Friday, January 14, 2011

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant

Much as I love my friends, foodie or not, when one says they "really like Chinese food" and gives Panda Express as an example, it makes me really, really, really sad.  I may be completely biased as I consider myself lucky to have grown up with it, and know that 'real' Chinese food does not consist of 'item combo' plates of battered meat that look like they could glow in the dark, or single-note stir-fries, but a nearly limitless feast on an ever-spinning lazy susan of wide-ranging ingredients, unique flavor profiles and regional preparations.

That is why I love Hong Kong - all kinds of regional cuisines running the gamut from haute to homey are a snap of the chopsticks away, that are either not easily accessible or not well done in the U.S.  One of my favorite cuisines is Chiu Chow for its beautifully simple but flavorful dishes.  In my last visit to HK, I was introduced to Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant 百樂潮州 in Causeway Bay, its entrance half hidden in a recessed hallway in an office building.

The only visible sign of the restaurant from the street is a butcher window, that at any standard Chinese restaurant would have marinated chickens, ducks and/or barbecue pork hanging from the racks, but at Pak Loh has whole crabs dangling by their claws.  This is as cold crab is a famous Chiu Chow dish, as possibly the only traditional Chinese cuisine that serves the crustacean cold.
The inside of the restaurant is no frills, unlike the latest western style Chinese restaurants with ostentatious interior design and locations at the top of highrises - but it is clean and comfortable.

Chiu Chow meals always start with a serving of tiny cups of 'Kung Fu Tea' - literally just enough for one mouthful.  I'm told these 'shots' have at least twice the caffeine of normal teas, but have never investigated - it's a little more bitter than regular Chinese teas served at restaurants, and definitely wakes you (and your taste buds?) up before the feast.

We started off with Lo Shui Sliced Goose ("Soyed Goose Slices" on the menu, HK$150 ~$19) 鹵水鹅片.  "Lo Shui" is a type of soy based marinade and a Chiu Chow signature preparation for all kinds of meats.  The goose slices at Pak Loh were tender, and the saltiness well balanced with the sweet & sour dipping sauce (not the Panda Express kind, but a clear, liquid sauce).
Next up is a childhood favorite - Omelette with baby oysters 香煎蠔仔烙.  The name is pretty much self explanatory. This dish is a bit about contrasts - the omelette is fried to a crisp on the outside, which sandwiches the creamy oysters in every bite.  Pak Loh's version was fine, but not as incredible as I've had at other places, mainly because the oysters did not retain their structure, and was sort of an amorphous, gelatinous spread inside the egg.

There is a Chiu Chow dish that I had as a kid, that I had not been able to find in the U.S., which up until Pak Loh I had mistakenly believed to be stir fried bone marrow (which led to the disappointment with American/Italian preparations like roasted bone marrow, which is not the same consistency at all).  The Chinese name is "quat shui" 脊髓- the first word means "bone".  In fear of mad cow disease, my parents had warned me away from this dish in recent years.  However, on this visit I had a huge craving for it and absolutely had to have it before I left.  So my mom kindly relented and ordered up a dish that was named on the menu as Stewed Abalone with...*drum roll*...Boned Goose Web and Cow's Spinal Cord (HK$118 ~US$15) 鹅掌脊髓.  Yep, big revelation that surprised even my parents.  In terms of consistency, cow spinal cord sort of feels like gnocchi, but a bit firmer and more chewy, without the separation of shell and filling, and tube-shaped.  I haven't found anything else that tastes and feels like this - so although the thought of what it is may be a little appalling, since I grew up with this dish and like the taste and feel, it didn't bother me.  Boneless goose web (which I'd never had) functioned the same as the baby corn and mushrooms, to offset the tender chewy pieces with crunch.

Another childhood favorite is "Tong Cho Mein" ("Fried Crispy E-fu Noodles served with Sugar and Vinegar" on menu, HK$88 ~US$11) 乾煎糖醋麵.  This is like a pancake of thin egg noodles pan-fried on both sides to a beautiful golden brown, which you then season with vinegar and sugar - and is a shining example of sweet and sour done right.  Every mouthful is a combination of crispy, chewy, light crunch from the granulated sugar that lends sweetness to the savory noodles, and vinegar to hydrate the mix and provide a burst of sour to counterbalance the sweet.

Simple, yet deliciously designed layers of flavor and texture.

We finished off the meal with 'Crystal Baos' ("Steamed Sweet Crystal Dumplings" on menu, HK$24 ~US$3) 水晶包 - another Chiu Chow signature dish, so named for the transparent mochi-like dough wrapped surrounding lotus seed paste.  In this case, two types of lotus seed paste are served up - red and white.  At Pak Loh the crystal bao dough was perfectly chewy, and the paste was smooth and served at just the right right temperature - hot but not enough to scorch the roof of your mouth.

All in all, a lovely family dinner.  As expected at the end of a Chiu Chow meal, the same tea served at the beginning is also offered at the end (the better to wake you up from food coma, because you WILL overeat) before stepping out into the night. 

On a 7 point scale:
Flavor - 6 bites
Presentation - 5 bites
Originality - 5 bites
Ambience - 5 stars
Service - 6 stars
Overall experience - 5.5 bites
Price - $$ (2 bite marks)
Probability of return visit - 90%


Hong Kong
Pak Loh Chiu Chow Restaurant 百樂潮州
G/F 23-25 Hyson Ave., Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Ph: 852-2576-8886


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