Friday, March 25, 2016

Dai Pai Dong Dinner

We ended our late outing to the unfamiliar neighborhood of Sham Shui Po with a dinner in a big group at a street-side cooked food stall, aka Dai Pai Dong, called Tin Cheung nearby.

These days we often use the term Dai Pai Dong (大牌檔), which literally meant "Big License Stall" in Cantonese, in the generic sense, referring to any local, casual restaurant serving cheap, home-style food, but Tin Cheung is one of the few "real" dai pai dongs that remain, one that operates at designated location on the street using the now-obsolete cooked food stall license known as the "big license" (as opposed to the common, "small" license which only permits sale of drinks and ready-made food on premise)

Tin Cheung took up half a block in this aging neighborhood in northwest Kowloon, in an area lined with auto repair shops, recycling factories, rundown residential buildings and not far away from the public housing estates. Right across the street taking the other half of the block was another equally famous dai pai dong, with both packed with customers as we arrived slightly before 9.

Walking past the makeshift open-air kitchen on the street where all the chopping, cutting, washing and cooking actions take place, we - 16 of us - settled in 2 connecting round tables in the middle of the dining area inside the shop. The lively atmosphere inside the dining room was a stark contrast to this usually quiet neighborhood this late in the evening.

The menu offered a wider variety of dishes, filled with what you would expect from a typical dai pai dong plus a few "signature" items not commonly seen elsewhere. Taking a quick glance of what they have in the menu, we ordered our food in quick-fire fashion and the food began to arrive soon after.

First up was the Baked Fish Intestine with Eggs (雞蛋焗魚腸), served in the traditional clay casserole. I saw a stack of those sitting on the kitchen counter waiting to be cooked as we walked in and I knew this is something I must order. Fish intestines were pulled off from giant grass carp fish as they were cut up, carefully washed, mixed with egg wash and topped with yau ja gwai (油炸鬼), or the deep-fried dough. It was then baked and broiled giving the dish a slightly burnt crust on top with the egg and the fried dough. It's somewhat of an acquired taste as the intestines had this uniquely strong, fishy flavor, but I love the rich taste and texture combined with the crunchy fried dough, so much that I think I finished half of the dish by myself.

We could almost feel the heat of the red-hot wok (or "wok hei" in Chinese) from a couple deep-fried dishes brought to our table in quick succession. Both the squids and the prawns were great - the squid was coated with a light batter with salt and peppercorns, and the prawns were done in a similar fashion with a thicker batter mixed with salted egg yolks. Both were then deep-fried in hot oil to golden color with the perfect crunchy texture. I think we couldn't ask for a better version of both dishes – that’s hardly surprisingly really, as we could see the fierce fire from the stoves from a block away before we walked in. Even though we didn't order any alcohol this time, I reckon the dish would have gone down well with a bottle of ice-cold beer.

The spare-ribs was one of the special dishes on the menu. At first it looked just like one of those ordinary Cantonese spare-ribs – cut into small pieces, marinated with ginger and soy sauce and sautéed in wok. But this one was spiked with wasabi – the Japanese mustard that gave the dish an interesting kick.

A number of fresh seafood items were available, and we picked one marble goby (筍殼魚), a farmed freshwater fish common in the region, and have it deep-fried. While steaming might be the more conventional cooking method for the whole fish, deep-frying gave the dish an interesting contrast in textures of the delicate meat, the crispy skin and the crunchy bones (which were edible – at least the smaller ones). We hardly needed any additional seasoning for the fish, except just a light dash of soy sauce and green onions as garnish.

We also had a couple other dishes that I thought were decent – one couldn't go wrong with the steamed pork patty with a salted egg yolk, which was considered as the ultimate Cantonese comfort food to some, and the omelets with baby oysters, which was done fluffier than the traditional Chiuchow style and stuffed with leeks. The stir-fried rice noodles with beef was another classic dish - while it may not be the version with the most beef slices, it's very tasty with everything well marinated.

The only dish I found slightly disappointing was the deep-fried chicken. The skin was perfectly crisp just the way it should be, but I thought the meat was a bit overcooked and dry. And we finished with a pair of veggie dishes - the sauteed mustard greens with the enticing shrimp paste, then the spinach in soup covered with minced pork, scrambled salted eggs and wedges of century egg (aka golden and silver eggs)

We soon realized we may have over-ordered a little bit when dishes after dishes were coming our way, filling up both of our tables even after we were properly stuffed with food. But never mind - we did manage to finish most and packed the rest home. To us, this was a truly blessed evening – and that went way beyond just one satisfying meal at this awesome place with such wonderful, kind-hearted people.

When? February 25 2016
Where? Tin Cheung Restaurant - 98 Yee Kuk Street near Shek Kip Mei Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon
天祥飯店 深水埗石硤尾街醫局街98號利德昌大廈側
Menu Highlights? Baked Fish Intestine with Eggs (雞蛋焗魚腸)

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