in hong kong’s central, time-tested culinary gems abound at centennial street stalls, traditional ‘ice chamber’ coffee houses and michelin guide-ranked casual diners.
the skin, paper-thin and glistening with oil, sheaths a thin layer of well-rendered fat coating juicy, suitably gamey meat. the most popular cut, the drumstick, sells out quickly; most diners simply order half or a whole bird to share and no one ever complains it’s too much. seating is a squeeze, as most eateries in land-scarce hong kong are, so dap toi (sharing tables) is an everyday culture. it’s certainly not the kind of place to catch up over a meal or linger but one where you order, eat, pay and clear out as fast and efficiently as the service and just as quickly, those waiting in line step in and take your place.
on the surface, there is nothing about yat lok that suggests it should have a spot in the well-respected michelin guide, which introduced its hong kong-macau edition five years ago, yet it has been ranked a bib gourmand since 2011. recognised for the quality and good value of its food – in hong kong, that translates to a three-course meal that can be had for under hkd300 – yat lok is what locals call a siu mei (chinese barbecue) restaurant. an assortment of unctuous proteins are available but it’s their roast goose that is worth queuing up for, best paired with steamed white rice and elevated with lashings of chopped ginger and spring onions in oil, a genius of a condiment that belies its simplicity.
goose gourmets had given yat lok their thumbs up even before michelin’s inspectors began their rounds, preferring its authenticity over the other central institution that’s just a few minutes away, yung kee. from a tiny stall that sold its first roast goose in 1942 to the mammoth of a restaurant it is now (it occupies five shoplots), yung kee has come to be considered a touristy joint although it draws its fair share of regulars. yet, it has only managed to hold on to its one michelin star for two years.
the annual restaurant guide may not be the definitive reference – although it comes pretty close – but it’s certainly a helpful tool to navigate hong kong’s varied culinary scene, with the bib gourmand nominees particularly loved for their affordable price points and more than decent offerings. kau kee restaurant is a respected name on this list, with a history that goes back nine decades and never wavering from its singular niche: beef noodles.
what looks like a fairly long menu is really a detailed list of what is essentially three cooking styles – in a rich herb broth, starchy curry or tossed in oyster sauce – with your choice of noodles and cut. the brisket in broth is their top seller, the sinewy bovine simply divine and melts in the mouth while the soup is a beautiful balance of bone stock and herbs.
kau kee opens at 12.30pm on the dot and not a second sooner, but the line of eager diners starts forming around noon and stretches along the pedestrian walkway. if you’re a party of more than one, consider sending your companion across the road for a takeaway snack while waiting, from sing heung yuen. this most famous dai pai tong (street food stall) in central is mobbed by the office crowd and construction site workers at lunch, vying for a place at the foldable tables and stools shaded under large umbrellas and tarpaulin sheets.
sing’s macaroni in tomato soup is famous; the tangy, watery broth really doesn’t do anything for the palate but the dish is a traditional staple that makes for easy comfort food. you can add some pizzazz to it by asking for a pork chop or fried egg on top.
wash it down with a serving of creamy milk tea, a beverage that is synonymous with bing sutt (‘ice chamber’, which are old-school coffee shops) such as lan fong yuen. the entrance to lan fong yuen is hidden behind the dai pai tong that marked its beginnings circa 50 years ago, when customers would park themselves on low stools fronting the stall and tuck into pineapple or pork chop buns, sandwiches and macaroni in soup.
yuen’s most famous offering is their proprietary ‘pantyhose’ milk tea, so named as the fabric sieve used to filter the creamy concoction takes on the appearance of nude silk stockings after countless pours. never mind the analogy, the drink goes down like a dream whether you enjoy it hot or iced.
for old times’ sake, enjoy your cuppa while seated at the stall and observe the going-ons at the open-air street market that lan fong yuen blends so seamlessly into. walk through the lively bazaar for a crash course in the fresh produce favoured by local chefs and housewives, and to burn off calories to make room for sweets.
at the corner of elgin street and hollywood road, yuk yip dessert is parked on the sloped kerbside, the menu crudely hand-painted on wooden boards that hang in front of and by the side of the stall’s dark green fixtures. yuk yip serves a mixed selection of rice dishes, noodles and light bites but it’s their tong sui (sweet dessert soups) that has upheld their reputation for nearly a century now, faithfully made using the same recipes perfected through four generations. the red bean and sesame variants are among the fastest selling items, known for their pure flavours and smooth texture.
contrastingly, crumbly and custardy are the key characteristics one looks for in another popular sweet treat: the ubiquitous egg tart, and the vote is unanimous for tai cheong bakery’s version. the last british governor of hong kong, chris patten, was their most prolific customer, a fact that helped boost the 60-year-old patisserie’s worth although that didn’t stop it from closing down for a year due to rising rent. in 2006, it reopened as part of the tao heung group and expanded very quickly into a chain that’s now more than 20-outlet strong but the original central outlet is the one most make a beeline for.
their egg tarts are cheerful looking sunshine-yellow confections that encase luscious custard in aromatic, buttery shells and fly off the shelves by the boxes, along with sa yung, sugar-coated dough puffs that are crispy on the outside and spongey within. also known as hong kong-style doughnuts, it’s a well-loved traditional snack that’s not commonly available these days, making it a specialty that’s sought after.
just as its streets teem with vehicular and pedestrian traffic all day and night while its skyline perennially inches upwards, central’s culinary landscape is a flavoursome hot pot of myriad gratifying eats prepared by chefs who are constantly reaching for the stars.
> yat lok g/f, 34-38 stanley street opens 7am-7pm, mon-sat; 9am-3.30pm, sunday & public holidays
> yung kee 32-40 wellington street opens 11am-11.30pm daily except first three days of chinese new year
> kau kee 21 gough street opens 12.30pm-10.30pm, mon-sat
> sing heung yuen 2 mei lun street opens 8am-5.30pm, mon-sat
> lan fong yuen 2 gage street opens 7am-6pm daily
> yuk yip 2 elgin street, near hollywood street opens 12pm-12.30am
> tai cheong 35 lyndhurst terrace opens 7.30am-9pm, mon-sat; 8.30am-9pm, sun & public holidays
this story first appeared in the edge review