Tung Po – the most famous seafood restaurant in Hong Kong – is a heaving, fluorescent-lit room with plastic stools, communal tables and dusty NBA posters on the walls. The staff wear gumboots and occasionally moonwalk between tables. In place of napkins – napkins aren't really a thing in down-market Hong Kong restaurants – there's a roll of toilet paper on every table, tucked under a green plastic cozy. The place is charming the way bus terminals are charming, except that at Tung Po nearly all the passengers are drunk.
So why does this frenetic dining hall, tucked away in the decidedly untouristy North Point neighbourhood, appear on countless Hong Kong must-do lists, including mine? Much of it boils down to one name: Anthony Bourdain. The chef/world traveller/talking head hyped the restaurant in a 2007 episode of his program No Reservations. But among locals it was already a destination – a buzzing example of a dai pai dong, the kind of open-air food stalls that used to dominate the city before their numbers dwindled to just 25.
This all makes Tung Po a rare, easy dining choice in a city where choosing among restaurants can be overwhelming. And for a visitor, it's a perfect starting point – an ideal immersion experience that satisfies the requirements of the modern food-loving traveller: a night out that is both delicious and the real deal. I'd put all my Hong Kong planning into the city's dim sum houses. As for seafood, I did what everybody else does: I googled, and Bourdain's mug popped up.
The problem was that I had also planned to go out that night with a friend of a friend, and he had other ideas.
Sunil had promised he'd take me to his favourite seafood restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall where you bought your fish, shrimp and abalone from a nearby wet market and then handed them over to the kitchen for preparation. Only locals ate there, he told me. But he wasn't a local, exactly. A wiry rock climber who had lived in Hong Kong for the last eight years, Sunil was originally from Seattle. He seemed to have a lot of time on his hands. I had limited time, and I didn't know enough to trust him yet. I asked if we could try out Tung Po instead.
The first thing people do after ordering beer at Tung Po is wash their bowls and chopsticks with the pot of tea and the metal washing vessel that's set out on every table. (A note in case you go there: Nobody drinks the tea.) Sunil washed our chopsticks with the sort of rigour that suggested he knew something I didn't want to know. (The washing ritual is common to most downmarket spots in the city, an anthropologist later told me over dim sum. It sprang out of the SARS crisis in 2003.)
I loved this place. I loved this moment. I drank my beer in a fog of jetlag and exhilaration and let Sunil order the food.
We ate a mountain of shrimp that were just barely cooked, wokked soft and smoky, translucent pink and buried in crisp fried garlic and sinus-searing chili heat. We had clear, soothing soup, and fried rice sown with chopped Chinese broccoli and scallion and egg whites instead of whole egg, an ordering trick of Sunil's (he knows what he's doing, it turns out) that makes fried rice taste light instead of like a rock in your gut.
What we didn't have were the abalone because at Tung Po the abalone cost $60 HKD apiece, the equivalent of around $10, and Sunil refused to pay that much when they cost a quarter of that at his favourite seafood place, the one we didn't go to. (Tung Po's high prices may have something to do with the legions of moneyed tourists and beefy yobbo bankers who populate its tables many nights.)
We didn't eat our barbecued grouper either – a fat and slow-moving thing that we had picked out from Tung Po's aquarium. It was the last one they had. We watched as it was sent to a table of beefy yobbo bankers. I knew what Sunil was thinking. We should have gone to his seafood place.
The following evening, I took him up on his offer. Leung Kee Seafood Restaurant is located in a market in a mostly residential area on the northeast shore of Hong Kong Island. It was everything that Tung Po wasn't: It was small and cheap and relatively quiet, and judging by the clientele – all locals save Sunil, me and two of his friends – the place had never appeared on TV. Leung Kee, I soon realized, is where you go when you want good, simple, inexpensive seafood without Tung Po's tourist scene.
Once we'd found our table, we went back outside to a seafood seller whose stall was stocked with live prawns and scallops, shimmering silver abalone, whole live fish and lobster, razor clams and crabs. Sunil pointed his way around what we wanted and then the vendor handed him a fistful of clear plastic bags, wriggling with our dinner inside.
We heard the roar of gas-fired flames as a wok burner started, and then the clang of shells on metal. Within minutes, there was a tray of abalone in front of us, seasoned with ginger, light soy, scallions and fragrant strips of dried tangerine peel. They tasted the way oysters do – like clean, cool seawater – with a touch of abalone's characteristic chew and a bright, bitter-floral edge from the citrus peel.
We had egg-white fried rice and wokked gai lan (also known as Chinese broccoli), followed by a platter of some of the best roast chicken I've tasted. The chef had spooned sizzling oil over the pieces as they cooked, to crisp the skin to shattering. (Yes, the place is a seafood restaurant, but I caught on fast: If Sunil says something's great, you go for it.)
The best part, though, was the whole steamed grouper, set into a pool of light-tasting soy and ginger sauce. You're supposed to bathe the fish with the sauce, a friend of Sunil's told me. She grabbed a spoon to begin rhythmically basting it.
The flesh steamed as we ate it: soft and rich and impeccably fresh, tempered with the ginger's mellow, high-toned heat. We finished our drinks and paid the bill and made plans for another night out soon. Sunil's pick, of course. I was glad we'd hit Tung Po, but I'd learned my lesson.
Tung Po: 2/f Java Road Municipal Services Building., 99 Java Rd.
Leung Kee Seafood Restaurant: 12 Tai On St., Sai Wan Ho Market, ground floor, section C7-C8
The writer's flight and hotel stay was covered by Hong Kong Tourism. It did not review or approve the article.