Category Archives: beef

Glutton Abroad: Taipei Bang-bang

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

Clear and standard versions of the namesake dish at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

On the way over to Taipei, I saw an episode of the TV show “Louie”, which features American comedian Louis CK. In this episode, Louie and his friend brother engage in a practice they refer to as “bang-bang”: having a full meal at one venue before going to a completely different type of place and getting a second full meal there. There are different combinations they play with before deciding on “Indian-diner”, which, to me, is just an OK combination since you can cheat on the “diner” side of the quotation with just a Greek salad or something, whereas something like “Italian-barbecue” is a real, full-on, genuine pig-out. (This, from the person with $^%&ing GERD.)

Anyway, when they are talking to the waitress at the diner later, Louie treats his “bang-bang” mission as something to be hidden and ashamed of. This marks my first disconnect of the day: that this is something to hide away. Because I do this shit all the time. It is called “lunch” and “second lunch”. Sometimes it is “second breakfast”. I am too old to have “second dinners” anymore. The point is that this is perfectly normal behavior that every food lover worth his or her own weight in potato chips understands and engages in. Sometimes there is not enough time to try everything you want to try. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it! What’s the problem?

Faced with only two full days in Taipei, I was grappling with this very conundrum myself. There are a gazillion eateries in Taiwan’s capital, and only a few hours to taste them all. Do you think this meant I would have to do without something or other? HELL NAW. It was my first time in Taipei, and my very first experience with real Taiwanese food. I wasn’t going to chuck this opportunity with concerns about “diet” or “health” or “looking nice”, etc.

Thais like to consider Cantonese food the foundation of all great Chinese food. They say Cantonese food is the epitome of classical Chinese cooking, and a celebration of the light, natural flavors coaxed out of superior ingredients. I find this interesting because, even now, I still don’t get it. I still find it leaden and unappetizing, coated in gelatinous, saliva-like sauces. I know I am in the minority here, and likely traumatized from my childhood spent in every Cantonese restaurant located between Pittsburgh-Cleveland.

But no, I see Taiwanese food as the real embodiment of this light/natural aesthetic — minimal manipulation with great ingredients, minimal fuss, and unusual, thought-provoking combinations. The great difference between this and what Thais like is that there is no grand wallop of flavor. It’s introverted food, subtle, a little cerebral … some might even call it retiring or shy. It takes a little time with a dish to get to know it well. It’s not out to seduce, like Thai food, or wearing its resume on its sleeve, Cantonese-style. In this way, I feel like I can relate to Taiwanese food in a way I can’t with the more ESFP-geared charms of a place like Thailand or Hong Kong.

So when there were three places I really wanted to hit on Yong Kang Street, one of Taipei’s most well-known areas for food, I was determined to find them all (a “bang-bang-bang”, if you will). The first, and most obvious, is the famed xiaolongbao eatery Din Tai Fung, an Asia-wide dumpling empire that has been lauded by the New York Times. Its flagship is just around the corner, on Xinyi Road, and is a huge tourist draw. How much of a tourist draw? The girl in front speaks fluent Thai, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese and Cantonese. Despite its tourist attraction status, its famous soup dumplings may be even better than anywhere else. The standard pork and chicken soup dumplings are available, but there are also variations like pork and black truffle, which require an entirely different spoon and absolutely no sauce.

Din Tai Fung's pork and truffle soup dumpling

Din Tai Fung’s pork and truffle soup dumpling

The second place featured one of my very favorite noodle dishes in all the world, danzai or “dan dan” noodles. I wanted to make sure I got them at Slack Season Noodles (also known as Tu Hsiao Yueh, located at 9-1 Yong Kang St), started in 1895 by a fisherman who made noodles in the off-time spent away from his fishing boat (hence the name “Slack Season”). Today, there are several branches of this place, but the most famous may be on Yong Kang Street, where a noodle vendor is still located out in front of the dining room, patiently enduring tourists taking endless photos of them.

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

Traditional danzai noodles from Slack Season Noodles

The final, third place was the hardest to get into, featuring the longest, most intimidating line. If it wasn’t called Yong Kang Beef Noodle (No. 17, Lane 31, Secion 2 Jinshan South Rd), I would have certainly walked away, but I didn’t come all this way to wimp out and deprive myself of Taiwan’s famous beef noodles. So in the line I went, listening to countless American tourists walking by and remarking on how some people are so “crazy” as to stand in line for food.

Well, let me tell you, the line was worth it. It’s not a beef noodle like in Thailand, where the broth is either thickened with cow’s blood and a representation of all that is beefy, or a clear broth that ends up being light and refreshing — it’s somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between those two. The broth is hearty and beefy, yet light, and the noodles chewy and satisfying, but it’s that beef that is the real star: thick melting slabs generous marbled and tender enough to be cut with a single chopstick.

beefnoodle

But the real discovery here was the “spicy dumpling”, which featured a sheet of nearly-melting dough around a nicely-seasoned ball of mince, doused in a sauce thickened with fermented tofu. Could I resist a generous dollop of macerated red chili with garlic to accompany it? Of course not.

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

The spicy dumpling at Yong Kang Beef Noodle

 

6 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, food, noodles, restaurant, Taiwan

Glutton Abroad: Dyspeptic in Japan

Everyone always says Japan is a country full of food obsessives, and it feels true. In places like the US — full of work obsessives — and Thailand (where it is chic to pretend to be a work obsessive), it would be considered a complete waste of time to line up for two hours for the perfect soft cream (“fresh!”) cheesecake, or wait outside in the cold for a space at your favorite beef stew restaurant behind Kabuki-za (oh, OK, it’s MY favorite beef stew restaurant). In Japan, this is seen as completely normal behavior. It takes a special blend of desire and commitment to practice this kind of stick-to-itiveness for something many others would dismiss as frivolous.

In Japan, food is not frivolous, and its inevitable discovery is considered a special time in everyone’s life. This is probably why there is such a thing as the “food manga”, comic books which document a person’s first blossoming of culinary interest (a “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” for foodies). This usually takes the form of throwing over one’s job and/or parentally-approved educational plans in favor of a backbreaking, precarious life in the food business. In Thailand, this is typically called “having a nervous breakdown”.  In Japan, it is subverting your own ego to create more beauty in the world.

No great stretch, then, to learn that there are also “wine mangas”: comics which depict the deflowering of the protagonist’s innocence re wine. My friend Ritsuko says they usually fall back on the same narrative as the food manga, except that there are lots of porny shots of sexy wine labels and hot ‘n bothered talk of “terroir”. There is no burgeoning romance, no family drama to distract the reader from the main objective — the love of wine, ideally something French and expensive:

comic1

Here, a lady is discovering her first Burgundy. Whether she is shocked because of the wine’s deliciousness or the price tag, I dunno, my Japanese isn’t that good.

And here, dude is learning how a special set of characteristics manifests itself into the soil to create the best wine evah (aka “terroir”, aka “Only French people can make good wine”.)

comic2

I kid, because I love. I love Japan, and I am a Francophile, so this is a perfect storm of awesomeness for me. I also think France produces the best wine. Haha, who am I kidding. I will guzzle wine from anywhere.

I will also guzzle sake from anywhere, including Awaji Island. Now, Awaji is a special place for Japanese food lovers, because its close proximity to Kobe=wonderful Japanese beef, while its location as the biggest island in the Inland Sea on Japan’s eastern side=great seafood, particularly lobster, abalone and sea urchin. This pretty much would have equalled heaven on earth for me, were I not afflicted with %*&^#$ing GERD (medico-speak for really bad, constant heartburn). I am old.

I wasn’t so afflicted that I couldn’t eat anything, however. Awaji also specializes in red snapper, which I am told is the same thing as sea bream. Really? I see both on restaurant menus all the time, and have noticed how much Japanese people like sea bream. In any case, Awaji Island is Ground Zero for sea bream/red snapper. It’s no surprise that they serve it as sashimi as a first course. It does come as a surprise, however, when your dinner starts moving and gasping on the table as you are taking squares of flesh off its skeleton and dipping them in soy sauce. That is a surprise. If you are old enough to remember Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers and the “Alice in Wonderland”-themed video for “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, where they start cutting pieces of Alice up and serving them as cake, you will understand what eating this sashimi was like.

This fish is still moving

This fish is still moving

If you stick around, you will be rewarded with cooked versions of this fish, grilled until white and juicy and served up alongside fragrant Japanese limes and cooked sakae, or Japanese sea snails (another specialty of the area).

Snapper and sea snails

Snapper and sea snails

As lovely as Awaji was, one could not stay there forever. There was more food to be had in Nagano, which is one of my favorite cities in Japan, no uso. Set almost smack in the middle of Honshu, Nagano acts like the country’s fruit basket — gargantuan apples, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines — but it also abounds in good sake, flour dumplings, grilled, miso-flecked rice cakes, and wild game. The region’s premier culinary specialty, however, might be this:

Nagano's #1 specialty, soba

Nagano’s #1 specialty, soba

Like Thais and their soup noodles, every person in this town will tell you a different place that makes the “best soba”, and they are totally prepared to fight to the death (OK, for the next five minutes) about it. In fact, when asked to go to one soba shop, our taxi driver in Nagano refused, taking us to a different one that he said was better. In the end, it really doesn’t matter where you go because (much like many of Bangkok’s more famous guay thiew shops), you’d have to work hard to find a really, really bad one in Nagano. Most are pretty good, unless you are the world’s most discerning gourmet of soba noodles ever (95% of Japanese people).

Another, far less lauded Nagano specialty is its “apple beef”, made from cows fed on, yes, the region’s famously sweet, juicy, and large apples. Like their more famous Kobe brethren, these cows are massaged regularly so that the fat is distributed throughout the flesh, like this:

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei

Apple beef ready for the sukiyaki pan at Sukitei in Nagano

I’ve come to believe that Japanese-style beef may be that country’s most famous “fusion” food. Popularized during the Meiji Restoration when Japan was coming to grips with Western influence, beef (and “steak”) here have since taken on qualities that are uniquely Japanese. While American beef is about the beef itself — fibers, sinews, blood and all — the flavor characteristics prized by the Japanese are tenderness, fattiness, umami. It’s meat that’s been manipulated from day one, made to be cooked to medium or even medium-well to activate the fat buried within, and then (if served as a steak), grilled before its heady baptism with soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi to cut the greasiness. I’ll be honest: this meat is too much for me, especially in my old lady GERD state. This kind of meat is meant for lucky people with working digestive systems. I’ll be in the corner gnawing on a couple of medium-rare pieces of Porterhouse.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, food, Japan, restaurant

Misson: Sort of possible

Beef noodles at Niyom Pochana in Lampang

It’s no surprise to anyone who knows me when I say that I’m terrible at directions. No matter how hard I try, my mind sort of switches off as the landscape flashes by, and before I know it, I’m where I need to be through no effort of my own.

So maybe it was a bad idea to go to Lampang for the express purpose of trying out some beef noodles I had eaten a few years earlier that I remembered were pretty good. My directions to the hapless, Chiang Rai-born driver we hired for the day: “There are some famous beef noodles at a stall near a temple in town. There is lots of greenery around it.” If we were lucky, this would be enough. How big can Lampang be, amirite?

Not a surprise, then, that we got lost. Many times. It turns out there are lots of temples in Lampang, the third-largest town in Northern Thailand and home to a large deposit of lignite. Go Lampang!

There are also lots of different definitions on “famous beef noodles”. Whereas I meant “delicious noodles with beef in them”, other people took it to mean “the closest noodle shop to where I am right now at this moment”, “that place that I heard might have noodles across town”, and “the barbecued pork on rice place”.

We bulled our way onto various temple grounds, disturbing monks doing their laundry and workers eating their lunches.  We squeezed our van into various dead-end alleys and one-way thoroughfares. Worst of all, we walked — from one end of a road to another, up and down sidewalks, investigating every sign. Let me tell you (please! Let me!), it’s not cool in Northern Thailand’s third-largest town at the moment. It’s not even a little breezy. More than once, we thought: maybe these noodles aren’t that good? Maybe we’ll eat somewhere else? Somewhere close and convenient?

But that’s not what we’re about. The whole point of our existence is to find that One Special Place that will serve us something good and/or do it in an interesting way. It took about three hours to chance upon the one man — a driver of the horse-drawn carriages for which charming little Lampang is known, if Lampang is known for anything at all — who told us to go straight, turn left, turn right, and then left again. Simple! Beef noodles were to be ours, after only half a day spent searching.

Niyom Pochana shopfront

Niyom Pochana — known also as “Oyo” (I don’t know why) — is actually located in the shadow of Muangsat Temple (I knew there was a temple somewhere) on Charoenmuang Road. Its specialty is actually its meatballs, both beef and pork, as well as its generous additions of boiled pork, freshly-blanched beef slices and stewed beef atop soft rice noodles, a clear pork bone broth and a handful of shredded cabbage leaves.

Niyom Pochana meatballs

Don’t be late, because the meatballs can and do run out. Perhaps, next time, barring any more delays (I mean, I can’t get lost again, right? Right?) I will get as many brimming bowlfuls of beef meatballs as I can possibly eat. At least we found the place, and I can rest easy and sated knowing that our hours-long search was worth it.

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

 

6 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, food, food stalls, noodles, Northern Thailand, pork, Thailand

Getting to the meaty part of Chiang Mai

Fish larb at Raan Larb Pa Than

Northern Thailand is a lovely place full of peace-loving people, but their food betrays a bloodthirstiness not readily apparent to the casual observer. There is the dish of light and butterflies known as khao soy and the barely perceptible calf muscle exercises called “Lanna dance”, yes, but there is also bile and blood and innards and raw meat, the stuff you see in the aftermath of a hyena attack, the stuff that people shy away from in the wet market. This is real northern food.

Raan Larb Pa Than, out past the Pa Than bridge, specializes in this type of food. Like everywhere else in the north, it’s full of fun-loving gentle northerners strapping on the feedbag big time; unlike everywhere else, this restaurant specializes in larb dee kom, or minced salad of anything considered delicious, like fish, pork, or beef (no chicken, and pork and beef also come in raw versions). A particular stand-out is their larb of freshwater fish, lighter and more delicate than its bloodier counterparts.

Our neighbor’s table

But larb is not the only thing they have. There is also saa, which, contrary to my earlier understanding, does not refer only to vegetables, but appears to be a term nearly interchangeable with yum — a spicy, tart salad made with chunks of stuff. There is lupia, yet another meat salad term that refers to combining the minced protein with blood and lemongrass to diminish any hints of gaminess. There is yaw (tripe) and jin nung (steamed bull, really) and sai tod (fried innards) alongside the usuals you would want to run to like a child to its mother like gaeng om (clear, tart soup) and som tum (minced vegetable or fruit salad). It’s a place of serious meat eaters AND drinkers — the Saeng Som was out in full force at lunchtime on a Tuesday. It’s food for people who work hard, flavored with dipping sauces and a nam prik tha dang (red-eye chili paste) spicy enough to blow steam out of your ears.

You might need this

Another spot for people who, at the very least play hard, is Midnight Fried Chicken (also somehow known as Midnight Sticky Rice, or Midnight Fried Pork, or likely anything else this place is good at) on Kamphaeng Din Road. As the name suggests, it is open like clockwork at the stroke of midnight, every day, until 5 in the morning.  The clientele reflects this accordingly: young, T-shirted hipsters out on dates or in groups, stuffing themselves with fried things right before bed, as the young frequently do. It is not a place for me, but I was here all the same, and would come again, if only for the heavenly fried pork which, in all fairness, should be the name of this food stall.

Midnight Chicken

You will probably be able to pick out this stall from the queue of hungry clubgoers waiting patiently outside; if you are lucky, as we were, you will get a table roadside instead of a table on a lower level in the back. You pick out your choices by checking the names of dishes you want (in Thai); you serve yourself water from a jug and bin of ice behind the partition. It is, to put it mildly, a down-at-home kind of place. That doesn’t mitigate the enjoyment of stuffing your face full of delicious fried meats with sticky rice and nam prik (chili paste), not one bit. So what if it’s a weeknight? Sleep in late tomorrow, and indulge tonight.

Stuff your face

(All photos by @SpecialKRB)

4 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, Chiang Mai, chicken, fish, food, food stalls, Northern Thailand, pork, restaurant, som tum, Thailand

Glutton Abroad: I dream of African barbecue

Nyama choma with all the fixings, at Governors’ Private Camp

Do you remember the song “Africa” by Toto? If you are of a certain age, of course you do. Picture this: it’s 1907, and we’re listening to Toto at my apartment in Haverford (please don’t ask why). I get into a deeply heated argument with Brian Minier over the lyric “Kilimanjaro rises like a leopress above the Serengeti”. Note the spelling? It’s obviously a female leopard (although the lyric is ridiculous, obviously. In what way would a mountain “rise”? Do female leopards “rise”?) He insists the band is referring to a female leper. Really, Brian? Really?

So when I see Kilimanjaro, looking a bit like melting vanilla sundae, out the window of my ridiculously tiny Cessna (the safari version of the shuttle bus), that lyric gets stuck in my head, and I get indignant all over again.  I mean, who would differentiate between male and female lepers anyway? But, as usual, I digress. Because, while most people go on safari and want to see blah blah leopards blah blah rare rhinos blah blah lions nom-nomming on something, I am on the hunt for something else. I want to be the one nom-nomming on something. I am looking for nyama choma.

“Nyama choma” is basically a cooking term referring to grilled meat — frequently goat, but also beef, pork, mutton, what have you. As is the case with grilled meat of any persuasion, nyama choma is delicious — as seen by the numerous stalls selling it roadside. But for some reason, people don’t seem to believe you want to eat African food. Typical menu offerings at these lodges are “fresh-out-of-the-bush” concoctions like beef carpaccio, roasted pumpkin soup, and grilled fish with Hollandaise sauce. Nice stuff, but some people want to experience new countries through their stomachs, too.

The folks at Singita Sasakwa (www.singita.com), where I first stay, are kind enough to indulge a few requests. One, suggested by my friend James, is “masala fries” — a perfect colonial fusion of Anglo-Indian influences. They are like junk food, they are so good: crispy fries, meaty within, coated with a tangy, salty spice coating of masala and dusted with a bit of parsley. There is no reason why this shouldn’t be in every vending machine in every corner of the globe. I have to figure out how to make these at home.

Masala fries at Singita Sasakwa

They also indulge us with an “African tasting menu” that includes some things I’ve never seen: ugali, maize cooked into a solid mass that resembles glue, meant to serve as the backdrop for everything else; mchicha, a Tanzanian curry of spinach and peanuts; mishkaki, skewered, impossibly tender beef; maharage ya nazi, kidney beans stewed with coconut cream; “coconut rice”, cooked a la risotto, but with coconut milk instead of broth; and a sort of kachumbari that they appear to call chachandu, a tomato-chili relish served alongside grilled tilapia. Of course, it blows everyone away. Why is there not more of this?

At Governors’ Private Camp in Kenya (www.governorscamp.com), we get more English-y stuff the first night — chicken fillet in mushroom gravy and an impossibly tall tower of fluffy mashed potatoes that I cannot help but eat all of — but Patrick and Frank, our stewards, are more than happy and even a little tickled to accommodate a request for nyama choma. The next day they outdo themselves, grilling up strips of beef slathered in a parsley-and-onion speckled kachumbari.

Kachumbari, or tomato-and-chili relish

They also serve up heaping spoonfuls of sukuma wiki, a Kenyan staple dish that literally means “to push the week” and comprises braised, shredded greens studded with bits of tomato, cooked until it falls apart and finished with a bit of cream. Although I’ve had some indifferent versions of this dish, the one here is made with lots of love, “the traditional way”, Patrick tells us.

Traditional sukuma wiki

The next few days are a blur: githeri, a stew of kidney beans and corn, sweet and filling; matoke, made from stewed plaintains in a sweetened tomato-and-onion sauce; mandazi, crispy, giving dough “dumplings”, slightly sweetened, reminiscent of the Thai patongko. Our camp manager Colin tells us that South Africans eat a version of mandazi that is stuffed with mince, another smart Anglo-African fusion dish. If I ever go to South Africa, I am trying that immediately.

But I miss home. I rediscover chilies. Although they are a bit bigger and not as spicy as the prik ki nu (bird’s eye chilies) back home, I remember that it was the Portuguese who were supposed to have brought chilies to Thailand, and that these suckers were probably the ones they brought. So in a way, I have a bit of home at every meal, sprinkled on my fried eggs or tucked into my curries. Enough to tide me over until I get back.

Breakfast

14 Comments

Filed under beef, food, Kenya, Portuguese, Thailand

A very Phuket breakfast

Dim sum in Phuket

There are times when “research” means stuffing yourself with lots and lots and lots of food in a very short period of time. God help me, it was the kind of research I was doing today — namely, three promising stalls, all for breakfast.

Lured by the promise of “beef bamee”, I was excited by the prospect of Guaythiew Rab Arun, a small noodlery in the shadow of Bangkok Phuket Hospital. Alas, they were not as excited by our appearance, and, double-damn, a beefy variation of the popular egg noodles with barbecued pork was also not on the cards. No, this was your run-of-the-mill beef noodle shop: choice of rice vermicelli (sen mee), thin noodles (sen lek) and thick ones (sen yai), with broth that did or did not include cow blood (nam tok). The broth was as good beef broths are, cinnamon-y and sweet; the bowl an unashamed showcase for all sorts of innards — lungs, liver and tripe.

Beef noodles without broth

All very nice — except for the bizarre delay in letting us settle the bill — but nothing I wouldn’t find in Bangkok. On the other hand, I haven’t seen anything quite like the dim sum shop we visited next. When asked the name of the place, a two-room shophouse on Sam Gong Road serving kanom jeeb (Chinese-style steamed dumplings) and a wide variety of little bits, our waitress acts like I have just asked her ATM pin code. “Just ask, everyone knows the Dim Sum Place Down The Road From The Hospital,” she said (TDSPDTRFTH for short). A trayful of plates is deposited onto your table as you sit; you pick what you want, and you are charged, conveyor belt sushi-style, for whatever you choose. Small plates are 10 baht, “big” plates (which are almost the exact same size as the small plates) cost 15.

The tray of goodies at TDSPDTRFTH

Is it the best dim sum ever? Of course not. Is it crazy cheap? Well, that depends on you, but for the most part, why, yes it is. It is indeed cheap. And that is sometimes what I am looking for.

So, a question mark on the first stall, a possible “yes” on the second. The third? A resounding I WILL BE BACK. Pa Mai (at three-way intersection of Sagul and Dibuk roads near Wittaya School, 076-258-037) specializes in curry — curry, and the Mon fermented rice noodles known as kanom jeen, what some people mistakenly translate into “Chinese candy”. A plate of the stuff is handed to you at the front by this nice lady:

Dispenser of kanom jeen

Once you receive your blank canvas, an array of curries awaits your artistry: a trio of nam ya, crab, fish and “jungle” (without coconut milk); chicken green curry, made the old-fashioned way with globs of congealed pork blood; nam prik, a speckled chili-coconut milk concoction that, unlike its terrifying name, is actually quite sweet; gaeng tri pla, or the famous — and fierce — southern fish entrail curry; and because this is the south, nam prik kapi, or shrimp paste chili dip, made to go with the innumerable garnishes that greet you at every table:

A table at Pa Mai

Is there any sight more gladdening than this one? A platter bristling with greenery: tart mango leaves, chewy cashew ones, boiled jackfruit, cubed pineapple, bitter, spice-defying baby eggplants. Soft-boiled eggs for 7 baht. Dried fish. An ajad of thinly-sliced cucumber in a tart-sweet syrup. And a happy variety of pickles (I just love pickles): cabbage, bean sprouts, lotus stems, baby garlic.

My choice (at first): crab nam ya

Best of all, you are only charged 30 baht for the kanom jeen, meaning those curries can be added, mixed, or replenished as you see fit. Really. So I first took some fish nam ya, then some crab. Some green curry. Some nam prik. And then a little left for the fiery tri pla. Don’t judge me.

We have found kanom jeen nirvana, and it is open from 7 to noon.

5 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, curries, food, food stalls, noodles, Southern Thailand, Thailand

Hustling, HK-style

A trio of cold appetizers at Da Ping Huo

Our mission, if we were to accept it, seemed simple enough: in 48 hours in Hong Kong, stuff our faces with as much interesting food as we could. Full of hope and empty of stomach, James and I boarded a plane at daybreak, me slightly the worse for wear after an anniversary dinner at a roadside Isaan stall. The places we were to try were all new, completely blank slates; the food, a staggeringly large amount. If there ever was a time for James to decide he couldn’t stand me and try to drown me in the nearest vat of leftover congee, that time would be now.

A hurried dash through the airport, a quick hop on the train and a confused cab ride later, we wandered along Ship Street with luggage in tow, stopping only once (or maybe twice) to ask for directions. Our destination: Bo Innovation, which, like pickled field crabs, or fermented anchovy, seems to inspire strong feelings in all but the un-foodiest of diners. Labelling itself as “X-treme Chinese cuisine”, BI is helmed by chef Alvin Leung Jr., who “does to Chinese food what Picasso did to art” — impressive indeed. It’s also the kind of outrageous claim that drives diners of a certain unpleasant temperament (me) to find nitpicky fault with everything to emerge from the kitchen.

Trompe de l'oeil "shrimp head" at Bo Innovation

There is no need to be nitpicky here: it is not hard to find fault with the food at Bo Innovation. It’s like Chef Alvin is a “Top Chef” contestant, it’s the Quickfire Challenge, and he whipped up a few dishes that “tell you something about who he is and where he comes from” in 2 hours’ time. A sliver of steak with soy-truffle sauce, predictably yummy save for the addition of “rolled” noodles which add nothing to the dish; “molecular” xiao long bao, or steamed soup dumpling, a spherified jelly that manages to mimic the real thing, but with much less flavor; the pretentiously-named “Dead Garden”, a green savory mousse topped with “soil” and dried enoki mushrooms (is it safe to say we should cool it with the neo-naturalist interpretations of Asian cuisine? They never work). Finally, a a chocolate dessert that James says resembles the Halloween chocolate you find at the back of your closet in April, stale and crumbly; the best thing I can say is that it was not served on a bed of dry ice.

This is the thing about “extreme cuisine”. Except in very rare cases, a lot of it begs the question: Why? Why’d you do it? Only a few chefs are able to answer that question. That’s not to say I hated it; actually, I had a very nice time complaining about stuff. I liked the handmade “lo mein”, part of a dish which mimicked (that again) the flavor and aroma of dried shrimp; the timings were excellent, with hardly any wait between courses; and, coming from a country where the vaunted service often means “smile and run away when someone asks you a question”, the service was smooth and efficient. Needless to say, it is an extremely well-run restaurant, and a fun way to pass the day, once, if you are willing to spend a whole lot of money while passing it.

A place I’d have no problem going to again is just as touristy, but more upfront about it. Da Ping Huo (L/G, Hilltop Plaza, 49 Hollywood Road) is a private kitchen that mixes some pretty tasty Sichuan cooking with an ambiance that veers between “homey” and “down-at-heel” and genuine hospitality from the husband-and-wife team. Despite being completely useless with my chopsticks and splashing my Golden Girls-in-Boca-Raton ensemble with glass noodles, I was charmed by a whole litany of things: the mouth-numbing ma bo tofu, the unctuous stewed “chili beef”, the, er, unusual wall paintings, which resemble what Han Solo and Princess Leia might have had made to commemorate their wedding, and of course, the chef’s opera singing at the end of the evening (what range!).

Da Ping Huo's chili beef

There are things we didn’t get. A soup of what appeared to be purely lettuce looked like “something out of the Moosewood cookbook,” said James. There was also a duo of steamed pork and taro that resembled something the Pennsylvania Amish might have served up on barn-raising days. But these are small quibbles, and so not that much fun to complain about. It was worth every minute it took to find the place, wandering the streets in high heels and praying to God I don’t fall on my face onto Lord-knows-what smeared onto the sidewalk.

Finally, there is The Chairman, for which we prepared by WORKING OUT IN THE FITNESS ROOM (don’t say we didn’t try our best). This was the only place we didn’t find Japanese executives, or tourists of any kind, really. Perhaps this is why they appeared extremely reluctant to let us through the door. After making a reservation for noon, a server came out to tell us that the restaurant was open at 12:15, blatantly disregarding the sign in front listing the opening time as “12:00”. After planting ourselves in the doorway and refusing to budge until they relented (hey, we were hungry), we were ushered in a few minutes later, and kindly shown a menu from which our server pointed out his recommendations. What he advised: a delicious passel of clams in chili jam, accented with Thai basil and red chili a la hoy pad cha; roasted lamb belly, thick and slightly smoky; deep-fried pork spareribs coated in a sauce James likened to “what you’d find in a pu pu platter”; a soup that “tastes like something you’d eat during a famine”, said James, who was not turning out to be a great fan of Chinese soups.  The waiter also relented and allowed us to order a cold Sichuan-style salad of julienned pig’s ear and tripe, paired with slivered Chinese pear, which ended up being underwhelming despite the textural diversity (moral of the story: listen to your waiter!)

Clams at the Chairman

I am ashamed to say this was the last big meal we could manage in HK. For dinner that night, after an uncomfortable few hours toddling through a mall and a dyspeptic spell in a movie theater, we settled down at the nearest place we could roll ourselves over to — an Irish pub — and consoled ourselves with salads.

Later that night, I was so hungry, I ate my complimentary fruit plate.

8 Comments

Filed under Asia, beef, Chinese, food, Hong Kong, restaurant, seafood