We emerge from Central Station’s underground taxi stand, scooting along in a boxy, red Toyota Crown Comfort cab, complete with remote-controlled rear door openers and de rigueur custom gearshift knobs, and plunge Space Mountain style into daylight among the skyscrapers.
We’re on a tight schedule. For my girlfriend, Elisabeth, and me, Hong Kong is two 10-hour layovers bookending an Asia trip, but we’re after more than that schedule should reasonably allow. Before hopping into the cab, we had parked our bags at the airport and taken an 80-mile-an-hour train ride into town. I had put the word out to friends and colleagues that we would need help to get the most out of our visit. While Anthony Bourdain might have a fleet of specialists to plan his visits for his television show “The Layover,” we had a guy named Nelf.
Nelf Lee, who co-owns Hong Kong’s Rabbithole Coffee & Roaster, and foodie Barbara Mai were both recommended by Vancouver chefs with Hong Kong connections, and they meet us at the Wan Chai district’s Bowrington Road Market. Here, vendor stalls spill out onto the street in loud splashes of color and noise, and Nelf, who’s wearing a shirt that reads “Sorry about what happens later” brings us straight up a side staircase, to the Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre.
At the entrance, a lone woman sitting on a bucket presides over two pails of chicken feet. Beyond her, dozens of tables follow the contours of the space that’s ringed with kitchen stalls, and people fill every plastic stool in what is basically a food court. Coming into the city, I had wondered where all the people who live in the high rises were. The answer, it turns out, is at lunch. The Centre is a melting pot of construction workers, students, and businessmen, and Elisabeth and I are the only tourists.
Nelf (short for Nelvin) steers us to a table in front of Muslim Wai Kee (“They call it ‘Muslim’ but it just means ‘no pork,’ ” he says gleefully), and a whole roast duck and a beef curry with rice are served instantly. The duck’s been chopped into bite-size pieces, simple and deep flavored, while the curry is complex and charged with spicy heat.
We barely stand up before our seats are taken.
Back in a taxi, I notice the variety of restaurants that we whizz past: congee (porridge), Szechuan, bakeries something from almost every province of China. While Hong Kong’s got a bit of a sushi fetish and a rising interest in Western food, its greatest strength is the diversity of Chinese cuisine. They don’t mix and match; there’s no fusion between provinces. Instead, it’s the best of each.
Back in the Central District, we pile out of the cab on busy Wellington Street and head up a few flights of stairs, this time opening a door to a throng of people eating dim sum. The large but crowded room, where waiters push food carts among the tables, belongs to Lin Heung Tea House. Nelf flashes four fingers to a white-clad waiter who points to the ceiling. One flight up, we find another room, just as large and just as full, where we’re escorted to a table in the back corner.
Nelf chases down a cart while Barbara washes our teacups and chopsticks in a large bowl of tea, a cleaning custom that is as much about ritual as actual sanitation.
“This place is old school,” says Nelf, who’s returned with a couple of plates to get us going. “If you want a real dim sum environment, this is it.”
Four fried wontons look like flowers on a plate and we bite through their super-crisp exterior and find a plump, taut shrimp within. Next to them, sesame-dusted pastries hide tiny packets of barbecue pork inside, tastily mixing sweet and savory.
“We don’t necessarily proceed from savory to sweet,” Nelf says as our tea is refilled from a large bronze pot. “We’re fine with throwing some sweet into the middle of the meal.”
Back on the savory side, tofu skins wrapped around meltingly tender pork and firm shrimp become an instant favorite.
Full and teetering on the edge of jet-lagged wooziness, we accept when Nelf invites us to Rabbithole for a coffee. We walk by the Central District’s trendy shops, past tiny lanes lined with vendors, and in keeping with the day’s architectural theme, up a few flights of stairs. I knew that Nelf and his gang were serious about coffee in a town where appreciation of the drink is in its infancy, if nothing else from his photos of things like their bottomless portafilters (the removable handle and metal ring that hold the puck of grounds on an espresso maker) on Facebook. But Rabbithole went way beyond what I expected. They use seven espresso machines (they have a preference for Seattle’s Synesso and Spain’s Expobar brands) and six grinders, and offer a vast number of other ways to make coffee.
My espresso, pulled through that bottomless portafilter, tastes pure and alive, approaching the golden peak of what’s possible with coffee. With so much gear on display, Rabbithole may look like a cool mix between a cafe and restaurant equipment showroom, but it’s one of the best thought-out and most creative coffee shops I’ve been to.
With that, Nelf and Barbara walk us to Central Station and moments later, we’re on the train again, not drained like we should be after a long-haul fight and monster layover, but energized, our appetites whetted, our toes dipped in a first feeling of Asia.
Weeks later, Dragon Air deposits us in Hong Kong at 10:45 p.m. and, bless that train, less than 45 minutes later, we’re checked into our room at the Kowloon YWCA, which, at $60 a night, will be perfect for a few winks after some late-night fun.
Considering the hour, Nelf and my old friend Dean Cox have rather selflessly agreed to meet us.
“We can make last call at Ozone,” Nelf says, with an excitement that seems to suggest that our timing is sublime.
Ozone, it turns out, is the Ritz’s glitzy bar atop the International Commerce Center, one of the tallest buildings in the world, and we walk out onto a glassed-in porch for a true sense of height. Dean initially thinks we are up in the clouds because it’s black outside, but he has yet to lean against the windows to find the other city skyscrapers and clouds far below. With the stars just overhead, it feels like we’re taking pictures from the window of an airplane, more part of the sky than the city below.
The bar lights come on at 1 a.m., announcing closing time no less subtly than a dive bar, and we drop back to the ground and taxi to Kowloon’s neon-clad Tsim Sha Tsui district. It’s quiet outside, but the sign’s still lighted at Hing Kee Restaurant — they’re open until 5.
“This is what the boat people eat,” Nelf says, referring to the city inhabitants who live on the harbor, “and this is their lone remaining restaurant.”
Hing Kee sports a seafood-rich cuisine and we’re welcomed by glasses of hot sugar cane juice, with water chestnuts and sweet potato hunks floating inside the pitcher. The place is a favorite with Nelf’s family, so no menu appears. He simply orders a plate of chive flower stems, which come stacked like miniature cordwood in a shallow pool of homemade soy sauce, a light, crunchy counterpoint to what’s to come.
Duck soup with rice noodles is a sultry dish that’s a far cry from the late-night hangover-prevention food I’d expected. It’s followed by tiny, plump clams in a spicy sauce with a fermented bean base.
The star of the show, though, is the typhoon shelter crab. Delivered on an oval platter, it’s a six-inch mountain of crispy garlic bits, capped with the crustacean’s shell. The garlic mixture is a magic concoction redolent with tiny chilies and you eat only what clings to the crab parts buried within. It’s enough to make me reconsider my New Englander’s loyal preference for lobster over crab.
In a heartbeat, it’s 3 a.m. and we take a cab back to the hotel. All that’s left is to wake in a few hours to catch our flight.