Hong Kong's cooked food centers: Dai pai dong without the rats
Cooked food centers are essentially a hub of Hong Kong's iconic dai pai dong located indoors, usually tucked away on the top floor of a municipal building that houses wet markets.
These centers offer some of the city's most representative dining, but what separates them from traditional dai pai dong is the indoor location, and the fact that they aren't very dirty. Sacrilegious, yes, but the rollicking, bustling atmosphere of the typical dai pai dong is, thankfully, maintained. Here are our favorites:
1. 99 Java Road, North Point
The second floor of the Java Road Municipal Building houses a cooked food center, and it is reassuringly familiar for dai pai dong lovers.
The various food stalls are so jam-packed that they invade each others' space. The grimy ceiling fans grant a certain perspective to the Hygiene Department’s published boast of biweekly inspections. TVs blare, aircons blast and a cupboard of wine bottles (Chateau de Birot, HK$188) sits a few feet from a shrine powdered with the ash of expired joss sticks.
“McDonalds, KFC, Café de Whatever – they don’t make no difference to us,” says Mrs Ma as she shoves a brimming pot of dandelion tea across the service counter. Ma is the doyenne of Chung Gei (Fountain of Youth Restaurant) and 17-year-veteran of the Java Road center. Her quick dismissal of competition from other cheap eateries is validated when, shortly after dawn, there’s barely a seat to be had in her place.
Diners are clamoring for Ma's dim sum and she juggles dim sum baskets like a circus plate-spinner while gliding among tables. Cha siu bao, siu mai and spring rolls costs a total of HK$36. Strangely, nobody seems to have brought their laptop to take advantage of the government-installed WiFi.
2. 100 Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City
Stand by for a surprise: many of Kowloon City’s cooked food centers have been colonized by Thais and their Cantonese is better than their English. Their Thai dishes are so good they could have been air-freighted direct from Bangkok.
“I married a Hong Konger,” explains Mrs Wong from behind the till at Amporn Thai Food. “All five Thai outlets here are owned by our family one way or another. We leased one to start with, then another when that proved successful, and so on. There’s loads of Thais living around here, but Hong Kongers love the food too.”
A skylight brightens up this particular cooked food center, which stands next to a public library. Pork curry, Thai fried rice, a lime soda and a fresh coconut weighs in at a total of HK$126.
3. 123 Fa Yuen Street, Mong Kok
Mong Kok’s cooked food center does its best amid the concrete rain forest.
The northern side is open to the elements, so there’s a touch of al fresco dining, while a public terrace overlooking Fa Yuen Street itself morphs into an informal biergarten in the evenings, although it’s more bier than garten, with a dash of tobacco consumption thrown in.
“We come here most evenings,” says Mr Wong, a carpenter by trade. “Cheaper than a restaurant and better than a bar. Why go anywhere else?”
For additional entertainment, a 46-inch television casts its spell in one corner, while just behind it a couple hunches over a game of bluff dice and two bottles of Blue Girl.
Food-wise, there’s the usual selection of rice and noodles, but Fu Lin Fai Tsan's pigeon dish stands out. Equally arresting, Shu Fai Ga Fei has dispensed with the traditional rickety plastic tables and chairs in favor of matching wooden furniture. A symptom of gentrification?
The spicy shrimp dish known as laat jiu haa yen, together with iced lemon tea and Ovaltine costs HK$55.
4. Mui Wo Ferry Pier Road, Mui Wo
It’s perhaps inevitable that Hong Kong’s most picturesque cooked food center is threatened with demolition.
Right on the waterfront, the Mui Wo cooked food center looks out over beach, sea, rolling hills and passing watercrafts. But if a Land Use Concept Plan gets its way, the pleasant higgledy-piggledy layout will be bulldozed into a single row of “lifestyle destination restaurants."
“We don’t know exactly what’s going to happen,” says Ms Yuen at Cheung’s Cafe, which does a very neat HK$25 afternoon tea and toast. “We just hope in some way it’s going to be good for business in the long run.”
While the bureaucrats and the contractors are still thrashing out the details, there’s still time to catch a seafood meal or two and recall other inexpensive and ultra democratic eateries. Blake’s Pier and the Poor Man’s Nightclub are two that have now disappeared from the Hong Kong landscape.