Sunday, August 23, 2009

late-night institutions

"You don't want to get dessert here, do you?"
"No. I want a condensed milk bun from Tsui Wah."
"A what from where?"
"It's a Hong Kong institution. We're going. Just follow me."

I'm in Hong Kong for the weekend before I head back to Boston for the start of fall semester, and Lucille has taken it upon herself to continue my education in Hong Kong's restaurant scene. Dinner has been a solid, if unadventurous meal at Pizza Express (despite the name, it's actually a dine-in restaurant that does a respectable thin-crust pizza), but it appears that we're going to make up for it with our next stop.

It's a particularly muggy, airless night, and we're just a stone's throw away from a branch of XTC On Ice Gelato, one of Hong Kong's best gelato shops, but Lucille is on a mission. We head away from the steep, narrow streets of SoHo, moving towards the main streets of the Central district. We hit our destination halfway down Wellington Street: a glass-fronted eatery with a noise level audible from the street.

"Tsui Wah," announces Lucille, and heads up the steps to the door. I stick closely behind, not sure what to expect.

Inside, the dining room is busy, almost chaotic, packed with groups in animated conversation. Harried waitstaff rush about with trays of food and stacks of dirty dishes. The decor is typical cha chaan teng: bright fluorescent lights, glass-topped tables, and chairs with backs so low, they could almost be called stools.

Lucille flags down a waiter and signals that we're a party of two: he points to a table near the side of the room, and we make our way over. The waiter deposits two glasses of black tea on the table, the standard cha chaan teng beverage, and promptly disappears.

I see that there's a menu under the glass of the table, but it seems awfully short.

"Is this the entire menu?"
"No. The full menu is pages and pages long. It's spiral-bound. But all the popular dishes are on the short menu, and I know what we should order, anyway."

Lucille flags down another waiter, and rattles off a long string of Cantonese, of which the only words I catch are bao (bun) and cha (tea.) The waiter scribbles a few notes on his pad, sticks a copy under the glass top of our table, and dashes off.

"What are we eating?"
"Condensed milk bun, fried pork bun and an ice lemon tea."
"Okay. Now, explain what this place is?"
"Tsui Wah is as local as you can get in Hong Kong. Any more local, and you'd be across the harbor in Kowloon. I come here with my friends late at night."
"Tsui Wah is where everyone ends up late at night on the weekends, before they go home?"
"Yep. There's even 'Tsui Wah regret' - when you meet someone in a dim bar and they look okay, but they don't look so good under the fluorescent lights in here."

Now it all makes sense. All big cities have their late-night institutions, those places where you can go for a bite at two in the morning, those spots where people end up after a long night out. New York has its diners. New Orleans has the Cafe du Monde. And Hong Kong has Tsui Wah. In other words, I am about to discover what Hong Kong locals eat when they've had too much to drink.

And I am going to discover it without any delay. Service is fast: just a minutes after Lucille put our order in, a waiter comes by and sets down a plate - one condensed milk bun (lin nai bao.)

(Photography is Lucille's, which means it's vastly better than mine.)

Thirty seconds later, a second waiter follows with a glass - one iced lemon tea (dong ling cha.)

And then a third waiter comes by with another plate - one fried pork bun (ju pah bao.) I've been expecting something along the lines of a Cantonese bakery product, a sweet bread stuffed with shredded dried pork, so I'm pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be more of a sandwich: a crispy pork cutlet, lettuce, pickle and mayonnaise on a soft roll.

Lucille picks up one of the bun halves, lifts it to her mouth, and watches expectantly as I do the same. As it turns out, it's not a bad sandwich at all: the pork is flavorful and just a little greasy, and the crunch of the lettuce and pickle contrast nicely with the soft, floury roll. I am questioning the wisdom of eating one of these on top of a full dinner, but I can see how this would definitely hit the spot after a few drinks.

I nod my approval to Lucille, and she passes me the glass of iced lemon tea. It's made with the typical Lipton, brewed very strong, and served over crushed ice with plenty of lemon slices. It's cold and sweet, and I can understand why it's one of the most popular summer drinks in Hong Kong.

Lucille has been happily sinking her teeth into a condensed milk bun half, and she gestures to me to pick up the other. It's remarkably simple, a plain bun split and toasted, generously buttered and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, but it's strangely, almost scarily delicious. The bread is crisp on the outside and soft inside, and the condensed milk is a sticky, satisfying contrast to the salted melting butter. I could see myself easily eating far too many of these if I had a case of the late-night munchies.

"This is good. Really good."
"Ha. I told you."

After we brush away the stray crumbs and finish our tea, Lucille picks up the copy of our order the waiter left under the table glass, and we head over to the cash register to settle the bill. The total comes to HK$48, about US$6.20, a very reasonable price for a post-dinner snack.

"Oof. I think I need a walk."
"Mmm. I think you're right."

We leave the restaurant and start wandering back up towards SoHo. The next time we visit Tsui Wah, I think we'll do it well after dinner. Maybe I'll even go out in between.


Joh said...

That pork bun seems a lot less sinister to me than the pastry with the pork already IN it. I don't know why, but those always creep me out a little. (I still eat them, they're just.....sinister)
But that condensed milk bun sounds like insanity, in a good way!! yum!! I'd trade a diner/Ray's Pizza/Late night gastropub for one of those shops in the Village, I promise.

adele said...

Joh - I think it's something about trying not to think about where the pork came from and what they've done to it.

I'll bet there has to be at least one Hong Kong-style teashop in New York. It probably does bubble tea and waffles with condensed milk and peanut butter, too.

Carl said...

Condensed... milk... (follows links to cha chaan teng wikipedia article) ooooooh....

Virgin In The Volcano said...

This sounds so good. As a Jew, I knew nothing of condensed milk growing up. But in college, I lived with a Filipino guy who used condensed milk with everything and now I'm a believer.

~~louise~~ said...

I am surprisingly hungry at the moment. I say that because I just finished gorging myself and the thought of one of those buns, especially the condensed milk bun, is hard to resist.

Adele, I hope you had a wonderful time before it's time to hit those books!!!

adele said...

Carl - Sweetened condensed milk. It's like nascent caramel. Really good stuff.

Virgin - I'm glad he converted you. :P

Louise - They're surprisingly irresistible. :)

Cakelaw said...

Yum! I am coveting the prok bun right now ...

adele said...

Cakelaw - If you ever visit Hong Kong... ;)