme depths, caviar from almost extinct sturgeon, beef from cows that were regularly massaged and fed beer, hummingbird foie gras, truffles sniffed out by pigs (not dogs), bread flown in from Spain, pear cider from 300-year-old trees, aged monkfish, 100-year-old salt. You’ve been served dishes so complex and delicate they were tweezer-made.
Sometimes, this chow is so delicious you kneel in reverence. Frantzén’s Kitchen’s truffled French toast would be an example of this. Other times, it’s good enough but often feels manic, an obstacle course of caviar blobs, flower petals, sauce squiggles, gold leaf like too much glitter make-up on a tween. A serious BLT from an inexpensive restaurant would be better.
Inexpensive restaurants often serve the tastiest chow of all. Poking into alleys, corners and basements, burning up the bus lines, you’ve assiduously explored Hong Kong’s restaurants for four years now in order to winnow out the inexpensive gems. What follows are your howl-at-the-moon finds. Most are unsung, so far off the radar they’re barely reviewed, if at all. So it’s deeply pleasing to sing their praises. The scrumptiousness of much of the food served at these restaurants rivals that of the Michelin heavies. But unlike most Michelin meals that will chomp an entire mortgage payment from your bank account, these will barely dent your wallet.
You walked in, and though you didn’t know how you knew, you just knew – the food would be delicious. Their baby cucumbers with yellow blossoms in spicy sauce made you spasm with pleasure. You ate one bowl and promptly ordered another. Their improbably long, house-made biang biang noodles (which must be docked with scissors) are al-dente Möbius strips of happiness. Get them with ribs or dumplings (or both). Their pork-dill dumplings, either fried or boiled, are apogee, going as high as dumplings can go. If you’re scared of heights, step back. You had an excessive meal for four here at $1,200, including an entire leg of lamb for $300.
Their potstickers are goddesses. Worship them. They have the best Peking duck in Hong Kong at a fraction of the cost elsewhere, $425 last visit. True, it’s not carved before you by a waiter wearing white gloves. Who cares? You love their okra, their noodle salads, their boneless, deep-fried lamb ribs. You’ve eaten massive, beery meals here for four for less than $1,000.
Their potstickers – thick, house-made dough, crisp bottoms, luscious filling – demand exaltation. Their crispy chicken (ask for it boneless) with peanuts and dried chilli peppers is bliss. The dried chillies mainly impart flavour, minimal heat. Their seared string beans are paradigmatic. You’ve filled your tank here many times for less than $200 a person. It’s open daily, 11am–5am. Finally, hours to match yours.
Wing Lai Yuen (Chuk Un)
There are two restaurants by this name. You mean the one on Fung Tak Road. Their pork vermicelli is one of the most delicious items you’ve eaten in Hong Kong, lean slices of pork belly draped over mung-bean noodles in a garlicky sauce. Their camphor duck, their wontons in spicy sauce, their potstickers are also apex. Their salt-and-pepper squid is possibly the best you’ve ever had. Four of you ate a meal here, well beered, for $740.
Special order their sucking pig for $888. Served with wrappers, cuke batons, shredded scallion, hoisin, it’s like Peking duck. But pork has more torque. The pig skin crunches audibly when you bite down, which whips you into a frenzy. Remember, if pig skin, you kin too.
Everything is cheap and almost everything is hyper-scrumptious. The ambience (no windows) and service (indifferent, rude, little English) are atrocious, which is adorable. Like a highway caution sign, the menu has a “warm prompt” to warn you that the food is thermal. Standouts are simmer bamboo shoots pork, dried turnip fried marinated meat and tea oil steamed salted beef. You ache to return but prefer to dine with your wife, and she, heat averse, won’t. Marriage is a rough ride.
Their sandwiches are exceptional. You particularly like their avo-pomsmash, an open-faced avocado sandwich with lots (and lots) of pomegranate seeds and feta. You also love their prego steak ciabatta; the beef is cooked medium, as ordained by God. But what really stands out for you is their dessert, koeksisters, deep-fried dough soaked in a syrup with orange and lemon slices, cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, lavender petals, chilled. Wunderbar! Most items are $100 or less. Dogs drink free.
“Innovative” applies rarely to Sichuan food, but it does here. Their sous-vide smoked duck is among the greatest duck dishes you’ve ever eaten, so ducky, smoky, cooked to the perfect point between medium and medium rare. Their clear noodles in spicy sauce are house-made, chubby, chewy, like cherubs’ earlobes. Prices are on the high side of low. Apparently there are some weekend deals.
Café Hunan (Wanchai)
Taste-bud heaven. Your faves: shrimp with tea leaf, pudgy shrimp fried so hot, they peel crisp like potato chips. Stir-fried sautéed preserved pork with dried radish, the delicious salty pork almost a jerky contrast to the chewy-crunchy-dried radish. Stir-fried smoked Hunan-style beef, like bresaola but with the comforting scent of campfire smoke. So cheap it’s like they’re paying you.
Twelve Flavours (many branches)
Extravagantly delicious, Death Row, last-meal level. Though many dishes are great, you pine for their dry hot pot. Dry hot pot is like soupy hot pot, but better, the flavours undiluted by broth, nothing soggy, concentrated. It’s really akin to a dish you learned to love in Uzbekistan called lagman. You get to choose what you want in the pot. You usually get beef, pork neck, lotus root, cauliflower, rice sticks, some kind of green and – this is vital – wide starch vermicelli (or mung-bean noodles). The wide starch vermicelli is a force multiplier. Even the least spicy version of this dish is spicy from the many different kinds of chilli peppers and glorious Sichuan peppercorns. There is a soybean hot pot, not spicy at all, that’s pretty amazingly good too. You can’t recommend this place enough. An overloaded dry hot pot with more food than two can eat and a drink or three will come out around $350.
For some, value for dollar is irrelevant. Even so, the food at these cheap restaurants has a higher tastiness coefficient than many of the royals. Let your rich uncle take you to the swanky spots. Slap your plastic at these places for high return and at least as much taste.
Need recommendations? Gotta tip? Email.
And for God’s sake, shave that moustache.
Oh, the hummingbird foie gras. Just messing with you.