Noticing my ennui with food writing and becoming increasingly unsettled by it, my Bin declares, “Maybe it’s time to get back to basics!”
I roll my eyes. “What are you talking about?”
“A good Chinese restaurant will do you good, Lor. Basics, you know?”
My Bin had been to this “back to basics” Chinese restaurant a number of times, each visit nabbing a succeedingly higher rank on his mental “favorite restaurants” list. Inside the crowded car on the way over, he regales us with the lip-drippingly delicious items we’re soon to enjoy: “… steamed fish, the best! Chinese beef tenderloin… super fresh suahe.”
Hong Kong Chef Seafood Restaurant, like any good restaurant that deals with seafood, has aquariums out front displaying the edible sea dwellers. In the dim light however the tanks appear dirty, the tiles separating each look like they’ve come from a bad bathroom. Pass them on by lest you ruin your appetite. Inside, the Hong Kong Chef’s interior designers faithfully followed the mid-level “Chinese restaurant” blueprint: heavy drapes, wallpaper, gaudy accent pieces, and that characteristic lighting which bathes everyone in a fluorescent – and in this case – slightly pink glow.
But the food, ah, the food! As soon as our party swoops its collective butt on the chairs, my Bin (sans a menu), raps out our order in gunfire mode to the waitress, who, to her credit, is equally brisk at scribbling the dishes down. The requisite crab meat and corn soup (P315/small) together with the speedy, gotta-have-it yang chow fried rice (P360) sates ravenous appetites, especially the little ones’. “I’m so hungry, my tummy has a million holes in it,” whines my 5-year old nephew at the beginning of the meal but is quickly quieted with the assembly of dishes gathering at our table.
The salt and pepper fried squid (P250) is supremely crunchy with that satisfyingly salty endnote, the type that makes me reach for another. My Bin’s favorite beef tenderloin is awash in a sauce that’s beer bottle-brown tinged with an orange sunset. It’s succulent and sweet and slightly citrus-y, a dish that holds immense memories for my Bin and the Chinese restaurants of his childhood. For me, a must-have at any Chinese restaurant is taro puff (P75), mashed taro and bits of beef cosseted in a crust that should sharply shatter. Hong Kong Chef’s taro puff filling is slightly different: it’s similar to asado siopao and its protective cover, unabashedly crunchy. The suahe (steamed shrimp; P480) has been pulled off the fire the second they turned orange, allowing the shell to practically slide off with one pull, revealing flesh that still has some “bite” to it. The accompanying sauce made with patis (fish sauce), black vinegar, etc., has a salty tang that showcases the shrimps’ sweetness.
In any Chinese restaurant, it’s difficult to break away from “the usual” stuff we order over and over but do it, we must. How boring it is to eat repetitively! I discover that my youngest sister, C, has a predilection for salty & spicy spareribs (P260): “It may be the best I’ve had, Lori,” she tells me. Looking for all the world like fried chicken fingers save for its spill of fried garlic bits, these spareribs possess an egg white-wonder flour coating. Each crunch fills the mouth with tender pork brimming with the twin-thrill flavors of salty and umami. And because these are pork parts that come from the belly, they’re meaty with some fat that’s crisped up during frying. The garlic bits that come with this dish taste remarkably like the fried duck bones dish that Peking Garden and Choi Garden sell.
Boo orders a dish, shrimp with scrambled egg (P205). “Boo, that’s not something we order in a Chinese restaurant!” I chide. Little do I know. Softly scrambled eggs cradling juicy, shelled shrimp within their folds, and accompanied with sticky, short-grained rice, the dish is disarming in its simplicity. And really good. Once Boo declares she’s had her fill, I pounce on her leftovers. Good daughter that I have, she doesn’t eye me reproachfully, not even an “I told you so.”
We’re seated by the kitchen door, not an unappealing vantage point, in my opinion. There’s a function going on upstairs and I catch sight (and sniff) of more dishes I want to try on future visits. A waiter hauls up Peking duck, followed just moments later by a large dish on which an Alaskan king crab (or a smart facsimile thereof) reposes, his claws rightfully crossed indignantly. At a table across the room, I spy a whole pumpkin and since my devotion to this vegetable is boundless, a quick consult with a server affirms that it’s steamed pumpkin with a seafood filling.
Hong Kong Chef Seafood Restaurant does a remarkable steamed lapu-lapu (P1,040; dependent on market price). Granted, this is an expensive fish that doesn’t need much to be done with it. It’s presented at table, adrift in a tantalizing, transparent sauce gleaming with circles of what may be sesame and peanut oil. The server then retires to a nearby table and proceeds to debone the fish, making quick work of removing the backbone with just a serving spoon and fork. Looking a little mussed but more “eater-friendly,” it’s returned to table. Even if you eschew fish, you need to try at least one that’s so fresh it flipped its last barely hours ago. Masterfully cooked with just enough steam to transform the flesh, fresh fish is something you can judge a good Chinese restaurant on.
Hong Kong Chef Seafood Restaurant
Unit 05-06, Hong Kong Sun Plaza
Roxas Blvd., Pasay City
Open Monday-Sunday, 10.30am-11pm
Another good Chinese restaurant, albeit with Singaporean accents: