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Taste of Travel: Hong Kong

Is Hong Kong Cooked?

Politically speaking, who knows? But for now the city remains one of the world's great eating destinations.

June 08, 1997|S. IRENE VIRBILA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HONG KONG — Though it's still unclear what changes will be set in motion when the British hand over their prize colony to the Chinese on July 1, one thing is certain: Hong Kong's love of good food will never change.

This is a city that lives to eat--and one of the few cities in the world that can deservedly call itself an eating destination. Restaurants outnumber banks--and that is saying a lot in this city of commerce. Minuscule noodle shops and congee (rice porridge) parlors are squeezed into every block.

If your feet wear out and you decide to ride the red double-decker trams that traverse Queen's Road, sitting on the top deck you can look in on vast restaurants that seat 200 or 300 people, all intent on putting away a big meal. But because this is Hong Kong, business is taking place too. Restaurant guides list whether or not cell phones are permitted. Competition is fierce, and restaurants don't survive if they're not good.

During a recent visit, I didn't eat in a restaurant that wasn't packed.

Getting a table at the best places requires reserving a week or two in advance.

Like L.A., New York or Paris, Hong Kong is truly an international city where you find not only the great regional cooking of China but also French, Italian, Thai, Indian and Singaporean restaurants, even California and South African cuisine. But I came here to eat Chinese. Eating Cantonese or Shanghai-style food in Hong Kong was as thrilling as encountering Tuscan or Piedmontese cooking in Italy for the first time.

After all, the best cooks are here. The money is here. And so are the products: superbly fresh seafood from the China Sea, rustic Yunnan hams and supremely flavorful vegetables grown on the Chinese mainland or in the New Territories.

"It's very difficult to stay slim in this city," a Hong Kong friend told me, laughing as we ordered yet another round of dim sum.

Last year, I began planning the trip with a group of friends as passionately interested in eating as I am. Meshing the schedules of several people turned out to be the hardest part. By the time we finally left, we had lost one world-class eater and now numbered six, including a 6-year-old who had his heart set on eating snake.

Essentially, my goal was to try the best of the regional cuisines of China. I didn't want to eat only in fancy hotel restaurants, but in hole-in-the-wall places too.

Here's my personal eating diary from my trip in March:

*

Since we didn't eat much on the plane, when our 15-hour flight arrives at 6:30 a.m., we are ravenous. After a 15-minute taxi ride from the airport, my companion and I check into our hotel, the Salisbury YMCA, on the Kowloon side of the city in the district called Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST). This decidedly upscale YMCA is one of Hong Kong's best hotel bets for price and location.

By 7:30 a.m. we meet our friends who had arrived the previous day, and we board the Star Ferry with the rest of the morning commuters. Our breakfast destination in Hong Kong Island's posh Central district is the venerable Luk Yu Tea House, where a turbaned Sikh doorman ushers you into a dark, colonial-style interior with polished wood wainscoting, white tablecloths and twirling ceiling fans.

Slipping into one of the two-seater wooden booths, I somehow kick an unseen brass spittoon at the foot of the table--fortunately not enough to knock it over. When the gruff, white-jacketed waiter arrives with tea, you've got to be fast: Unless you ask for bo lei or oolong, you'll get jasmine.

Women in flat Chinese shoes with stainless steel trays hanging from wide leather shoulder straps offer fat har gow (dumplings) bursting with shrimp, slender vegetable dumplings in lacy wrappers, steamed bao (buns) and crab dumplings. Nothing is very exotic--or very exceptional. I've had far better dim sum in Monterey Park. But the place is lovely.

The trick at Luk Yu is to restrict yourself to tea and order only a few dim sum, just enough to stave off hunger until lunch. That's what the regulars, mostly businessmen in polished shoes and gold watches reading the newspaper, order at this power breakfast spot.

Our group had reserved that night for dinner at City Chiu Chow in Tsim Sha Tsui, not far from our hotel. At the back of the large dining room is a glassed-in kitchen with a necklace of huge coral and white crabs in the window. Here, a meal begins with kwun yum, the regional tea, tannic and powerful and served in thimble-size cups. Naturally, we'd like to try the crab. Taking out his calculator, the waiter calculates a crab will cost just over $50 at the going rate. It's served cold on an ornate gold pedestal with a dipping sauce of pungent dark vinegar and chopped ginger, a perfect foil to the snowy, compact crab meat.

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