Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Eating in Hong Kong

The good news is that my stomach issues on the flight the other day didn't last into our trip. I seem to have regained my healthy 2 year old toddler appetite.

The bad news is that my father seems to have developed his own stomach issues. I suppose that's part of the deal when you travel to remote places in the world.

But when eating local cuisine is so important to my father, it truly was a shame when he came down with a mild (but annoying) case of food poisoning our last day here. But before we go into that story, here's how we got there.

Friday - Serenade Dim Sum
Our first morning here in Hong Kong was a dim sum filled blur. After walking from the Grand Hyatt over to the Star Ferry terminal, we took the HK$2.50 ($0.32 USD) ride over Victoria Harbour to Kowloon to walk along the Avenue of the Stars. We heard about a nice dim sum place called Serenade that opened at 9AM (most places don't open so early), so we had our first meal in proper Hong Kong fashion.


Unlike the casual dim sum places we frequent in New York City's Chinatown, Serenade did not have those carts. Instead, there was a paper menu that you checked off with your desired dishes, and then a wait staff would bring them over as they were ready. My mother much preferred to see the items on a cart before choosing, but she went along with the menu format. The problem with that style of service, however, was that we had no control over the pace (or order) of the food coming out.

The first serving was primarily what I'd consider the dessert dishes, baked pastries shaped like a goose or an octopus. Then, the next wave of food came in rapid succession. The small wooden bowls piled up so high that we undoubtedly looked like greedy pig American tourists next to the more civilized pace employed by our local Hong Kong neighbors.

Friday - Sheung Kee
We had eaten so much at breakfast that we skipped lunch altogether and just saved our stomachs for dinner at a local seafood restaurant recommended to us by my favorite aunt. Perhaps restaurant is too generous a term, because it was actually a pair of food stalls located on the upper floor of a fish market in a more authentically local part of town called Happy Valley. When the taxi dropped us off at 9PM at the market, we were skeptical when they started to pull down the gates to close the facility. However, my father found another entrance that remained open and had escalators going upstairs. Eventually, we made it to the 2nd floor (or what I would call the 3rd floor) and saw the large glass windows into the dining area.


As soon as we entered, we were ambushed by several vendors who were all trying to get us to sit down at one of their tables. We weren't prepared for this and was taken aback, but eventually found a menu with Sheung Kee written on it.


Apparently, there are two different food stalls operating in this area and they compete for customers. I have to say that many people seemed happy with their food, so I'm not sure that one stall was any better than the other.

As many of my self-proclaimed foodie friends would appreciate, we were surrounded by local Hong Kong patrons. In fact, for most of the time we were there, my mother and I were the only non-Asians in the entire place. But as Stuff White People Like stated, we were knocked down a peg when we saw another Caucasian couple with their own baby wheel into the place.

But nevertheless, we found an English menu and ordered two entrees that people around us seemed to be enjoying - a spicy chili/garlic crab and razor clams with garlic and vermicelli.


While our meals were very tasty and the environment definitely lent our dining experience some street cred, we were surprised that the prices weren't cheap - definitely not street food levels.

Saturday - Maxim City Hall
The next morning, we went back to dim sum for breakfast, but this time, we went to the infamous Maxim City Hall, a massive, well-trafficked location in the upstairs of a government building. Unlike Serenade which opened at 9AM, Maxim didn't open its doors until 11AM, which we found out when we arrived at 10:15AM.

If you've never been before, it's quite easy to not find the place. There are no visible signs (at least not in English) from the street where a taxi would drop you off.

But after walking down the sidewalk beside the columns, you'll eventually enter a large hall with deep purple carpeting. Along the right, you'll see stairs heading up to Maxim Restaurant.


After wandering around for about 30 minutes, we decided to just head upstairs. To our surprise, we found out that we weren't the only ones anxious to get some dim sum at 11AM sharp. There were probably about 50 people waiting by the time we got in line at around 10:45AM. But luckily, the restaurant is pretty massive and had no problem getting about 200+ people in at the same time.


To my mother's pleasure, this dim sum format was the more traditional cart style where you could see what you were ordering and be served at your own pace. In addition to what was offered in the multiple carts roaming around the room, you also had a small menu of options you could order. We went for the roast goose and honey roasted pork dishes.

We have to say that the quality of the dim sum was definitely better than the NYC Chinatown places we were used to, but they were also priced accordingly for that premium.

Saturday - Street Food Noodle Soup
By now, we'd had our fill of dim sum and we skipped lunch again that day. Later on that afternoon, we happened to be walking around the Mong Hok district of upper Kowloon shopping for gifts when we stumbled upon a small dirty alley that had a food stand inside with a lot of customers slurping noodle soups. Of course, my parents were intrigued and just got in line.

There were no tourists and no signs in English. While many of my travelers friends actively seek out such obscure opportunities (prioritizing authenticity over quality/enjoyment), we saw these aspects as negatives. First, we find comfort in validation from palettes that are comparable to ours. Second, we like knowing what the prices are as well as what we're ordering. Fortunately, the men working the tables were proficient enough in English to spit out the words "fish ball beef wonton" which we understood to mean that we had three flavor options: fish ball, beef, or wonton dumplings.


After securing our seats in the corner when some customers finished their soups, we ordered one beef and one fish ball soup with white noodles in each. The dishes were pretty good and flavorful. Definitely worth trying if you enjoy noodle soups and affordable (HK$26 each, or about $3.35 USD). In fact, we ate here again on Monday afternoon when were back in the neighborhood.


Sunday - Conrad Hotel's Garden Cafe
After a few days of eating exclusively Asian food, we took a break and took advantage of some Western options. That morning, we had a complimentary breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant for being Hilton Gold elite members. I don't remember exactly, but regular prices for breakfast buffet were ~HK$300 (or about $39 USD) per person.

Similar to the bountiful options that dim sum offered a few days before, we had a wide selection of breakfast options at the Conrad's Garden Cafe.





Sunday - Great Food Hall
For lunch, we were on our way back to the Conrad Hotel after a morning out walking around the Central area. Instead of opting for the pricey restaurants, though, we went to the western style grocery store located in the shopping center below the Conrad. We picked up a roast beef/brie sandwich and some other snacks and made our own in-room service.

Sunday - McDonald's
And to cap off our Western Sunday, we decided to have some McDonald's while we were up at Victoria Peak that evening. It was around 8PM when my father ordered his Quarter Pounder and my mother her Big & Tasty meal.

As much as McDonald's tries to maintain consistency across all their locations, we could definitely taste a difference in texture to their beef patties. They were fluffier in Hong Kong than the flat meat patties we were used to in America. Nevertheless, my parents ate their burgers and didn't think twice.

That was until around 2AM early Monday morning when my father awoke from his slumber. I know this, because I was already awake (remnants of jetlag) and greeted him with a sweet "Hi, Daddy!" as he got up. His stomach pains had grown to become quite bothersome and he spent the next few hours running back and forth to the bathroom, either sitting on or by the toilet.

While he was clearly in discomfort and pain at the wee hours of the night, I was ready to play. As many of you fellow toddlers know, sometimes you need to cry and whine to get what you want. What I wanted, was for my father to get out of bed and play with me as I played puzzles on the iPad. I didn't want to be in the bed with my parents, though. I wanted to be in the chair across the room with my father sitting beside me helping me. Despite his many attempts to relocate back to the bed, I made sure he didn't. As you might imagine, he was not pleased with me that night.

Fast forward to Monday 8AM when my mother awoke to find my father passed out mumbling something about him being sick. She asked if she could get him anything or if she should stay to take care of him, but my father wouldn't hear of it. He told her to take me to breakfast downstairs. No reason for everyone to miss a full meal.

My father spent the rest of our final day fighting off nausea and frequenting the men's room. His loss of appetite, however, was a better indicator of his discomfort. Since that fateful McDonald's meal the night before, he skipped eating altogether that Monday, with only an occasional sip of water to avoid dehydration.

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