It’s October in Hong Kong. The city has shrugged off the hot, wet blanket of its sub-tropical summer and a persistent but welcome breeze shoos away the clinging smog that floats over from the nearby industrial region of Shenzhen. You’re perched on a stumpy, primary-coloured plastic stool with your knees higher than your hips in a broom-closet eatery in the district of Wan Chai on Hong Kong Island. The walls are covered in bathroom tiles, the floor in a mosaic of mismatched linoleum castoffs.
A middle-aged man stands behind a half-height counter; he’s wearing shorts, wellington boots, a string vest and a bloodied apron. He’s systematically, surgically thunk-thunk-thunking a razor sharp cleaver into barbecued goose, effortlessly parting the whole bird into bite-sized chunks with the precision and efficiency of someone who has been doing since they were a kid. The matron of the house stands behind a faded faux-bamboo podium near the entrance, welcoming patrons and shoehorning them into whichever nook or cranny becomes available.
Sharing your small, ageing formica table is a young salaryman, tie loosened, hair dishevelled, unblinking thousand-yard stare fixed on his face as he fiddles with the collar of a half-drunk Carlsberg. Between you is a retired drinking glass filled with plastic chopsticks, faded from the of the residue of a thousand conquered meals. Canto-pop classics distort out of an underpowered speaker, competing with the collective cacophony of the dinner-time rush.
You feel out of place here. You can’t read the handwritten menu, nor the daily specials mounted on neon construction paper and fastidiously affixed to the wall with recycled blu-tack. You’re surrounded by everyday Hong Kongers, not a tourist in sight, and not a word of English can be seen or heard. Just as your second-guessings start to win you over, and you consider bolting for the nearest McDonalds, a harassed but diligent waiter dressed in football shorts, a plain red t-shirt, and green Havaianas slides a bowl in front of you. A chipped, faded melamine bowl and instantly all of your doubts evaporate. Piled high is a trio of meats; caramelly, crispy, fatty roast goose, salty, umami soy sauce chicken, and sweet, smoky char siu pork. This is, and will forever be, the greatest meat experience you will ever have. Because as you sit alongside accountants, truck drivers, receptionists, and plumbers in this 22-seat, blink-and-you’ll-miss it dingy Wan Chai eatery, you’re also sitting in one of Hong Kong’s 91 Michelin Starred restaurants.
When traveling for work, speaking, or pleasure as so many of us do, and intimidated by an unfamiliar language or the hustle and bustle of a cosmopolitan city, and constrained by tight schedules, it’s easy to gravitate towards the tourist traps, the chain diners, and your hotel restaurant. But don’t. You’ll be disappointed and frankly you’ll be doing whichever great city you’re visiting a disservice by not throwing yourself head first into its food culture. And be sure to give that cramped, tired looking joint a second look – you may end up having a meal that will change the way you look at food forever.