May 17, 2012|
At Ho Hung Kee, a petite noodle shop in cacophonic Causeway Bay, a group of Chinese tourists smiles widely for the camera as steam from their bowls of wonton wafts into their faces. At the other end of the room, tucked conspiratorially into a booth for two is a pair of bejeweled tai-tais—veteran diners, owner Patty Ho explains, who have been coming here since the 90s. There are no tablecloths, diners are expected to share tables and plastic cups of lukewarm bo lei tea greet each diner instead of an amuse-bouche. Welcome to Hong Kong’s cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant.
Ho’s modest noodle shop, which she runs with her husband Ho Koon-ming, is in the same league as Hung’s Delicacies, Hin Ho Curry, One Dim Sum, Taiwanese chain Din Tai Fung and the three branches of dim sum specialist Tim Ho Wan. All have been listed in the Michelin guide as “simple shops” with one star, where top-level cooking can be had at street-level prices.
These restaurants may be no-frills, but many may not realize that the “lo sui” or “master sauce” at Hung’s is a complex soy-based elixir combining more than 20 ingredients, or that the pigs’ trotters and beef brisket at Ho Hung Kee are braised into submission in the early hours of each day. Ditto the velvety congee, which begins life as mere rice, water and dried beancurd sheets, yet becomes more than the sum of its parts.
Established in 1946, Ho Hung Kee is older than most of its current patrons; it began life as a street stall in Wan Chai, the pride of Ho Chiu-hung, Ho’s father-in-law. He and his wife left Guangzhou to make their fortune in Hong Kong, peddling wonton noodles on the pavement from 6pm each night until the last bowl was sold. Aside from bricks and mortar, little has changed at the heart of this eatery; the menu served today is the same as it was in the 60s, with traditional noodles and congee at the forefront. Diners coming here on the tailwind of the Michelin frenzy may be surprised by Ho Hung Kee’s simplicity, but to expect haute cuisine is missing the point entirely.
Still, in a city of 7 million discerning eaters with more than 11,000 restaurants at their disposal, where bamboo punnets of steamed pig’s liver can hold their own against decadent slabs of foie gras, expectations run high amid stiff competition. No stranger to great expectations is Mak Kwai-pui, chef-owner of Tim Ho Wan, the youngest restaurant out of the group. “When you’ve got a star, it becomes far worse,” he says. “Diners are looking for something more. They yearn for something grand and the reality, to them, is very ordinary.”
For the most part, everyone has taken the extra scrutiny in their stride. “Every year I feel a little bit afraid,” admits Ho. “There’s pressure, but then again I just continue on doing what I’ve been doing every day.” Others, such as Lai Wai-hung of Chiu Chow restaurant Hung’s Delicacies in North Point, seem to have a newfound energy after receiving a star. The chef was close to throwing in the towel back in 2006, until a few fortuitous trips to local temples predicted he would make it big in three years’ time—2009, the same year Michelin came a-knocking.
Now in its eighth year, local grannies still come to Hung’s for a bowl of lai tong, or the daily soup, because it is taken as seriously as the intricate craft of carving a roast goose. Lai insists that this is a must-order at his restaurant, never mind the duck tongues and mustard-coated chicken tendons. “It’s unique because lai tong is pretty much an afterthought at other restaurants.” Lai’s soup (lotus root and octopus, say, or tomato with pork and potatoes) is often prepared slowly over six hours, free from MSG and second-rate ingredients, and yours for the price of a cup of milk tea.
Meanwhile, at Tim Ho Wan, the steamed cheung fun sheets are as translucent as silk stockings, and the signature barbecued pork buns are baked to order—something Mak insisted on from day one. “It’s an entirely different thing, having a fresh bun straight from the oven,” he explains.
The dark horse of the group—and one of Michelin’s most controversial selections, perhaps—is Hin Ho Curry, a 20-year-old Indian restaurant located on Shau Kei Wan’s restaurant-centric Main Street East. Owner Andy Tse, originally an interior designer, eschews authenticity in his search for perfection. Tse has never been—nor does he intend to go—to India; he refuses to use ghee in his recipes, and serves beef on the menu, much to the chagrin of some critics.
But Tse says he never set out to create an authentic Indian restaurant. “I wanted, from the very beginning, to cook Hong Kong-style Indian cuisine,” he explains. This means toning down the spice while amping up the flavor by way of abundant vegetables and onions, as well as modifying the cooking techniques; his chicken korma is rich with plenty of cashew nuts, and the tandoori baby back ribs are marinated for six hours in shaoxing wine for extra fragrance. “I work the same way as I have back in the 90s,” Tse says. “Nothing has changed except my expectations towards my cooking.”
It is this expectation, held by each restaurant, that has ensured their longevity. As Mak says, “In Hong Kong, you can’t let your standards slip. Otherwise you’ll find it very hard to survive.”
Michelin-recommended, wallet-friendly eats that won’t break the bank.
DIN TAI FUNG
Shop 130, 3/F, Silvercord, 30 Canton Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui. 2730-6928.
HIN HO CURRY
Shop 11, G/F, East Way Tower, 55-99 Main Street East, Shau Kei Wan. 2560-1268.
HO HUNG KEE
2 Sharp St. East, Causeway Bay. 2577-6558.
Shop 4, G/F, Ngan Fai Building, 84-94 Wharf Rd., North Point. 2570-1108.
ONE DIM SUM
Shop 1-2, G/F, Kenwood Mansion, 15 Playing Field Rd., Prince Edward, 2789-2280.
TIM HO WAN
Shop 8, G/F, Phase 2, Tsui Yuen Mansion, 2-20 Kwong Wa Street, Mong Kok. 2332-2896.