In Hong Kong, you can really experience food at all different levels - everything from the hole-in-the-wall which specializes in just one dish to the extravagantly decorated Michelin-starred restaurant located on the umpteenth floor of some luxury hotel boasting stunning harbour views.
One way of really experiencing dining like an old school Hong Konger is to dine at a dai pai dong (大排檔). Literally meaning "big license", it refers to a specific type of restaurant that has a bigger license than a typical street vendor. These special licenses were originally issued after World War II to family members of those who had been killed or disabled in the war.
In 1956, the government stopped issuing new licenses to open air street stalls due to complaints about these outdoor restaurants causing traffic and noise issues. More recently, the government started building indoor "cooked food centres" to move these outdoor restaurants to more sanitary indoor locations.
The atmosphere inside these cooked food centres still feels decidedly authentic. It's loud, crowded, and efficient. Conversations are lively, food is fresh and delicious, and diners often sit on plastic chair while sharing large, round tables with strangers.
One of the most popular and admittedly "touristy" places to enjoy the dai pai dong experience is at Tung Po in North Point. Tung Po specializes in seafood and is located on the second floor of the Java Road Wet Market in North Point. The restaurant is famous because its outgoing owner Robby Cheung livens up the atmosphere of the restaurant by playing fun music, acting crazy in front of the dining guests, and being all around fun. Furthermore, Anthony Bourdain ate there during an episode of his television show, No Reservations.
So what's it like to dine there?
They'll first bring over all the dishware together with some tea. In old dai pai dong fashion, rinse everything with the tea to clean off any residual dust.
One signature feature of the restaurant is how they serve beer in large tea cups.
It's fun and a bit comical to enjoy "cheers" (乾杯!) while clinking these large tea cups. Beer selection is decent, with several German bottled beers on the menu.
Food is very good, though definitely on the pricy side for a dai pai dong. The Black Ink Squid Spaghetti with Cuttlefish had a nice, intense squid flavor. The squid itself was soft and tender. All in all, we all really enjoyed this dish.
The Fried Rice with Duck Sauce Wrapped in Lotus Leaf was HUGE. The fried rice was fine and the lotus leaf added a nice fragrance to the whole thing. However, I wouldn't order this unless if you have at least four or more people. Our table of three just couldn't finish it.
The Deep Fried Salted Duck Egg Yolk Shrimp was tasty though it was harder for me to get used to eating shrimp shells. I felt like I was caught in a quandary. If I peeled the shrimp, then I wouldn't taste the salted duck egg coating. If I ate the shell, the whole chewing experience took a lot more work! The shrimp was expertly fried and it wasn't too greasy. I think if you enjoy eating shrimp shells, then you'll enjoy this.
The Deep Fried Pork Knuckle served with fried garlic is famous because it was specifically featured on No Reservations. The knuckle was soft and chewy and the flavors were excellent. Definitely be prepared for bones, though. The meat around the bone is always the most flavorful, but it does take a bit of work to get it off, and there are lots of them!
We wanted some vegetables to round out the meal, so we randomly chose a mixed vegetables dish, which turned out to be really, really good! It came with a delicate deep fried lattice that reminded me of a bird's nest served. This "nest" was topped with several of my favorite Asian vegetables, such as lotus root, lily bulb, and baby corn. Other vegetables (purple cabbage, zucchini, fresh soy beans, and pine nuts), rounded out the dish.
We didn't see any crazy antics or hear any loud music because we were dining there around 6PM (our goal was to avoid lines!). Apparently the DJ comes out and things really start to feel like a party starting around 10PM. It's probably the most fun and interesting time to come!
Still, the meal was quite enjoyable. The food was executed well and the environment definitely felt loud and boisterous like a typical dai pai dong. The price was on the high side for a dai pai dong, with the total bill coming in at just under $75 USD for a party of three ordering four dishes and a few bottles of beer.
I'd definitely be willing to come back again to try more dishes. Ideally I would come with a much bigger crowd so we can sample more dishes. I would probably try some more seafood dishes, as well as another signature dish called Wind Sand Chicken 風沙雞, which is crispy fried chicken topped with tons of "sand-like" fried garlic.
At the same time, I hope to visit a few more lesser known dai pai dongs to get a more complete picture of what they are like. Stay tuned!
Tung Po Restaurant (東寶小館)
2/F, Java Road Municipal Services Building
99 Java Road, North Point, (852) 2880 5224