1. Dynasty Restaurant
I ate a lot—really, no, seriously: a lot—of dim sum while I was in Hong Kong. Most of it was pretty good, but as I’d come to believe that it should be 16 to 17 times better than the stuff you can get in New York, I was generally disappointed. Still, towards the end of my trip, after hearing that my grandfather used to really like this place towards the end of his life, I gave it a shot. And I flipped out. Their menu has many of the traditional classics, but what really struck me were the unusual and delicious things like black-pepper-crusted smoked beef tongue. I also remember vividly the pea shoots stir-fried with duck liver sausage. I mean, how could you forget? Renaissance Harbour View Hotel Hong Kong, 1 Harbour Rd., Wanchai (011-852-2802-8888, ext. 6971)
2. Wing Wah
You know how cheap dirt is? This is cheaper. But that doesn’t keep these wonton noodles from demonstrating an artisanal spirit. This is truly wonderful stuff: The wontons are filled with fresh shrimp, the broth is clean and deep, and the noodles have a lively snap that in Cantonese is called song—a word that describes a texture that’s somewhere in between crunchy and crispy, but that applies to things you would never call crunchy or crispy. For decades, the noodles were made by hand by a man who apparently does not wear pants. Look for the place on the south side of the street with photos of a man making noodles in his underwear. 89 Hennessey Rd., Wan Chai (011-852-2527-7476)
3. Spring Moon
Nestled in a hotel that was the favorite of the old Colonial class, this is possibly the most beautiful restaurant in Hong Kong, with a décor that evokes 1920s Art Deco Shanghai. Sure, just the tea costs $8 a person (and it’s totally worth it; the service is really interesting, and the quality of teas is superb), and the menu features arm-and-a-leg items like foie gras braised in abalone sauce (worth your leg, and maybe your non-dominant arm), but hey, you’re on vacation in one of the world’s truest capitals of capitalism, right? So maybe capitalism has been having a rough go of it of late, but while you’re in the land of true believers, you can forget the world outside. So go, and get the conch slices stir-fried in spicy, precious XO sauce. Peninsula Hotel, Salisbury Rd., Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon (011-852-2315-3160)
For the uninitiated, congee can be a little bit of a tough sell: We are talking about rice gruel, after all. Gruel. A less appealing word barely exists, let alone for food. But for those ready to go against linguistic instinct, here is a really lovely bowl of congee, the rice cooked in subtle, rich fish broth until it’s broken down to a silky smooth consistency. Get the one with eel and pork liver, both of which are just perfectly cooked through right in the congee, the oils from the liver forming golden rivulets. Also interesting are the thick curls of carp skin, cooked and chilled chilled so that they have an almost crunchy snap. Served with scallions, ginger, and peanuts, along with soy sauce for dipping, this dish has bright, clear flavors that put the focus on the fascinating textures. 7 Heard St., Wan Chai (011-852-2882-3268)
5. Tai Cheong Bakery
A few months ago, The New York Times ran an informative map of places to eat in Flushing, Queens, that included a controversial claim: Cantonese egg tarts (Dahn taht) are British in origin. I was skeptical of the claim, but my Portuguese lady friend howled with indignation. They come from the Portuguese pasteis de nata, she says, and given the fact that they look almost exactly like dahn taht—and that in the former Portuguese colony of Macau, less than 40 miles from Hong Kong, these pastries are known as “Po tarts”—I’m inclined to agree.
But you didn’t come here for a colonial history lesson, you came here for something to eat. So check it: Tai Cheong has the best egg tarts I’ve ever had. Served warm, the light egg custard melts on hitting your tongue, and the almond-flour-enriched crust dissolves on hitting your teeth. I could say more, but sooner or later, you should just go and have one. Plus it’s in an interesting part of town, near the Mid-Levels, a neighborhood on a hillside that is entirely accessible by an outdoor covered escalator so long that it takes 20 minutes to ride the whole thing. 32 Lyndhurst Terrace, Central (011-852-2544-3475)
The Forum Restaurant, established in 1977, is one of the most famous—and potentially most expensive—restaurants in the city, although you wouldn’t know it to look at its dining room, which resembles a suburban country club restaurant circa 1992. In Cantonese, this place is called Foo Lum. One of the legacies of being a British colony is that official business was, for a long time, done exclusively in English, which meant that businesses were all legally named in English. So there is only one Forum restaurant, but there are about three dozen Foo Lums. Every Tong, Duk, and Ho-Lee who opened a restaurant between the years 1977 and 1987 tried to cash in on Forum’s popularity by giving his place the same Cantonese name—and of course this had no legal repercussions.
Anyway, the Forum is most famous for its abalone, which is stunning in its depth of flavor and possesses the yielding, rubbery chew that is so prized. But the abalone is also egregiously expensive—if you want it, expect to drop at least $100 for about 4 ounces of just the middle-quality stuff. But the other food coming out of the kitchen is also very well executed and deeply flavored, some dishes making use of the braising liquid from the abalone. And there is a ridiculous deal at lunch—four dishes for about $60, a wonderful meal for four. 485 Lockhart Rd., Causeway Bay (011-852-2891-2555)
7. Lok Yuen, the King of Beef Ball Chiu Chaw Noodle
It may be a small principality, but can you resist royalty? (Well, in Hong Kong, every place is a king of one kind or another, so you will have to resist eventually.) But this place has an interesting dish—noodles with beef meatballs that contain a pocket of juice that explodes when you bite into them. In theory, they’re filled with fish maw, but since fish maw (the gelatinous belly of… I don’t know what fish, really) is one of the most prized ingredients in the cuisine, you’re probably not getting the real thing. No matter. The meatballs are springy and chewy in a pleasing way, beefy and peppery, and the rich juice inside is a lot of fun. 11 Fa Yuen St., Mongkok (011-852-2384-0496).
8. Tai Ping Koon
This is a true Hong Kong classic, though if the Forum looks like it was last redone in the ’90s, this place hasn’t changed in 40 years. My father remembers his father taking him here once a year when they were feeling flush, and its old sense of dignity overshadows its rundown appearance. It’s one of the birthplaces of what we call “Soy Sauce Western Food,” which is basically what happens when you make Western food with soy sauce instead of all the pain-in-the-ass sauces of the European kitchen. The food isn’t quite as simplistic as that, but it’s a fun name for a cuisine that incorporates Cantonese flavors and sensibilities into Western food with a post-War flair. Think braised beef tongue in a tomatoey sauce over spaghetti, or corned beef tongue (oh yeah), or smoked pomfret, which is rich and yielding. The Swiss Chicken Wings are also classic, so named because an Englishman once exclaimed that they were “Sweet! Sweet!” and the owner misheard him as saying “Swiss! Swiss!” As an aside, this place also has the best beef chow fun I had in Hong Kong. 6 Pak Sha Rd., Causeway Bay (011-852-2576-9161)