Dai pai dong? As far as dining experiences in Western culture go, it really is a totally different language.
Many traditional dai pai dongs, open-air food stalls where you eat home-style in the streets (as depicted in those gorgeous Mid-Autumn Festival lanterns in Tsim Sha Tsui), have died out in Hong Kong, amidst hygiene and street congestion concerns. Instead, they now masquerade under the similarly-indecipherable name ‘cooked food centres’ on the top floor of indoor wet markets throughout the city (I guess I’ll leave explaining wet markets for another time, suffice to say for those brought up on a diet of sanitised supermarkets or even farmers’ markets, you ain’t seen nothing yet). Sheung Kee is such an establishment.
No-frills doesn’t quite do the place justice. Fans of soft furnishings look away now. Fold-up tables covered with bin liners, plastic stools to sit on, a roll of toilet paper on each table. The tiled floor is invariably wet (this is the wet market after all), the kitchens come complete with crates of fresh (as in still swimming) seafood stacked outside them and if you know what’s best, you wash all your (plastic) cutlery and crockery with tea that comes in a Blue Girl-branded jug. There is simply no equivalent in modern Western dining and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
You arrive at Sheung Kee via lift and upon stepping out, are immediately bombarded by waitresses (and one waiter who looks like a Chinese Nick Frost) competing for business; there are actually two different restaurants on the floor, though good luck in telling them apart. It’s like that scene where The Birds rain down and attack Tippi Hendren, except here they’re screaming ‘SHEUNG KEE GI KEE SHEUNG KEE GI KEE!’ Enough to make grown men cower and slightly traumatising at the time but once you’ve run the gauntlet, quality entertainment watching others face it for the rest of your meal!
We had a booking at Sheung Kee (and Nick Frost was very persuasive) so off we toddled. Seafood dishes vary according to what’s available, as do prices but Sheung Kee’s most famous dish is its garlic chicken, which is thankfully always on the menu and always the stand-out. Hidden underneath mounds of highly addictive, golden crunchy and so so tasty diced garlic, there is a whole fried chicken, head included as you can see. The crispy flavour-soaked skin is always (guiltily) my favourite part, but the meat is also moist, salty and really delicious. To be honest, I could make a meal just out of that garlic, which you’ll find yourself heaping onto your food throughout and continually taking ‘one last bit’ even when your stomach is protesting.
Elsewhere, I’ve found Sheung Kee’s food can be a bit hit and miss. What can be great one visit might be disappointing the next, something which has happened a few times with the clams in black bean chilli sauce. Occasionally, the sauce can be too thick with the flavours not balanced quite right but at its best, it’s a generous helping of supremely sweet tender morsels with a salty rich appetising sauce that totally sets off the taste of seafood.
When the scallops are on the menu, they’re always beautiful. There’s just something about the intoxicatingly salty hit of chopped black beans mixed with soy sauce, garlic and spring onion that makes the taste of the sweet succulent meaty scallop come alive. The worst part of this dish is having to share it – I could eat them all! Try and get it with rice vermicelli on top, which adds yet another texture and taste to the mix.
My barbeque pork cutlet was also delicious, tangy sticky smoky sauce and sweet meat that fell off the bone. However, my boyfriend’s was a much tougher beast that required too much gnawing to be enjoyable – see what I mean about hit and miss? The veggie (dau miu or snow pea shoots) was watery and had too much added sugar; on other occasions, we’ve had gai lan (Chinese broccoli/kale) with salty fish that was fresh, crunchy, tasty and one of their signature dishes with a pool of scrambled egg in the middle that was weird and tasteless.
[For those interested, I’ve also tried their char siu pork (skin not crispy enough, meat not tasty enough, too fatty), a sweet and sour fish thing that was lovely with a sauce I could happily drown in, huge slices of beef that are impossible to chow down on (MSG overload and I simply don’t like that strange red sweet/sour/salty sauce that waiters keep telling me Westerners go gaga for) and deep-fried prawn cakes, which would have been awesome were it not for the fountains of mayonnaise that sprang forth from the middle (I’ve discovered this is a general hazard of deep-fried prawn things in HK).]
Five dishes together with fried rice (what is there to say about fried rice? It was good?) and three soft drinks came to around $650. Nevertheless, when we went next month and had more dishes (including sharks fin soup and all the same seafood ones) plus beer, it came to under $500! Typically, it was the first meal that I had offered to pay for! I always leave stuffed, having tried to cram diced garlic into my cheeks hamster-style, and round off the evening with a leisurely stroll around Happy Valley to see how the other half live.
As with most Chinese restaurants, there’s a lively (i.e. noisy) atmosphere but it feels comfortable. The service is also very cheery and friendly – unlike many local joints where the waiters seem in an eternal rush to get back to their position of scowling, here they’ll happily explain dishes to you and help you pack up any daa bau (doggie bag), all the while miraculously sporting a smile! It’s very clean, the floor isn’t so wet that you think Noah’s just moved out, they honour bookings (unlike the much more famous cooked food centre in Marble Road wet market in North Point), you don’t have to share your table with strangers and you get chairs (albeit plastic and fixed to the table) rather than stools. It’s a land where Coke gets served in retro glass bottles, the 10% service charge doesn’t exist and no-fuss is the order of the day.
In short, I love it.
Sheung Kee, Shop 2, 2/F Cooked Food Centre, Yuk Sau Street, Happy Valley, Hong Kong, 2882 2994