Shui Hu Ju,
Hong Kong, China,
tasted on December 12, 2005 — I've mentioned
how hard it is to find out
how to spend your few precious meals in a new city. Not knowing who
to trust for recommendations, etc. I also had this fantasy about how
I was going to try out a bunch of underground restaurant's in Hong
Kong. That plan wasn't
going so well either (though I was eating plenty of
excellent food). The
concierge at the
Landmark Mandarin Oriental, a stunning hotel (not to be confused
with the just pain old Mandarin Oriental which is also lovely) was
really a gem. I told him I wanted to go to
Mum Chau's Sichuan Kitchen, what I thought was a Sichuan
speakeasy (though given how well known it was it seemed pretty
official to me). He said to me, "you seem like the kind of person
who appreciates a more intimate and low key experience." He wasn't
dissing on Mum Chau's as he thought it was also a great place to
try, but he recommended I try
Hu Ju. He also had very specific instructions about what I was
After driving in circles for 20 minutes in the cab
(I don't know why I assumed in Asia that cabbies know where things
are located... furthermore, I don't know why I assume that here in
North America) I finall found Shui Hu Ju. There's no sign in
English. The only way to identify it is by finding a traditional
Chinese entryway with two red lanterns (one on either side).
It's on the left at the top of Peel street (assuming you are walking
uphill towards it. Peel street ends as a dead end with a staircase.
If you've hit the staircase you've gone too far. Normally I don't
spend a lot of time with directions, but this place is a little
tricky to get to and I want to make sure you can go.
Once you step inside it's cozy. Everything has a
cool design. Rustic but refined. There's Chinese Jazz playing in
the background. (Don't ask me what that means. It meant something
too me when I wrote it down.) A little snack showed up as I sat down
in my seat,
Boiled Peanuts and Celery served cold. The peanuts had a faint
kick and were quite tasty. Have I mentioned that I love snacks? :)
For some reason,
menus in Hong Kong are not big on section headers. I challenge
you to tell what the size of a potential dish will be from the menu.
This might be because everything comes family style. Fine with me,
but it took a little getting used to. Luckily on this evening I had
coaching from the concierge on what to order.
First up was a dish of
String Beans with Garlic and Chili Sauce. Wow! Cold, crisp,
perfect string beans topped with enormous amounts of chopped oiled
fresh garlic dotted with peppers and draping those perfect beans.
Man oh man. I only added a touch of the spicy sauce that came with
as I was worried about the super spicy dish I'd ordered for later. I
love when food is just left to be what it is in its simplest and
best form. This dish was truly amazing and special. The amount of
garlic was obscene. But this was not a stunt. It's how it was meant
to be eaten.
As I recovered from the garlic explosion I noticed
an an adorable drawer in the table that I was eating on. It was
filled with napkins and the toothpicks that are ubiquitous
throughout many restaurants in Hong Kong.
After the beans I got
Fried Prawns with Golden Garlic. Wow again. At this point I'm
really falling in love with this restaurant. Gorgeous prawns in a
mound of a garlic chili scallion crumble. These were light and flaky
with an almost corn flake texture. Despite the presence of even more
garlic the flavor was totally different than the sharpness of the
garlic with the beans. There was some modest heat but no biggie. One
other note: the shrimps had their own almost microscopic deep fried
coating but inside retained a unique a seafoody quality. The shrimp
had not been genericized or muddled but still retained their basic
essence. Much like the beans did in the previous dish.
In preparation for the spicy dish I'd ordered I
asked if I'd be able to taste anything after I ate it. My waiter
said "that's why we bring it last."
Finally the waiter approached me with a dish of
Deep-Fried Chicken with Sichuan Chilis. I literally laughed out
loud (out of nervousness I'm sure) when this
ginormous bowl of peppers was served with big chunks of
deep-fried chicken peering out from within the nooks and crannies of
their pepper prison. Please take a moment to look at this picture of
the bowl that arrived. It was roughly 16 inches in diameter. It
looked like it could feed a family of 8 and it took a minute to
notice there was even any chicken in there. I'll admit that I'm not
a huge afficionado of spiciness, hot sauces, and hot peppers. I like
some heat and kick but I'm kind of a wuss. On a scale from 1-10
where a 1 eats pablum and a 10 eats
raw I'm somewhere around a 6-7. I girded myself for the onslaught.
The chicken chunks were mostly black. I'm not
entirely sure why. I tentatively bit into the first one and there
was no going back. Then I discovered the bones. Someone took a
cleaver to a chicken and made 2x2inch chunks and dumped them in the
deep fry. That's fine but it did add to the difficulty of trying to
keep a steady flow of meat into my mouth.
As I ate, the rules came back to me.
Don't stop eating. The answer for heat isn't
starch or water (though I had both at the ready), it's more
heat so your mouth doesn't think anything is out of the
ordinary. It's the contrast that gets you.
When you finally do finish eating the spicy
dish, the duration of the pain in your mouth is proportional to
how much you abused it. I sat for a good 10 minutes breathing
frantically as if to cool a fire raging in front of my face.
the pepper haze slowly cleared I tried to collect my thoughts about
this experience. Ultimately the single best thing about the evening
is that every dish I ate, every ingredient that went into those
dishes were presented with the absolute minimum of preparation. In a
world where chefs often revel in just how much stuff they can do to
various ingredients to manipulate and transform them, finding food
that celebrates the core essence of each ingredient is refreshing
(and in my opinion often more difficult to accomplish). Each
ingredient was wonderfully prepared in unambiguous combinations.
Fantastic. No doubt, this was the best meal I had in Hong Kong.