I went to Hong Kong alone for the first time in November last year. I landed at Chep Lak Kok, negotiated the Airport Express to my hotel on Lantau (yes, at a certain mouse-orientated theme park), and set out the next day, Sunday, to explore, since my previous trips at a previous job had always been the fly-in, meet, fly-out type.
It was shell-shocking. A riot of sounds in a language I don't speak, signs in a language I can only barely read, people moving to a rhythm not my own, walking on the "wrong" side of hallways, Filipino families cooking on blankets in parks and hallways and alleys and anywhere security guards didn't shoo them off, traffic and fumes and enormous buildings and unfamiliar food. I spent the day shopping, met someone with whom I had no languages in common who took me to a Malaysian restaurant in some ghastly alley of Wanchai, fled back to my palace on Lantau, and sobbed uncontrollably for so long the hotel sent someone to find out what was wrong. Eventually, with the help of coworkers and friends, I learned some survival Cantonese, was able to read enough to be able to tell a restaurant from, say, a dentist's office (if you don't think this sounds like an accomplishment, you've never been to HK, where restaurants are often on, say, the 2nd floor above a tailor or a doctor).
I tell this story because as one descends from the lofty spaces of La Habra Heights on Harbor Boulevard, as the homes and businesses get closer together as one approaches the 60 freeway, one gets the same feeling in Hacienda and Rowland Heights. Colima Road, Nogales, Hacienda Boulevard, Fullerton Road, they're all a bewildering mishmash of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Indonesian and Filipino culture. In one plaza alone is a Korean barbecue, a Japanese market, a Filipino turo-turo joint, a pho shop, and innumerable tiny Chinese places.
I'll be damned if I'm going to play "clueless tourist" so close to home, so as Mrs Ubergeek and Ubergeeklette are up in the Valley for their usual Friday fun, I decided to go explore. I knew I wanted to go to Ma Lan Noodles, to see if the Hacienda Heights branch is as good as the old Monterey Park branch was, so I arranged for a (fluently) Mandarin-speaking friend to meet me at 7 PM and set off over the hill. The traffic gods were good to me, perhaps to make up for the rain we had this morning, and I arrived at 6:20.
I was bloody starving, and I started to wander, and practically fell into Chung King Restaurant (also called Mr. Swiss -- more on this later). I figured I was going to go into carbohydrate overload anyway, and anyplace named Chung King ought to know their way round a prickly ash tree, why not start with a bowl of cold, spicy Sichuan noodles? Chinese families sat around steaming cauldrons of hotpot and jiggly piles of "ma la" pig's blood. I sat down, tea was brought, and a menu labelled "Mr. Swiss Chinese Food" and containing... orange chicken, chow mein, fried rice, "green pepper beef" and the like. Bewildered, and after checking to make sure the characters on the sign outside for Chung King were the same on the placards inside, I beckoned the waitress and said (in my awful, awful Mandarin), "Isn't this Chongqing Restaurant? Don't you have Sichuan food?"
The waitress, in English: "You won't like."
Me, in English: "Bring me the real menu, if I want bad orange chicken I will go to Panda Express! I want dan dan mian!"
Waitress, in English: "You won't like. It's spicy."
Me, in Mandarin: "Bring me a bowl of dan dan mian! Don't argue!"
Waitress, in Mandarin: "Fine, but if you don't like it you still have to pay for it!"
This was fight #1. Fight #2 was over the fork. I don't know about you, but trying to eat oily noodles with a fork just is a recipe for spending money at the dry cleaner. The whole point of chopsticks is that they're good for noodles, which is why Thais, who use fork and spoon for everything else, still eat noodles with chopsticks. Fight #3 was over the fact that there was a bowl and a plate but no tea cup, yet there was tea on the table... "Nimen zhe-r cha bei you mei you... don't you have teacups here?"
Eventually the noodles showed up, and they were, in fact, spicy, and very, very good, with sprinkled peanuts and green onions throughout, swimming in chili oil. Except that they were hot, and I asked for cold. I wasn't going to argue anymore, or I'd never get out. I ate some of the noodles, had the rest packed up, tipped rather stingily on my $4.25 bill, and went to go meet my friend at Ma Lan.
And waited... and waited... and waited... and at 7.30 gave up and went in.
"It's good you come in, it's cold outside!" chided the proprietress, as she set down napkins, chopsticks, spoon and a glass of cold water.
"Ni you mei you cha?" I asked. "Do you have tea?"
She handed me the order form and, without thinking about it, I wrote 小 in the column for the quantity, since you can have small (小) bowls ($5.50) or large (大) bowls ($5.95). This set off a torrent of Mandarin, of which I understood less than half and nodded to be polite. I sat back to watch the noodles being made -- which, if you've never seen it, is kind of cool, but if you've seen it before as I have it's a bit of an anti-climax -- it takes about 30 seconds to turn a lump of dough into an insanely long noodle (which is never cut, since the long noodle is good luck for a long life).
All of a sudden, a scallion pancake appeared on my table, as well as a few slices of what I think might have been duck. Again bewildered, I went to beckon the waitress, but the man at the table next to me filled me in on the part of the conversation I had missed -- the waitress had given me freebies since she thought it was impressive that a white man could write Chinese. (Bear in mind here, I wrote exactly three strokes here. Not exactly a Herculean feat of calligraphy by anyone's estimation.)
The soup arrived, and I dug in. The pancake was tasty but, unfortunately, overdone -- too crunchy and lost structural integrity in the middle. The duck(?) was quite good, doused in what I think might have been ginger oil. I'd have thought it was Cantonese soy sauce chicken, which is eaten with ginger and scallion in oil, but it wasn't chicken. The soup, though, was very, very good -- the broth had been cooking for long enough that it was able to stand up to the ingredients, and the noodles were excellent, toothsome and able to soak up the soup. The beef in the soup tasted a bit smoky, and there was so much greenery floating around in the soup that it was hard to see the soup. I added a bit of chili oil for some heat and devoured the whole thing. For $5.50 you can't beat it. I might go for the thinner noodles next time.
I was pretty full but my mouth was singing with the chilies I'd just eaten, so I figured I'd explore and see if I could find a place to buy something cold and sweet for dessert. I passed Shau Mei next to the HK Superstore, but at the corner of Nogales I saw "Phoenix Food Boutique".
"What the hell is a 'food boutique'? Is this like the Chinese answer to Fauchon?" I asked.
I parked, went in, and discovered not Fauchon but an honest-to-God Hong Kong cha chaan teng (teahouse) right in Rowland Heights. Modern, minimalist decor and all. Food was everywhere -- cookies stacked in neat boxes next to the cashier, cold puddings in a cooler, various appetizers portioned out and ready to be served in another cooler.
I sat and asked for a menu, and was immediately transported back to Hong Kong. They had junjong (yuanyang, the blend of tea, coffee, condensed milk and milk that is what keeps the youth of Hong Kong going)! I couldn't resist. I ordered a mixed-fruit shaved ice and a cup of cold junjong, passing up the dou fu fa (豆腐花, hot tofu custard with ginger syrup) and the various tapioca-based drinks.
The junjong was fantastic -- it's got a kind of gritty, acerbic aftertaste that I just can't get enough of -- but the real star here was the shaved ice. It was -- and I'm saying this as someone who used to drive from the Westside to Monterey Park at any hour to go get shaved ice -- the very best shaved ice I've ever had. The fruit was good (obviously fresh), and the mixture of the finely-shaved ice and condensed milk just sent me over the moon. It was topped with what looked for all the world like albino caviar -- tiny pearls of barely-tastable tapioca that made the texture just perfect. I must have looked ecstatic, because all the waitstaff were grinning at me when I "came to".
Phoenix Food Boutique isn't cheap. My cup of junjong was $2 and the bowl of ice was $5 -- but it was well worth it. I'm already thinking of going back. They have many locations, from South Pasadena to Irvine, but some are "Phoenix Restaurant", some are "Phoenix Dessert" and some are "Phoenix Food Boutique". I haven't figured out what the difference is, but it's certainly worth a trip to Irvine to find out.
Chung King and Mr. Swiss Restaurant
15840 Halliburton Road (south side, facing the end of Olympus Avenue)
Hacienda Heights, CA
2020 S. Hacienda Blvd. #B (a few doors south of Rite-Aid, same plaza as Vons, SE corner)
Hacienda Heights, CA
Phoenix Food Boutique (note that the 18166 Colima Rd location, near Banana Bay, is closed)
1790 Nogales St. (SW corner of Colima Rd., facing Colima Rd.)
Rowland Heights, CA