No to abalone harvested from the Mariana Trench. No to Wagyu beef raised on award-winning craft beer and Thai massages. No to Iranian caviar for the price of a month’s rent, no to truffles, no to foie gras, no to bespoke anything, no to food twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools. No, no, no. It’s rustic food you want! Nourriture honnête. Sichuan! Your hands shake from the crave. Forged by pyroclastic force, accelerated by capsaicin, wrenching more flavour from a pork belly than a three-star can coax from a royal swan, only Sichuan will do.
So you go to Wing Lai Yuen at 15 Fung Tak Road in Kowloon, not to be confused with another restaurant with the same name at The Whampoa, also in Kowloon. The moment you walk into its tidy, modest premises (chairs like upside-down plastic buckets, photographs of their food on the walls for visual learners), you start to untense. You’re where you need to be, in the belly of the benevolent beast.
You start with cold cucumber with garlic that is nothing less than paradigmatic. The cucumber is so fresh it is actually shattered from the thump of a sideways cleaver. It’s very cold and crisp, jagged as broken jade. You’re confident that the cucumber was not prepped in bulk before you came in, but per your order as some rural French restaurants will only catch the trout after you order the truite au bleu so that it’s pristine. The sauce is wonderful, with a hint of sweetness you’ve never before encountered in this concoction. You’ve never had better cuke and possibly never quite as good.
Pork with vermicelli is actually thin, lean slices of pork belly draped over wide mung bean noodles in an indecipherable sauce. It’s slightly sweet, slightly garlicky, based maybe-possibly-perhaps on sweet soy sauce and vinegar. It’s so delicious you’re flabbergasted. The textural contrast between the meat and noodles is thrilling. Dopamine receptors almost replete, your hands cease shaking.
Tsingtao comes. Just what you need. Onward.
Seared string beans with crumbled pork and garlic. You would have liked a little more sear, a little more blister to the beans, but the flavour is great.
Smoked duck is moist, ducky, skin super crisp, slightly salty and perfumed lyrically with smoke (from tea leaves, you think). Served with steamed buns and hoisin, it’s deeply satisfying. Full duck immersion.
Wontons in a spicy sauce are as good as you’ve ever had, rarely equalled.
Likewise, potstickers. You like their thick, house-made skins.
Dan dan noodles do not equal Ho Lee Fook’s unrivalled version made with minced lamb, perhaps because these are simply as good as they can be within the bounds of tradition, which this restaurant does not seek to transgress. Clearly this restaurant sees itself as a conservator of culinary tradition, not a culinary disruptor. Nonetheless their dan dan noodles are so delicious that you spoon up the sauce like soup after the noodles are gone. And it’s a fraction of the cost of Ho Lee Fook’s, without the blasting music that makes it so difficult to eat there.
Chicken with cashews (like kung pao) falls short of the universal excellence of the other dishes, being merely good. But good doesn’t suck. The chopped boneless dark meat is accompanied by lots of chopped celery (a bit too chunky for your taste) and cashews, of course, in a thickened, stock-based glaze. Almost, but not quite, deranged by heat, it’s only feasible with Tsingtao held ready.
The salt-and-pepper squid doesn’t use the big rubber-tubing-like pieces of many other restaurants, thank goodness. You’re pretty certain the batter is based on rice flour. It comes out crisp within a cascade of fried garlic nubbins, spring onion and dried chillies and, unlike most renditions, without a hint of oil. It’s the best salt-and-pepper squid you’ve ever had, although you think a little more salt and pepper would loft it higher yet.
Just before finishing, your wife spots a plate of globular dumplings, aka bao, heading to a nearby table. She orders them. The dough is freshly steamed and ever-so-slightly sweet, the bottom of the dumplings sprinkled with sesame seeds and fried to an ideal caramel sheen. You wife wishes that the inner sphere of forcemeat was less bland. A filling based on char siu is what she seeks. You think they’re tops.
You are served by two avuncular fellows who are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about what they’re serving, unlike those at some restaurants who would serve roast pig as indifferently as pig iron. Of a certain age, these servers confer gravitas on the restaurant, helping to give it the heft of what deserves to be an institution. Spring Deer, for instance, is said to be an institution (Lord knows why), and this restaurant is vastly better. Tim Ho Wan has one Michelin star (on what basis? it baffles you). True, it serves dim sum and this is a full-range restaurant, but when you do the algebra, Wing Lai Yuen is better.
With four ordering ravenously, including four or five large Tsingtaos, the complete tab comes to HK$740. Cash only. The price boggles, less for four than many individual main courses at other restaurants.
If you revere exceptionally delicious, authentic Chinese food and you don’t require baby lamb raised by British nannies or a server dressed for Downton Abbey, come to worship at this unsung Temple of Cuisine, Wing Lai Yuen.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Overall value: 5
15 Fung Tak Road, Chuk Yuen, Wong Tai Sin, 2726 3818
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