Monthly Archives: October 2016

Dining at a Dai Pai Dong

Continuing on my NYC-Vancouver-Hong Kong trip report, I finally make it to Hong Kong. After some disappointing, although decent, dining stops on my last trip, I decided to mostly eat at restaurants in the Michelin guide this time.

Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop
Shop 3016-3018, 3F
IFC, 1 Harbor View Street
Central, Hong Kong

The first stop was Tasty Congee & Noodle Wantun Shop in the IFC Mall, which is a bib gourmand recommended restaurant (meaning the food isn’t up to par to get a Michelin star, but good enough to be considered a decent restaurant with good value). I went there for lunch around 2PM, and it was a breeze to get a table after the post-lunch crowd had departed. I browsed the menu, which had dishes ranging from congee to dim sum to noodle soups. While I wanted to try a number of dishes, a limited budget and stomach capacity meant I only ordered the following:

img_4435

Wonton Noodle Soup at Tasty

  • House Specialty Wonton Noodles In Soup (正斗鮮蝦雲呑麵) – The soup was fantastic, with a broth that was light but also had a nice amount of dried fish and shrimp flavor. The yellow chives were flavorful and the wontons had a nice, light skin with a good amount of plump shrimp. The only thing that was disappointing was the slightly overcooked noodles, but that was only one flaw in an overall very well executed (if small) dish.
img_4436

Stir Fried Rice Noodles with Beef at Tasty

  • Stir Fried Rice Noodles With Beef (干炒牛河) – One of their signature items, the dish did not disappoint. The rice noodles, thin beef slices, bean sprouts, scallions, and soy sauce were perfectly stir fried with a nice amount of “wok hei”. While the dish got a little oily in the end (though still not as oily as most renditions), the freshly stir fried flavor remained all the way through as I devoured the whole plate. While this dish is fairly simple, this was definitely the best rendition of the noodles I have tasted.

All in all, Tasty was a good start to my Hong Kong food adventures. The prices certainly weren’t bad too, especially given the location in one of Hong Kong’s fancier malls.

Sing Kee 盛記
9-10 Stanley Street
Central, Hong Kong

While lunch was at a restaurant in a fancy mall, my dinner was anything but. As I had never dined in a dai pai dong (大牌檔) before, I decided that this was my time, especially given that the number of them continue to decline.

For a little bit of background, dai pai dongs are street food stalls that were once ubiquitous in Hong Kong (somewhat similar in vein to New York hot dog stands or Los Angeles taco trucks). The name comes from the big license plates they had to operate that were given by the Hong Kong government in the 1950s and 1960s. However, because of sanitary and other issues, they stopped giving more of them out in the 1970s and the licenses can only be handed down by family. The combination of the restrictions in licenses and the rise of cooked food centers (to establish a more centralized, sanitary place for food stalls) means that the number of true dai pai dongs (where the stall is on the street and not just a store front with street/sidewalk tables) has shrunk to just a couple dozen.

Given the precipitous decline of dai pai dongs, I decided to eat at one of the most accessible and highly rated one still in existence, Sing Kee. Sing Kee is located near the end of Stanley Street, a street in Central that is also the home of the venerable roast goose vendor Yat Lok. It’s only open in the evening and like most other dai paid dongs, is cash only. You take a seat on a free stool on an open table and then take a look at its one page sticky, laminated menu which has just a few dozen stir fry dishes in traditional Chinese and English. I ordered the following:

Pork Ribs and Chinese Broccoli at Sing Kee

Pork Ribs and Chinese Broccoli at Sing Kee

  • Pork Ribs in Salt and Pepper (椒鹽排骨) – Unlike the big slices of fried pork chops that you get at most Cantonese restaurants in the US that serve this dish, these were small spareribs, like the ones you would eat at dim sum, that are fried to perfection. The wok hei was great and the fried scallions and thin slices of peppers that accompanied this dish were excellent.
  • Garlic Stir Fried Chinese Broccoli (蒜茸芥蘭)- While stir fried vegetables are not on the main menu, like most Cantonese restaurants you can just ask what fresh, seasonal vegetables they have available. This time I ordered the Chinese broccoli which were very fresh and flavorful with the perfect amount of garlic stir fried to accompany it. It’s not necessarily the best plate of Chinese broccoli I’ve ever had, but it was pretty darn good.

All in all, I can see how dai pai dongs have a certain nostalgia and appeal that won’t be matched at a cooked food center, no matter how the good is at the food stalls there. There is something about grabbing a quick, cheap bite of food out on the street as the flurry of lights and foot traffic surround you. It certainly isn’t the most sanitary way to cook food, but the food is great and the ambiance is unbeatable. If people travel to Hong Kong, they should definitely eat one meal at a dai pai dong before they are all gone in a generation or two.

American Airlines Inaugural LAX-HKG Flight

What’s it like to fly on the first flight of a route an airline just opens up? I was about to find out on this trip since I was lucky enough that my cheap Hong Kong fare coincided with America Airlines’ first flight from LA to Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific 889
JFK-YVR, Business Class
September 4, 2016

But first, a little diversion to Cathay Pacific. When I was originally planning this trip, it had only included New York (to see Hamilton and the US Open) and Vancouver (because I just love the city). To get from New York to Vancouver I used 25,000 of my American Airlines miles to fly business class on Cathay Pacific. While I have flown first and business class a few times, I’ve never done it on a non-US airline so I decided that I could splurge a little and give it a try. Rarely does a non-US, Canadian, or Mexican airline flight across North America, but Cathay Pacific does on this specific route to pick up passengers in New York and Vancouver on they way to Hong Kong.

I cleared security a few minutes before boarding started (50 minutes before departure time) and by the time I got to the gate they were already boarding economy. Since I had no time to spare, I just boarded my flight, forgoing my usual ritual of a latte or hot chocolate.

Cathay Pacific Business Class Menu

Cathay Pacific Business Class Menu

Once I was seated the flight attendants immediately offered me a choice of cranberry juice, orange juice, or water. I sipped on some water and then drank some cranberry juice on their second round of pre-departure beverage service. As boarding ended and the doors were about to close, I was given the menu for the flight, which you can see above.

fullsizerender

Stir fried beef with rice on Cathay Pacific

Since it’s just a transcontinental flight, they only have one meal service, which is fine given that this flight is also a red eye flight as well. The starter of mixed salad with balsamic vinnaigrette was decent. The greens were fresh and the dressing was pretty standard, so I would call it a nice, run of the meal salad you would find as a salad starter at a decent chain restaurant.

For the entree I got the stir fried beef and sesame seeds with pak choy, carrot, and jasmine rice. The food was delicious. The soy based stir fry sauce flavored the slices of beef well without being too overpowering or gloppy. The vegetables were thinly sliced and pretty fresh. The rice was fluffy and perfectly cooked. This was, by far, the best airline meal I’ve ever had, which admittedly is a fairly low bar these days. I guess I would say that I have found decent mid-range Chinese restaurants that do a poorer job than Cathay Pacific’s business class catering.

img_4380

Oriental Breeze, Cathay Pacific Signature Mocktail

As for dessert, I got the cheese plate, which had a few small wedges of chese, grapes, and crackers. It was pretty decent and certainly a nice change for the pints of sugared up ice cream that is ubiquitous on trans-oceanic economy class flights. In addition to my many cups of Hong Kong Milk tea, I got Cathay Pacific’s “signature drink” mocktail, the Oriental Breeze, which is a mix of plum tea, cranberry juice, honey, and fresh lemon juice with a small dried rosebud as a garnish. It was pretty refreshing and not overly sweet.

American Airlines 193
LAX-HKG, Economy Class
September 7, 2016

Now back to my post about the inaugural flight. I arrived at LAX from SFO around 8:30, hours before my scheduled 1:55AM departure. After grabbing dinner and catching up on email at the Admirals Lounge, I headed over to the gate around 12AM as the festivities were beginning.

img_4423

Kee Wah Catering for AA LAX-HKG Inaugural

I had high hopes for the festivities given that dim sum was served at the festivities of the inaugural DFW-HKG flight. At LAX there were the requisite lion dancers, a speech, and a ribbon cutting ceremony. Sadly there wasn’t any dim sum, but American Airlines did do some pastry catering from Kee Wah. There were “pineapple” buns, red bean buns, and egg tarts. I zoomed in on the egg custard tarts, which had a nice egg-rich filling and flakier crust that typifies a Kee Wah egg custard tart. They also gave out tiny mooncakes, given that the Mid-Autumn Festival was a little over a week away. I snagged one lotus seed paste and one red bean paste one. When I tasted both the weekend after the Mid-Autumn festival, both were decent but not anywhere near the quality of the lotus seed paste ones I had bought in Hong Kong.

Once we boarded the flight we were given menus which you can see below:

img_4428-cropped

AA LAX-HKG Inaugural Menu

During the first meal course I opted for the seared shrimp with Shanghai noodles. To put it mildly, they were absolutely dreadful. It was like eating the chow mien at a shady Chinese buffet as they are about to close. The most distinctive flavors were oil cooked too long and the freezer burn of frozen shrimp.

img_4430

Shrimp with Shanghai Noodles on AA 193

The second meal service was a little bit better. The ratatouille stromboli was like an oversized, decent empanada with a nice tomato stew filling. The gelato was great too and I liked it even better than the mini cups of Haagen Dazs that are so ubiquitous on other long haul flights I have flown.

img_4433

Chinese dim sum with egg noodles on AA 193

The third meal service was pretty decent too. I chose the Chinese dim sum with fried egg noodles. While I wouldn’t say that the dim sum or noodles were great, they were decent for economy class airline food, about as good as dim sum and noodles would be at a cheap takeout place in San Francisco, Oakland, or New York’s Chinatowns.

img_4432

Milk tea on AA 193

What I liked the most, however, was that American Airlines’ Hong Kong routes serve Hong Kong milk tea in economy on their flights (unlike Cathay Pacific). While my first cup was a bit rough given that this senior White flight attendant had no experience making milk tea (the tea was too weak and there was too little condensed milk), the cups were progressively better as the flight went on. Though the food on American Airlines isn’t quite impressive (even compared to Cathay Pacific economy), I do love unlimited cups of Hong Kong milk tea.

All in all, it looks like airline food is getting a little better. On my return flight I got a perfectly done fish dish, which was volumes better than the Shanghai noodles. Props to both Cathay Pacific and American Airlines for overall good flights with decent food. Airline food certainly is not as down in the doldrums as it was a decade or two ago.

Dim Sum in Vancouver

After a whirlwind day and a half in New York, I boarded a plane an headed to Vancouver to avoid Hurricane Hermine. While in hindsight I would have been fine staying in New York, the extra day in Vancouver allowed me to sample a couple more Chinese restaurants that have been on my list. It helped that both of the hotels I was staying at were in Richmond, which is the epicenter or Chinese food in Vancouver. So after sleeping in, I just strolled along to grab some dim sum at the following places.

Chef Tony
4600 No. 3 Road #101
Richmond, BC V6X 2C2

Chef Tony opened up a couple of years ago to much hype and fanfare. Why? It was opened by Tony He, the proprietor that also had owned Sea Harbour, an acclaimed restaurant that serves top notch cuisine in both Richmond, BC and Rosemead, CA (right outside of LA). Naturally, given its pedigree, I thought I should give it a try.

Once I checked into the Westin, I dropped off my stuff and walked 15 minutes to the restaurant. While the Westin typifies minimalist modern chic, walking into Chef Tony was anything but minimal or chic. Some may call it fancy, but I definitely thought it was over the top and gaudy. In my opinion it was a shoddy attempt at being hip and fancy, like if an Aloft hotel lobby decided to add 10,000 plastic chandeliers and become a restaurant.

Provoking decor aside, I was really there to see how the food tasted. So after absorbing the decor, I look a cursory look at the menu and ordered the following (note, some of the English names are approximate as I can only find the Chinese names on my receipt):

Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings at Sun Sui Wah

Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings at Chef Tony

  • Shrimp and Matsutake Dumplings (松茸蝦餃皇) – There’s actually no matsutake in this dumpling, but regardless they were delicious. The dumpling wrappers were on point, not being too sticky and delicately tearing off with easy when biting. The shrimp filling was subtly seasoned, but just enough to bring out the freshness of the shrimp. These might be as close to a shrimp dumpling made in Hong Kong that I have found on this side of the Pacific.
  • Scallop Noodle Rolls (白玉帶子腸粉) – Sadly, the masterful technique present in the har gow did not translate to the noodle rolls. The noodle rolls were a bit sticky and did not hold the scallop well at all. On the other hand, the scallops were very large and nice. The sauce was on the side too, which allowed you to put the perfect amount of sauce you want on the noodle rolls.
Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts at Chef Tony

Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts at Chef Tony

  • Fried Sticky Rice Roll with Peanuts (脆皮糯米卷) – When I wanted to try something more innovative, I thought these might be nice. Unfortunately, I think the rice was undercooked and it was far too tough, crisp, and chewy overall.
  • Chef Tony Special Egg White Custard Tarts (酥皮奶香蛋撻) – The egg white custards on these were very nice. It was like a beautiful steamed egg that just happened to be on a perfectly done egg custard tart shell. While I think I prefer a regular egg custard chart with a richer experience, this was an interesting and less sweet adventure.

Overall, it seems like when Chef Tony does something well, it does them real well. However, on dishes that miss the mark, they are definitely not that great. I’ll just have to come back and try more dishes to give a better judgement.

Sun Sui Wah
4930 No. 3 Road #102
Richmond, BC V6X 3A5

The last time I was in Vancouver I actually wanted to come out to Sun Sui Wah instead of Kirin. However, Kirin’s City Hall location was more convenience for my itinerary. I definitely loved Kirin but it was time to finally time to try Sun Sui Wah now that it was more convenient for me.

I made a reservation for 1 at 11:30AM and thank God I did. As I expected, it was packed and the only way I got a seat was that they literally created a small table for me right behind the hostess desk near the entrance way. It made for less inviting ambience, but I still preferred the understated elegance of the part of the dining room I did see to the gaudy mess of Chef Tony. Even better, my seat faced the TV which was playing a US Open match.

Because they took a few minutes to set up my table, they asked me to order while I waited. I ticked off the menu, ordering the following:

  • Prawn Dumpling (水晶蝦餃皇) – Unlike Chef Tony, these were sadly the type of large, overgrown shrimp dumplings that pervade many of the top Cantonese restaurants in the US and Canada. The shrimp filling, while being tasty with a little bamboo shoot, were also too large. As such, the wrappers were abysmal, being too sticky and falling apart too easily because it tries to accommodate too much filling. TL;DR, it tastes good but the technique is subpar.
Truffle Scallop Dumpling at Sun Sui Wah

Truffle Scallop Dumpling at Sun Sui Wah

  • Truffle Scallop Dumpling (黑松露帶子餃) – If I thought the har gow were a bit large…it has nothing on these scallop dumplings. The wrapper were actually decent for these but the fillings were a bit too large. Don’t get me wrong, the scallop was very tasty, and what scallop eater doesn’t like a large, fresh scallop? However it was perhaps too big for the wrapper and the amount of truffle almost overpowered the scallop as well.
Shanghai Vegetable Bun at Sun Sui Wah

Shanghai Vegetable Bun at Sun Sui Wah

  • Shanghai Vegetable Bun (上海素菜包) – While I don’t order steamed buns in general, I needed a vegetarian item without paying an arm and a leg for a small plate of Chinese Broccoli. These were actually pretty good with a tasty diced vegetable filling that included mushrooms and napa cabbage. I really liked these.
Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce at Sun Sui Wah

Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce at Sun Sui Wah

  • Steamed Milk with Ginger Sauce (薑汁燩奶) – This was fantastic. A little sweet with a slight kick from the ginger, I felt like I was eating fluffs of heaven. The steamed milk also was nearly perfect textually as well, not being too watery and holding its shape very well.

While Sun Sui Wah could do a bit of work making their dumplings better proportionally, the flavors were very great. I think I still prefer Kirin overall, but I can see why Sun Sui Wah is immensely popular and constantly on top dim sum lists.

Overall, the quality and innovation of Vancouver area dim sum restaurants still make the area the place to beat when it comes to dim sum in North America. However, I can also say that the quality of the top places in San Francisco and Los Angeles, like Dragon Beaux, are now about as good as Vancouver’s top places. So while it doesn’t mean you need to go to Vancouver anymore to taste the best dim sum in North America, I do think the quality is still consistently better overall.