It was Sunday morning in Hong Kong and Ka Ho, a dim sum restaurant on Lok Ku Road, was packed, mostly with elderly locals who sipped bitter black tea and read their newspapers. There were a few hundred people inside, but my wife and I were the only two Westerners. Old Chinese women in red coats and red handkerchiefs wrapped around their heads pushed carts loaded with towers of steaming bamboo baskets or rattled past with stacked ceramic plates. Hidden inside the covered baskets were mysterious dumplings; the plates were loaded with noodles, greens, and croquettes.
Dim Sum at Ka Ho
I wanted to get a bit adventurous with my order, but my wife, who had packed granola bars in her suitcase on our first international trip together six years ago because she thought food outside of the States would make her sick, vetoed the most exotic dishes. Though the picture of a deep fried pigeon with its mouth agape and the sound of mud limonene and duck feet rolls also helped to quell some of my curiosities.
I asked the waitress for a recommendation, but she didn’t understand and ran to get the manager. He was no help, as he tried to unload terrible looking cherry-topped pastries onto our table. (Three more times during breakfast they tried to sell us that dessert.) We got a bit rushed, so I quickly ordered any four items bland enough for my wife to try.
A woman at the table next to us, who spoke broken English, kindly chastised me. “You order from lunch menu. I order morning special. Good price. You get rice and meat on morning special.” She displayed her bowl of rice and meat, which was much more intricate and delicious looking than her description had been. “I order for you.”
The woman, who was by far the fattest woman in the restaurant, at a sturdy 150 pounds, had eight bamboo baskets in front of her, along with her bowl of “rice and meat.” I was about to give her control over my ingestion, but my wife said no. In retrospect, it was a good idea because we she probably would have over-ordered for us–since we wound up with four baskets and she still had food coming out from the kitchen. A food coma on day one in a new city is never a good idea. We politely declined and she reproached me some more. “You order from morning special next time.”
Our chicken-hearted selection arrived (precisely because it contained nothing like chicken hearts). We ate boiled green vegetables (which sounds boring, is boring, but packs a punch of freshness and is ubiquitous throughout the city), pine nut vegetable jiaozi, (which tasted just like the next dish) dumplings chiuchao style, and rice rolls with shrimp and vegetables (a giant slippery noodle, which is so ordinary giant slippery noodle could replace the idiom dull as dishwater).
In the end, our total cost was $11 (US) for four dishes and two pots of tea. Also, I left with a bruised ego from having an elderly lady denounce my ordering abilities, which I take some pride in.
Dim Sum at Lin Heung Tea House
The next day, feeling like I had to step over that threshold from wet-rag-dim-sum eater to courageous foodie, I left my sleeping wife in the hotel and ventured down the steep slope of Aberdeen Street. Two old women with pushcarts were pushing delivery wagons uphill. If old women can tow carts uphill, I should be able to get a little wild with my ordering, I figured. For a second I even thought, I’ll eat a pigeon and mud limonene and duck feet rolls.
At the bottom of the hill was Wellington Street and the landmark, Lin Heung Tea House, which has been operating since the end of World War I. It was one third the size of Ka Ho, but crammed in the same number of noisy eaters.
This time I was the only Westerner inside. I was seated at a filthy glass table beneath one of many birdcages, each housing a fake parakeet. I was given dirty dishes coated in chili oil. In napkin-less Hong Kong, I wiped them clean with my finger.
At Lin Heung, men in barbers’ coats were the waiters, while all of the cart pushers were impatient women. The youngest guard over the dim sum was probably in her fifties. There were no menus, just sheets with Chinese characters and numbers, which looked like a Bingo card. (If this were Bingo, I would have been in last place.)
I tried flagging down a cart the way a desperate hitchhiker would attempt to halt a car, but the woman sped past me. Lin Heung abided by a hunter-gatherer policy. It was my job to track down the cart, wherever it chose to stop, and claim a bamboo basket before the crowd looted all the delectables. But, I failed to make it to the cart before it was left bare. I kept having to wave away the sweet buns lady who couldn’t get rid of her product. Finally, after a few brazen locals blocked the cart near my table, I managed to grab some unidentifiable dumpling that was topped with a sliver of sausage.
“Fish,” the cart lady said and stamped my card. I bit too quickly on one of my four dumplings and got a fishbone lodged into my gums. (It came out four days later.)
An elderly couple joined me. The wife grabbed a large bowl at the center of the table and filled it with tea. Using her fingers and the hot liquid, she cleaned her and her husband’s tea cups, spoons, bowls, and chopsticks.
“Are they not clean?” I asked her.
“I don’t trust,” she said, pointing at the dishwasher across the room. I made a sour face at my dirty utensils. The elderly lady and I got to talking. “My husband says the tea is the best in the city.”
The tea was good and I wanted to order more. I was taught back home to flip the lid upside down, a signal for the waiter to provide a refill.
“This means you done,” she criticized, quickly grabbing the upside down lid as if tea drinking were war and I had just given up our location to the enemy. She balanced the unstable top on the pot’s rim and handle. “This means you want more.”
In about fifteen minutes, my learned new friends had devoured more plates than I had in one hour. The 70-year-old woman encouraged me to attack the next pushcart. I did and claimed noodles topped with dried shrimp. “You order plain,” she said derisively. “This one not so good. The other have beef.”
Before lunging for my final dish, I asked for her recommendation. The husband interrupted. “You have to see. We cannot choose for you.”
I was on my own in this dim sum jungle. So I pounced on the next bamboo basket. Inside, resembling a discolored and waterlogged grape leaf, was tofu skin drenched in oyster sauce stuffed with a mixture of pork and shrimp. My third dish was a success. And though another old lady had attacked my ego, some pride was restored and three dishes only cost $8 (US). (The powerful tea was free.)
On my way out, I crossed paths with a family of Westerners, the father clutching his son’s hand and the mother stroking her daughter’s hair. Good luck, I almost said.
Dim Sum at Luk Yu
For my third dim sum breakfast, I tried the upscale, eighty-year-old tea house, Luk Yu, on Stanley Street. It was a place of private rooms, separate tables, and white-collared bankers. Prices inside the wood-paneled, three-storied dining room were three times as much as my first two dim sum meals. On the special menu, which started at 11am, prices were sky-high like the $80 (US) shark fin soup with crab.
Dim sum at Luk Yu was easy to navigate–the white-coated waiter was fluent in English and the menu was in English, too–but it lacked the authenticity of chaos that the previous two spots served. Not to mention, where were my old, crabby ladies?
Total cost: $40 US for four dishes–pork dumplings in chicken stock, crab and scallion dumplings, shrimp dumplings, spare ribs in bean sauce–and two pots of weak tea, along with the feeling of inferiority: They condemned my wife and I to the corner, behind a wall, hidden from the other eaters. And unlike the locals, we weren’t given hot towels.
Returning to the Best Dim Sum in Hong Kong
On my final day in Hong Kong, after finding delectable dim sum on each attempt, I couldn’t risk a disappointing breakfast. So I returned to my favorite spot, Lin Heung Tea House. I ascended the stairs into the cacophony of the dining room and I searched the tables for my elderly friend. She wasn’t reading her paper, nor was she rushing the lady hawking buns. I felt like a baby bird leaving the nest. I would have to do this on my own.
First I washed my teacup and utensils in the communal pot sitting on the center of the table.
“Where did you learn to do that?” my wife asked, impressed.
The waiter nodded his approval, too.
Then I placed my body in front of a dim sum cart charging toward the kitchen.
“I’ll have that.” I grabbed the sticky rice wrapped in a lotus leaf and presented my card to the pusher. After finishing that scrumptious prize, across the room, a dozen people swarmed and the bamboo towers shrunk away. Even though a few older women muscled past me, I managed to nab two baskets of dumplings.
“What’s inside?” my wife asked.
I shrugged. The aged, cantankerous cart pusher came past and bumped my chair from behind. She mumbled something, while I enjoyed my dim sum for breakfast in Hong Kong.