The fried sauerkraut vermicelli – sweet potato vermicelli and sauerkraut with chunks of poached garlic – is so improbably, addictively, madly delicious, so primordially slurpable, so texturally gratifying that it makes your eyeballs boing out and back, cartoon style. Good God, how’d they come up with this? It’s so simple and obvious, yet utterly original. Served without fanfare, it’s a revelation.
The fact that Tan’s Gourmet in Sai Ying Pun has no website, that they’re not listed on TripAdvisor, that no critic has yet taken the trouble to review them or even acknowledge their existence, that you must call to make reservations and almost no one speaks English, is baffling but also charming. It’s as though they’re running analog in a digital world. This is good though, shunting walk-ins elsewhere, leaving the place more for gastronomes (some might say food snobs… like yourself) who are willing to work for it.
In a weird parallel with German cuisine, the fried sauerkraut vermicelli goes particularly well with their showpiece of golden honey crispy pork – schnitzel-thin slices of pork in a crisp, ethereal batter, glazed with honey sauce, studded by more wonderful poached garlic. This restaurant has a proper reverence for garlic, which they often poach, thus retaining its flavour while muting its sting.
Their Sichuan spicy popcorn chicken with dried chilli peppers is the best rendition of this dish you’ve ever had. The chicken pieces are plump, boneless, maximally crisp, imbued with more pepper flavour than heat, strewn with peanuts and scallions and yet more garlic. This seemingly simple dish actually takes great technique to pull off well – there are so many moving parts. Thankfully, the kitchen knows the best line around a corner.
The stir-fried lamb with cumin is also best-version, lean, jacked by capsaicin, thrumming with cumin. Garlic is not in absentia.
The dry-fried green beans with minced pork contain not only garlic but Sichuan peppercorns, which are not commonly found in this dish but should be. They always jolt you happy, a natural alternative to electroconvulsive therapy. The green beans surely were hit by wok hei, the breath of the wok (or, put another way, Vesuvian heat), to blister so well.
The lamb kebabs are wonderfully crisped and cumined. Your wife finds them fatty, but you like the crisp nubs of fat that are so intensely flavourful. Crisp fat needs more respect. They need more salt though.
The tossed potato clear noodles with shredded pork in horseradish, garlic and sesame dressing have a fascinating flavour profile that you taste within the recesses of your nose as much as your tongue. You suspect that what they call “horseradish” is actually mustard oil, which you’ve occasionally experienced at more feral Chinese and Indian restaurants – at least it scours your sinuses the same way. Much as you love it and strong as it is, you want it stronger. It needs to be cranked with more sesame, more mustard oil, more garlic, more leafage, more oink.
The cucumber salad is average.
The cold Hunan sautéed salted duck has a jerky quality. Its flavour is slightly disagreeable.
There’s much more on the menu to try and you’re feverish to go back. Amongst other things, you’re interested in their dessert of strawberries that, from the menu photo, look like they might be done in the manner of spun-sugar apples.
Alas, there are no potstickers on the menu, a heart-rending omission.
The interior is pleasant, not warm. The service is pleasant, not warm. The prices are moderate.
This is rustic food, your favourite sort, done uncommonly well. Tan’s Gourmet is a thrilling find. Visit soon before they become internationally famous, franchise and morph into Panda Express. Dally not.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Food: 4 (true, the food isn’t uniformly excellent, but the excellent dishes are such standouts that they up the score)
Overall greatness: 4
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against like restaurants, not each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
From my website, here’s how I rate food: “I believe the quality of a restaurant’s food is vastly more important than any other factor. Even if I love a restaurant’s food, I’m very conservative about giving out 4s or 5s. I reserve 4s for food that is uniformly excellent. Preponderantly excellent tends to get a lower score. 5s are for food that is uniformly stunning.”
39–41 High Street, Sai Ying Pun, 2368 7188