Monday, August 27, 2007

Lunching in Central District

Hong Kong is a place where people try to follow the newest trend, and when a place becomes popular, "everyone" must go there. So with this in mind, I made the short trek over to Gough St a couple of streets up (literally, you can walk up stairs) from Queens Road Central to hit the famous Kau Kee Restaurant (九 記 牛 腩 ) for its famous brisket and the dai pai dong opposite it. A dai pai dong (you can also find a description on wikipedia) is a large outdoor food stall that has tables and chairs set up. They either have a minimal kitchen or just cook using LPG (liquified petroleum gas). Most of these places serve simple food similar to Hong Kong style cafes (see wikipedia under "cha chaan teng") but generally in a less relaxing and tidy atmosphere. This one that I went to (勝香園) is famous for its tomato soup base.

So the trip began at Kau Kee, where the place opens at 12:30 for the lunch crowd but at 12:25 there's already a line about 20-30 people long. The place has two floors though and ample seating to handle the rush. The menu is limited to clear soup brisket (清 湯 腩 ) over your choice of noodles or a curry soup brisket and tendon combo over noodles, along with the usual drinks on offer in Hong Kong and one choice of vegetable. The house specialties are the two areas of the brisket that are most favored by Hong Kong eaters, one being more tender and flavorful (坑 腩 ) and the other the part with a little more bite and chewiness to the texture (爽 腩 ). Unfortunately, when I got there they had neither available so I settled for the regular noodle bowls. We ordered one bowl each of the clear soup and the curry with e-fu noodles (flat chinese egg noodles). Both broths were flavorful and the curry had just the right amount of kick. The noodles were cooked well and the brisket was tender. The portions seemed small however (or perhaps it was just the bowls) but the prices were reasonable at HK$25 = US$3.25 each. What really is amazing about the place is the efficiency of the service. I sat upstairs where there were about 7 tables with about 6 people on each, and the two waiters were able to memorize all of our orders. Nobody wrote down anything. When the tables were filled they gave the orders to the manager/server who called them in through a walkie-talkie and everything was brought back upstairs in waves. The waiters were friendly and understood that even though this was a popular lunch place for those nearby, they still had plenty of visitors and tourists who had questions.

The good thing about the smaller bowls was that we could immediately go across the street to the dai pai dong to sample the food there. There were a lot of tables and after waiting for a few minutes our seats opened up. Pretty much standard across dai pai dongs is the need to share your table with strangers. Essentially wherever you can grab a chair and fit onto the table you can sit and eat there. It really was out in the open on the street and they set up a few poles attached with some plastic sheets to shield the diners from the sun. I wouldn't know what to do if I was mid-meal and heavy rain came. The menu here consists of Hong Kong style variations of toast, and the signature tomato soup base with your choice of pasta (elbow macaroni or instant ramen) with your choice of toppings (beef, luncheon meat (think spam), ham, eggs fried or scrambled, etc.). So in addition to drinking Hong Kong style milk tea (奶 茶), we ordered a combo toast and one bowl of macaroni with luncheon meat, beef, and a fried egg. The combo toast seemed more like a brioche style bread and had that yellow color with some raisins and came with a slather of peanut butter, jam, and condensed milk on top. The macaroni came in a large bowl all red with the tomato soup with some fresh tomato on top. The flavor was actually quite wonderful. It was more soupy than gazpacho but without that overly condensed texture either. It was more of a Chinese style soup than a western style soup. The tomato on top gave it a sourness that was just enough to make you feel the freshness without asking for salt. Because we had already eaten across the street, we split one bowl which was plenty but definitely left not one drop of the soup.

With regards to a final verdict, I'd have to say that if I was working in the area I'd definitely frequent either place for lunch often. As far as being a visitor/tourist and making the trek and waiting in line, I'd also suggest that people try it at least once. However, I'm more likely to return for the tomato soup than the brisket, but that could be because I didn't get to have the specialty brisket. While they wouldn't allow it during the busy lunch hour, after 3pm the dai pai dong allows you to bring takeout from the nearby places (including the brisket place) so you can try both in one sitting. Also, this being a prime Central location, there are many OLs eating there (OL stands for office lady, an originally Japanese term meant to describe female office workers who tend to work in a secretarial or clerical capacity), and so for a guy like my former coworker, a certain Mr. Noise--, this might be prime hunting ground.

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