勝香園 & A Glimpse of Hong Kong’s Dai Pai Dong Culture
No trip to Hong Kong is complete without trying their street food. No doubt, there’s a lot of good food in Hong Kong, be it dim sum from the tea houses or roast goose and char siew at the Cantonese restaurants but for many of us, what characterises the cuisine of a place is its street food. It is eating what the locals eat that makes travelling to these places a truly remarkable experience. And Hong Kong is not short of good street food. Everywhere we went, it is always easy to pick up some local delights, be it 碗仔翅 “faux shark’s fin soup” or 臭豆腐 smelly beancurd. For those with sweet tooth, there is 雞蛋仔 crispy egg waffles or 砵仔糕 red bean rice cakes. And if one doesn’t have the time to even stand by the roadside to savour these delicacies, one can always grab a skewer of 咖哩鱼蛋 curry fish balls or 鱼浆燒賣 fish paste siew mai to go! We’d been to 勝香園 Sing Heung Yuen before during our earlier trips, and we came back again during our most recent trip to reprise the roadside dining experience at a 大排檔, something truly Hong Kong!
Truth be told, visiting 勝香園 was most incidental than planned. We’d wanted to try 九記牛腩 Kau Kee Beef Brisket Noodle Shop but they were closed for a entire week we were there! So no hope of eating their famous 牛爽腩 this time round. Thankfully, the Sheung Wan-Central area on Hong Kong Island is never short of good food, many of which have been around for ages. We remembered that 勝香園 is just around the corner from Kau Kee so here we are!
It was around lunch time and the crowd was already settling in with a short queue waiting to be seated. Part and parcel of Hong Kong street food culture is the need to 搭台 “dap toi“, i.e. share a table with other diners. We were well accustomed to doing this, be it at dim sum restaurants or local tea shops which are otherwise better known as 茶餐厅 “cha tsan teng“. Sing Heung Yuen is no exception. Street food in Hong Kong comes in several forms and this one-michelin star deli tucked quietly in the western corner of the “Mid levels” falls into the category of what the locals call 大排檔 “dai pai dong“. Put simply, it is roadside dining à la al fresco style, often characterised by foldable tables and small stackable stools as well as flimsy canvas tentage over the heads. Comfort is the least of all priorities as one is here more to soak in the atmosphere and sample simple local food more than anything else. This is hardly the place for regular dining table chit chat or over-a-cuppa kind of gossip. The numerous coffee joints along Wellington Road and Hollywood Road are more suited for that. Just as one is expected to order fast and finish their food fast, one should also expect curt service, frantic scribbling of order chits, loud bellowing of orders into the kitchen as well as the occasional “thumb that has gone a tad too far into one’s acrylic glass of chinese tea” kind of experience. Apparently the tea is not meant for drinking in the first place. It is for dipping cutlery and utensils in attempt to clean and sterilise them as we were told many moons ago and had religiously mimicked throughout the years. In retrospect, the act seems more ceremonious than pragmatic. Oh well, in Rome do what the Romans do…
We weren’t the only “foodies” around as the fellas from the adjacent table took a few quickly shots once their orders were served. The “table turning” rate here is phenomenal. On average, fifteen minutes for most and sometimes even less. But like what I’d said, that is only to be expected.
Sing Heung Yuen is known for their tomato-based soup dishes and makes this known to one and all in an utmost unbashful manner by having rows of gigantic tins of tomato puree stacked in front of the kitchen. Prima facie, the menu seems exhaustive but one would be quick to realise that the dishes are mostly permutations over choice of “noodles” i.e. 通粉 macaroni or 公仔麵 instant noodles, or toppings like 玉米 sweet corn, 牛肉 beef, 煎蛋 sunny side up or 餐肉 luncheon meat （SPAM）. The lifestyle in Hong Kong is rather fast-paced and this is reflected in the use of abbreviations in the naming of the dishes. For example, our order of “茄餐蛋麵” in four simple Chinese characters actually means “A sunny sideup and a slice of pan-fried luncheon meat with instant noodles in a tomato-based soup”. Talk about clever use of words!
We’d tried their tomato-soup dishes before and frankly, we ain’t fans of them. Ordering a bowl again confirmed our “suspicions”. The tomato soup was refreshing upon our first slurp but we quickly found ourselves having difficulty finishing it. The soup was simply too tart to be enjoyed properly. We did finish the egg, the luncheon meat and most of the noodles but left the soup largely untouched, save for a few bits of whole tomatoes which made us mostly squirmish. Peeking into the other bowls of soup ordered by fellow diners, we are not the only ones feeling this way apparently. I guess it is good for the experience, but once is pretty much enough.
Their 猪排脆脆 pork cutlet buns is a different thing altogether. We’d tried this before as well and thoroughly enjoyed it then. I’m glad that the standards have maintained since our last sampling. The buns had a delightful crisp consistency （and hence the name “脆脆”), freshly toasted just before being put together with a slice of deep fried pork cutlet and tomato within. The pork cutlet was also quite crispy but a tad oily. But that is a small misgiving we would most gladly overlook given how good it tasted. The kaya open face sandwiches (咖央脆脆) here are supposedly very famous as well and we did see several folks ordering it. But coming from a place where kaya was literally invented, it seemed counter-intuitive to have it elsewhere overseas. Perhaps we would be more motivated to try it out next time, since we won’t be ordering the tomato noodle soup anymore.
咸檸七 Hum Leng Tsat is another signature at Sing Heung Yuen, one which they share with 蘭芳園, another popular dai pai dong joint in the vicinity. Despite the name, Sprite is served here instead of the traditional 7-up (七喜) but I didn’t mind as I’d always preferred the former anyway. And this is not your regular run-in-the-mill lemonade soda in case you are wondering. Apart from a slice of fresh lemon, salted and dried citrus (I am guessing lemon and kumquat) was also added for that additional briny dimension as well as unmistakable taste of preserved citrus fruits. It is supposedly very good as a remedy for throat discomforts, or so we were told. But I just enjoy it as it is 🙂
We would most gladly recommend Sing Heung Yuen to those who are keen in trying out what the locals eat for lunch. Skip the tomato soup dishes if you ain’t a fan of tomatoes or for something too sour. The crispy buns are a must to try, and the experience could be nicely finished off with a bottle of 咸檸七 in our case, or a cup of hot 鸳鸯 “Yuen Yeung“. It literally means mandarin ducks though it is actually a mixture of coffee with milk tea. Sounds seemingly bizarre I know, or a cheeky sabotage one would concoct to trick an unknowing friend but the locals love it and perhaps may actually grow on you too!
勝香園 Sing Heung Yuen
中環美輪街2號排檔 (2 Mei Lun Street, Central, Hong Kong Island)
Mon to Sat 08:00-17:30
Closed on Sundays