Aberdeen's best fish ball shop to close

Aberdeen's best fish ball shop to close

Crowds gather at Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Ball for one last bite
Tse Kee fish balls
Nothing fishy about Tse Kee's fish snacks in noodle soup.

If you are a Hong Kong fish ball connoisseur, you know Tse Kee. And you are probably lining up at their doors right now for one of its last bowls of fish balls.

The family-run Aberdeen fish ball joint has been dishing out the Chiu Chow snack with soup noodles for 65 years. Now, Tse Kee is counting down to its March 31 closing date.

Faced with rising fish prices and staffing problems, the eatery has decided to shut it doors rather than compromise its commitment to fresh ingredients.

“Your fish has to be fresh, it's that simple,” says Tse Chan Wai-fong, the restaurant's matriarch.

Tse Kee has become an institution of Chiu Chow-style fish snacks. Fish balls, fish dumplings, deep-fried fish cakes and fish skins are all favorites of Tse Kee's regulars. 

Tse Kee fish ballsTse Chan Wai-fong has a secret for great fish balls.

The business was started by Mrs. Tse's father-in-law in the 1940s in another location down a tiny lane. The space was so narrow it was likened to a mountain crevice, which is called "shan loon" in Cantonese.

Today, the restaurant is located on Aberdeen's Old Main Street and pays homage to its humble beginnings with the name Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Ball. 

Besides attracting Aberdeen residents, the establishment has seen many famous faces over the years, including chief executive Donald Tsang, former governer Chris Patten and Cantopop king Eason Chan.

Mrs. Tse says there is no magic to good fish balls. She uses eel, lizard fish and croaker from mainland China. The fish are beaten to a thick pulp with a gelatinous texture and turned into various snacks. Sole and pork bones are used for the soup base.

The vivacious, straight-talking matron whose powerful vocalization turns everything she says into a dramatic oration for the entire restaurant, laments that the prices of those fish have jumped 40 percent in the past year.

It has also been difficult to hire staff as salaries rise. Rather than using poor quality fish or selling the business, the family has decided to shut it down.

“If we don’t have good fish, we don’t sell fish balls -- that’s how the old man always insisted on doing it,” Tse Chan Wai-fong says, referring to her father-in-law.

Evidently, it’s a formula that works. “I married my husband for his fish balls,” she says, laughing and slapping the cashier’s counter, where she is often stationed.

Tse Kee fish ballsTse Kee proves most popular during its last days.

Since news broke on February 22 that Tse Kee was shutting down, Mrs. Tse says the shop has seen a third more customers than usual. She believes she will be busier over the coming month than in the past 40 years.

By 3 p.m. on a recent day, the restaurant had run out of take-away fish items. 

While some might say there is nothing special about Tse Kee, many swear by it, and those loyal followers have been flocking over to have their last taste.

“The fishballs have a fresh taste and no stale fishiness to them,” says Aberdeen housewife Kwok Kam-chun, 58, who has been frequenting Tse Kee for 35 years and goes three times per week, sometimes with her daughter.

She recalls once spotting Chan, the singer, there.

Mr. So, 58, who took his first bite at Tse Kee 15 years ago, says fish balls elsewhere have a texture and taste that seems fake. He recently traveled with his wife from their home in Wong Tai Sin so she could have her first try before Tse Kee closes.

Tse Kee, G/F, 80-82 Old Main St., Aberdeen, +852 2552 3809. Open daily, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Noodles cost between HK$23 and HK$40 per bowl depending on the fish items accompanying them.