Sunday, August 11, 2013

1MB Travels: Hong Kong: Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Balls - Literal Hole in the (Mountain) Wall (CLOSED)

"Even a happy life cannot be without a measure of darkness, and the word happy would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness." - Carl Jung

Sometimes, I get sidetracked by what's of the moment - what other people want / need / demand - and I forget what's important to me.  (The rest of the time I might have become a bit unapologetically self-centered...).  Which is my round about way of coming to the point of why I'm writing about a place that has already closed - sorrow. For a place that brought such happiness - and the post that I meant to get to, celebrating the insanely good find that everyone in Hong Kong already knew and loved - that kept being superceded by 'more urgent' ones until I realized that I had waited so long, the place had ceased to exist.  And that it's a place that I can return to, nevermore.  RIP, Tse Kee - this is my remembrance of you.

My mom loves wandering Hong Kong (and other cities) in search of new eats - and 'saving up the good ones' for when I visit for the holidays.  On one such trip home, she brought me to a famous and hole-in-the-wall place in Aberdeen that purported to serve the best fish balls - a Cantonese specialty that do NOT have anything to do with sea creature gonads - ever.

There was a story behind the restaurant's curious name as well - it literally started out as a food stand in front of a cave, in the early days of Hong Kong history.  Word spread quickly of the quality of the family's handiwork, and the business rapidly grew into a full fledged restaurant - full fledged meaning a dai pai dong style, tiny hole-in-the-wall spot in Aberdeen.

They kept the phrase "Shan Loon" (Cantonese for "cave") in the name as a tribute to its humble beginnings - and because it was such a unique trait that the place became known for.  Everyone referred to it as the 'cave' fish balls.  In modern day Hong Kong, the family still kept the place old school style, with tables split amongst strangers, and non-nonsense, rushed, loud service - which far from turning off the locals, made them line up for hours each morning, noon and night for a taste of the famous bowls of fish ball noodle soups.  It goes without saying that no reservations were offered - definitely a first come, first served - fight to seat yourself wherever a spot opens up kind of place.

After about 45 minutes and shameless hovering over anyone who looked like they might be nearly done with their meal - my parents and I snagged seats at a shared table.  We quickly exchanged shouted orders and confirmations with the waitress, and our food came within minutes.  It's kind of like the In N Out method of fast, good food - keep the menu offerings focused to make it easy to order and easy to deliver.  It was all about fish balls, fish balls, and more fish balls.  With a smattering of other signature dishes for good measure.  We wanted to try the fried fish skin with the famous fish balls - but they were already sold out of it by the time we sat down (like at 11:15am!).  So I got my Schweppes cream soda...
...tried a bite of my parent's fish balls (fish meat ground up, emulsified and shaped into orbs, then fried for a chewy outer layer) with ho fan (rice noodles) served in pork rib broth and pretty much died of happiness.  Tse Kee makes everything from scratch and unlike most Chinese restaurants, do not use any MSG.  Yet the bowl was packed with amazing flavor, the fish balls were sublimely balanced between soft and resilient (al dente is not exactly the right phrase to describe it, but it would be in the right direction), and the fresh made noodles were the perfect, tender and smooth yet lightly springy consistency.

I also had to try the fish skin wontons, which were basically pork meatballs wrapped in fish skin and boiled in pork broth.  AMAZE-balls.  Yeah I went there.  And I had the flat rectangular sliced version of the fish balls (I guess you can call them fish cakes instead) again in that incredible pork rib broth that had such soul-soothing clarity and warmth, and the amazing fresh made ho fan noodles that served as the perfect foil for the textures and rich flavors of the fish cakes and wontons.

If there had been any way to ship these back to LA fresh, I'd have spent my life savings to do it.  It was that good.  And now it's gone :(  I will always remember and miss you, Tse Kee - you have left a hole in this food lover's heart that cannot be filled by anything else.  I will try to think positively and be grateful that I had the chance to experience you before your unfortunate departure. I will take this as a reminder to appreciate what is and remains in my life.  But I still hope that someone from the family will open another incarnation of this place someday - maybe even by the time I make it back to Hong Kong again.  I promise, this time, I would celebrate you while you are here.


Hong Kong
Shan Loon Tse Kee Fish Balls 山窿謝記魚蛋
80-82 Old Main Street, Aberdeen
Tel: 2552 3809

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