I don’t know when it happened, but at some point in my late 20’s I went from loving airplanes to complaining about the awkwardness of the seats, confined quarters and the pain in my knees from sitting for too long. Before I knew it, I had become that annoying old guy who’s getting up to pee every five minutes and who does squats in the aisle. To be honest, I find it hard to sit through a three-hour movie these days! I can’t help it, but I’m delicate flower.
And that’s why I insisted we breakup our return trip home from our tour de Thailand. So we planned a three-day layover in Hong Kong. One could argue we did it because we used miles to book our flights and couldn’t find a direct flight home, but I like to think it was intentional. Three days was the perfect amount of time for our bodies to recover from the plane ride, for our taste buds and stomachs to transition to a slightly more diversified palate, and because Hong Kong is a little closer to the US than Thailand, I also rationalized the layover would aid in recovering from jetlag. Boy was I wrong about that!
We arrived in Hong Kong and took the train from the airport directly to our hotel in Sheung Wan. We literally dropped everything off in our rooms, grabbed a glass of wine just before the complimentary cocktail hour for “platinum members” ended, and then headed out to meet a friend of my stepmother’s for a traditional Shanghainese dinner.
It was my first time in Hong Kong, and I was super excited. Friends and family who had been before kept telling me I was going to love it, because it’s just like San Francisco. “It’s a foodie city that’s slightly congested and it’s surrounded by water,” they said. How about the fact that like San Francisco, Hong Kong is packed with Chinese people! Regardless, since I only had three days of meals (actually only 2.5 with the flights, etc) I wanted to make sure each one was as good as could be.
Thankfully, my stepmother used to live in Hong Kong and she’d kept in touch with a bunch of her friends. One of them is her friend Shirley, who she used to tutor in English. Shirley ended up tutoring my stepmother in Chinese (she’s retained the important stuff like “thank you” and “where’s the bathroom?”) and they enjoyed each other’s company so much a friendship developed. Nearly 30 years later I was benefiting from their union of mispronunciations when Shirley selected the Shanghai Gardens restaurant for our dinner.
I’m always a fan of letting a local make dining recommendations, because let’s face it, without Yelp, finding a solid establishment can be quite the undertaking. We did discover Openrice.com (the Hong Kong equivalent of Yelp), but it wasn’t as easy to navigate and without our national roaming fees on our phones (thanks a lot Sprint!) we couldn’t use it that much.
The restaurant was near Wan Chai about a 30 minutes walk across the city from where we were and since my complimentary glass of wine turned into two, we were running a little late. So we decided to hop on the next train headed east. The train was actually a double-decker bus like you’d find in London (which makes sense since Hong Kong used to be occupied by the British), only it ran on tracks like a the light-rail trolley cars that run up and down San Francisco’s market street (another similarity). With the chilly breeze coming from off the harbor, the occasional British accent, and the narrowness of the train-bus-thingy, I suddenly felt like I was in some traumatic Harry Potter bus scene. But before I could encounter the Dark Lord Voldemort, we’d arrived at the restaurant, tucked away on the second floor of a business center/shopping mall…and I was famished!
Shanghai Garden Restaurant
The restaurant might be tucked away in a mall, but that has no reflection on the quality of the food. With limited space, and everything built up into the sky, there’s very little room for stand alone establishments. This was the place setting. Classy right?
We started with some pickled mushrooms, peanuts, tofu, scallions and cucumber. This dish was so simple and yet full of a wonderful salty nuttiness. I feel like this was the Shanghainese equivalent of putting bread and butter on the table.
The other starter was the fried pork and veggie spring rolls wrapped in thin sheets of bean curd (tofu). This was good, but nothing particularly special. I almost think our Chinese friends (who we let do all the ordering) ordered it assuming some of us “gwei-los” (nickname for white people which I believe translates to “white devil”) weren’t adventurous enough for what was about to come.
Then came the jellyfish and roasted chicken. The chicken was good, but the jellyfish was really interesting. It was slightly chewy and had an acidic flavor from the vinegar they put on it. I only wish it was easier to pickup with the smooth plastic/porcelain chopsticks they gave us.
Then the beef tendon plate landed in front of me. I took a bite and started to chew before I knew what it was. Then they told me it was beef tendon and I figured….hmmm, slimy yet satisfying. The hoisin-like sauce they put over the gelatinous slices of beef tendon was definitely a welcome addition, but I would definitely eat this again if there was someone who would share it with me.
As a palate cleanser they gave everyone a bowl of chicken broth with two pork dumplings livingly hugging each other inside. This dish was proof that sometimes the simplest dishes are the tastiest. The broth was thick and creamy as if they figured out how to extract the flavor from schmaltz without the fat. I think they just used flour to thicken it as if it were the gravy in a chicken potpie, only thinner. So good!
Then the entrees came out. The sweet chili prawns were probably my favorite. It’s hard to tell from this picture, but each shrimp was larger than a golf ball and the sauce was really unique as it danced around my mouth, stimulating the spicy and sweet receptors on my tongue as I chewed. And yes, we all stayed clear of the chilies themselves.
The stewed pork belly with a sweet sauce and a crispy fat cap of skin on the top was fantastic. Juicy and sweet with the crunch on the frontend of each bite. Yum! I liked how they removed all the bones from this dish, because some Chinese restaurants leave them in there and expect you to discard them as you go. In my opinion it was just a nice touch.
Then came whole steamed fishes with the filets deboned and chopped up with mushrooms, onions, and pea sprouts. This was also fantastic! The fish looked blind with their opaque eyes and it was creepy to think they were staring at me while I spooned out their entrails….but I got over it real fast!
Not realizing how much food Shirley had ordered for us, I took it upon myself to order a plate of Dow Miu (snow pea sprouts or plant leaves), knowing it’s hard to find the vegetable in the US. They flash fried the greens in oil and loads of garlic. This is one of my favorite dishes when I can find it!
Then came the finale (or at least what we thought was the finale) and they carved our peking duck at the side table behind us. The meat was cut thin and placed in perfect circles on the serving plate, with a pile of crispy fatty skin in the middle. Watching the waiter was like watching a sculptor carving away at his masterpiece. Each medallion had the perfect amount of skin, which we shoved into the traditional pancakes, and topped with hoisin sauce, cucumbers and scallions.
We were about as full as can be when they sent out a second palate cleanser: egg noodles with vegetables. I wanted more of these umami infused noodles but the food from the rest of the meal was literally spilling out into my esophagus!
At this point I was thinking about dessert, but as you’ve probably heard, the Chinese (and other Asian cultures for that matter) don’t do sweets in a big way like we do in the US. I feel like that’s starting to change, but not so for the traditional Chinese purists. So instead of a cheese cake or chocolate cremeux, they served pork pan seared dumplings. Again these were fantastic, but I felt like I was forcing myself to take a bite, because I didn’t want to offend our gracious hosts.
And that’s when the real dessert was served. Personally, no matter how stuffed I’m feeling, I need something sweet to signal to my brain that the meal is officially over. So I finished one of these fried steamed balls of rice dough stuffed with sweet red beans and bananas.
But dessert wasn’t over. The last dish of the evening was the fried crispy bananas dipped in caramel. To cool them off and create a hand candy-shell consistency, the server dropped the piping hot banana pieces into an ice cold water bath. It was delicious.
This is my stepmother giving you a visual representation of what we were all feeling, having just eaten enough food for a small village in one sitting.
So we decided to walk it off (or waddle it off depending on your perspective) and made it back to our hotel in Sheung Wan via the waterfront so we could take in the Hong Kong skyline. It was a magical evening and a wonderful start to our layover in San Francisco’s sister city: Hong Kong.