Char siu rice rolls, mince meat patties & dumplings in Sichuan sauce
COCONUTS CRITIC’S TABLE — Gough Street used to be a quiet residential thoroughfare and a small neighbourhood Cantonese diner called Ngau Kee was once one of its most popular eateries. The local restaurant’s friendly owners built a loyal clientele for its unassuming and hearty dishes as much for its even more friendlier prices.
But as Central’s upscale sprawl spread westward, brand name cafes and boutiques like agnes b. and Ralph Lauren began moving onto Gough Street and smalltime operators started feeling the pressure of rising rent. In 2013, Ngau Kee lost their longstanding premise when the landlord refused to renew their lease.
The new exterior
More than a year later, the family restaurant has resurfaced – in a district not likely to be completely gentrified for now. If you want to patronise Ngau Kee now, you’ll have to trek out to the easternmost part of Hong Kong island, in Chai Wan.
Hidden in a dumpy mall in a public housing block behind an industrial area close to the MTR terminus, Ngau Kee is now on the first floor of Koway Court. The signage outside is unmistakable. The name’s characters have the exact same colour and look as its Gough Street predecessor.
Ngau Kee’s interior
The new location is vastly larger, even if the décor is still strictly gritty, Hong Kong-style utilitarian, the walls cluttered with kitchen offerings and storage supplies spilling out to every corner and hallway. The benefit of a larger kitchen now is they can serve dimsum during the day. Partly to cater to the elderly local customers, Ngau Kee now opens very early, unlike on Gough Street where they stayed late for the night owl diners.
Shrimp har gow
Given the working class setting, Ngau Kee’s prices have remained ridiculously low. The dimsum dishes range from HKD12, HKD15 to just HKD18. Some premium dishes such as the shrimp har gow (dumplings) go as high as HKD21.
Of course, the price is irrelevant if the food is unsatisfactory. The thing with Ngau Kee is they can always be depended on to deliver good, honest (if unremarkable) cooking. Popular dishes like roast chicken with rose liquor and salt & pepper fried squid are flavourful, consistent and don’t put a dent in your wallet.
But dimsum is something new for them, so we thought we’d give that a try on our afternoon visit. However, the fraying bamboo steamer baskets suggest they might have gotten these second-hand.
But it doesn’t matter much. Inside the tray are four bite-sized shrimp har gow (HKD21) juicy enough to leave no doubt of the prawns’ quality. Another standard item, the steamed char siu (BBQ pork) rice roll (HKD18) is perfectly fine and velvety to the mouth with a slightly sweet soy sauce.
Steamed bean curd skin
The dumplings in Sichuan sauce (HKD26) was a winning attempt at a Northern entrée, with the spicy Mala chili delivering a furious first punch which was then countered with a sweetness in the cabbage and pork stuffing. It’s layered, complex and utterly intoxicating. This was probably our favourite of the day. We also enjoyed the steamed bean curd skin (HKD15), which held three big pieces wrapped with chicken and crunchy vegetables. Rich but not oily, it’s a savoury flavour bomb.
Less successful was the phoenix’s claw (also known as chicken’s feet) in chili and black bean sauce (HKD18), which needed more steaming and more sauce. Good chicken feet should practically fall off the bone. Ngau Kee’s dish required a bit too much gnawing.
Chinese spinach in broth of garlic, salted duck egg and thousand year egg
Rounding out lunch, we couldn’t resist a plate of minced meat patties (HKD82) with mostly pork, water chestnuts and a hint of salted dried fish for seasoning. The minced patties are a Ngau Kee signature from their Gough Street days and its taste did make us nostalgic. For a bit of healthy green, a plate of Chinese spinach served in a broth with garlic, salted duck egg and thousand year egg was a mere HKD78.
Yeung Chow fried rice
Wrapping up, a huge plate of Yeung Chow fried rice (HKD60) included numerous whole shrimps and topped our carb quota for the rest of the day.
At its smaller confine on Gough Street, Ngau Kee inherently had a romantic appeal as a modest bastion of Cantonese cuisine persevering against the chic wine bars and redevelopment invasion across Central. In Chai Wan, they have more space and option but there’s less appeal in its character. What was charming and quaint in Central, is just another neighbourhood eatery here.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with serving up quality small dishes and Cantonese specialty platters. But it feels a bit commonplace outside of the hip commercial districts. Perhaps it’s time to re-think what makes Hong Kong a dining destination.
Trendy cafés and high-priced Michelin hallowed halls account for only a minor fraction of our culinary establishments but they attract the majority of our attention. However, it’s the solid, satisfying and humble grunts of the local scene like Ngau Kee that keep the city’s bar consistently high.
Ngau Kee Food Café: Block A, 1/F Koway Court, 111 Chai Wan Road, Chai Wan (entrance on Tai Man Road). (+852) 2546-2584. (Google Maps.)
Words/Photos: Andrew Sun