The miniature cucumbers with exquisite yellow flowers attached are the size of a baby’s fingers and just as delicious. They would not be out of place plated artistically at a three-star. They’re in a salty, meaty, spicy, garlicky sauce so addictive that in the United States it would be classified as a controlled substance. Eating this stateside would be Club Fed. But worth it. You like it so much that you order a second bowl. There’s a remaining puddle of sauce at the bottom of each, which you spoon over rice in order that no drop is lost. Thus you launch into one of the best Chinese meals you’ve had in Hong Kong.
This is your second visit to Liao Za Lie – a spare, handsome place, if rather cramped for American frames – in Causeway Bay, located on a narrow lane congested by hawkers, making it difficult to find. No doubt this is frustrating for the restaurant, but it enhances the sense of exclusivity you like. This place is so extraordinary, you’re reluctant to share it with those who can’t give it the reverence it deserves by seeking it out.
Your companions have brought local craft beer, a brilliant touch. You notice another table has a white Languedoc on ice. The restaurant’s torrid food sings out for good barley or grape, but having no liquor license, you must bring your own. Do so.
All noodles at Liao Za Lie are made by hand, and there are many types. You order “homemade stretch noodles”, which are brethren to Italian pappardelle. Unlike many Chinese hand-tossed noodles, these are an ideal al dente. They are so long that the gracious waitress comes by with scissors to cut them down a bit for manageability. She gives them a stir until they are slicked by hot oil and God knows what, including slivers of fungus and crisp seaweed. They make you crazy with pleasure. This dish comes in many iterations, some with ribs, some with vegetables, some with dumplings. Nestled with your order are handmade, thick-skinned, luscious lamb dumplings. You get a separate order of pork-chive dumplings. Then, pork-dill dumplings that could be the best dumplings you’ve ever eaten, jangling with flavour. You chopstick-fight your companions to get your share.
You’re a patriotic American, so it pains you to say that the Tongguan-style Chinese burger with stewed pork is the burger that in a dogfight might send an American burger down in flames. America, be forewarned! It is a disc of layered dough that reminds you of a scallion pancake, chewy and flaky. Within is juicy pulled pork, a hint sweet, spiced with what may be star anise. The density and intensity of flavour are breathtaking. You could eat these until you founder.
No American hamburger bun has ever been so good that it’s been listed as a menu item by itself. Theirs, justifiably, is, accompanied by “mahogany sauce”. Concocted in-house, mahogany sauce is chilli rich, contains sesame seeds and reminds you of a Mexican mole. Wow. They should sell it in jars.
A leg of lamb is served and portioned for you tableside with scissors. The only garnishes are a wedge of lemon and a mound of cumin powder, cumin seed and powdered chilli, excellent foils. They give you plastic gloves so you can eat it by hand unbesmirched. It’s minimalist and tasty. Yet, why well done? This is the ubiquitous style of Asia, but you think that Western style, medium or medium rare, would be better (though it might require sourcing finer lamb).
On the other hand, you happily inhale well-done ribbons of mutton stir-fried with leek and cumin, an exemplary treatment of a standard dish that is often too fatty. Shards of lamb shank and lamb chops are on the menu for future visits.
The melon salad is not based on sweet melon but long, squash-like strands. There’s a spicy sauce, kin to the cucumber’s. You’ll order it again when you revisit but won’t dream of it in the meantime as you will the baby cucumber. Likewise, a salad based on peanut sprouts (such interesting ingredients!) is good, crunchy, peanutty, unique, worth it, but not to fantasise about. You don’t try an intriguing vegetable referred to as Chinese artichoke or a salad of what look like albino walnuts. These are future treats. Nor do you try all sorts of other handmade noodles. There is just so much good stuff, too little stomach.
Dessert, comped kindly, is marbles of deep-fried, sweetened mashed potato with an interior of purple mashed taro. It’s an interesting novelty that you’d never reorder.
Most Chinese restaurants in Hong Kong serve Cantonese cuisine. Cantonese sauces tend to be mild and well-behaved, the culinary equivalent of decent folk at a church picnic. Cantonese favours royal ingredients like Wagyu beef, sea cucumber and abalone. Liao Za Lie, specialising in Shanxi cuisine, eschews status proteins. Its highly flammable sauces, however, shoot such violent jets of flavour that they would incite the folk at a church picnic to dance hip-hop, spin on their heads, twerk and grind. This is food to rile your Aunt Petunia and make your Uncle Herbert feel an itch that he (and Aunt Petunia) had thought he’d never feel again. Much of Liao Za Lie’s food is not just scrumptious but dangerously scrumptious.
A wildly excessive dinner for four was HK$1,200 (and over a quarter of this was for the roast lamb), a superb deal.
If your sap is rising, go to Liao Za Lie. If your sap isn’t rising, go to Liao Za Lie and it will rise. Liao Za Lie is umami and you daddy!
Michelin, please visit. Give this place a Bib Gourmand.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 5
9 Jardine’s Crescent, Causeway Bay, 6063 5512
In order to review objectively, David Greenberg does not solicit or accept comped meals and anonymously reviews restaurants.
Read more of David’s reviews for many Hong Kong restaurants on his website, www.ardentgourmet.com, and remember to like Foodie on Facebook