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Da Ping Huo

See, I'm not a foodie, fixated on ingredients, provenance, preparation, minutiae. Eating is fun, but I'm more about the experience. I regret not being able to recall details from every dish at this meal, but there were so many items, and not in tasting portions either. While I got over my public food photography phobia, I didnt feel this was an appropriate venue for geeking out (though I dont think anyone wouldve minded, after all, we were the only diners).

Si fang cai, a.k.a. speakeasies or unlicensed restaurants, seemed to be the rage in Hong Kong a few years ago, and still carry on. I'm not sure if Da Ping Huo still fits into this secret code, hidden door, word of mouth category, but it still feels worlds away from an established restaurant. It's not someones cozy home, but an austere concrete, metal and wood affair. Minimalist, chic-stark, but hardly soulless.

I knew the routine, primarily because I like to over plan and never leave anything to chance. It's like this: you must call ahead, there are seatings at 6:30 and 9:30, the menu is set and costs HK 250 ($32, which is a serious bargain) per person, and the eatery is owned by a couple. The husband, an artist with paintings adorning the walls, plays host, while his wife stays mostly behind the scenes as cook. Shes also a former opera singer, and I knew that she serenades diners at the end of the meal. Um, but I left this tiny detail out when originally explaining the concept to James, which was wise because it predictably freaked him out when brought up at dinner.

We were treated to (or traumatized by, depending on how much attention you crave) an unintentional private dining experience. My original worries about getting reservations were unfounded, and made me worry and wonder how they stay afloat (we were told they had four parties the night before). By this point during our vacation we were slightly more accustomed to the notion of being catered to in an unfilled room, and accordingly felt more relaxed than during our other foray into near solo dining at Frangipani.

We ordered a not too expensive Sauvignon Blanc (their corkage fee was surprisingly high, about $20, but I'm so not the oenophile—I'd never tote in my own bottle anyway) and waited for the food parade to begin. And once it started, there was no letting up. There are only so many synonyms for spicy and chile oil so allow me some slack because theres going to be some repetition.

First out were three cold appetizers in small saucers: shredded jellyfish in spicy oil, sweet and sour cucumber spears and bean curd rolls filled with tofu and mushrooms. Then there were impossibly slippery and chopstick-unfriendly transparent wide noodles bathed in yes, chile oil (I love chile oil, but I can see how its copious use might freak some folks out) and topped with something unexpectedly crunchy. After checking with the cook, we were able to deduce from our young waiter that they were deep-fried soybeans. The owners spoke next to no English and the waiter had a so-so command of the language, but didnt necessarily know food words and translations such as soybean. That was ok, it was kind of like a puzzle. We had cold poached chicken in chile oil, as well as a chicken and cabbage soup.

This was plenty of food and satisfying, but only the beginning. I realized we didnt have any rice, which would be a nice foil for all the chile spiked sauces, but perhaps its an appetizer/entrée thing because we were then informed that main dishes would be coming. Our plates were changed, rice was brought, and the big guns started appearing. A bowl of stewy, chile laden beef was brought out. At first I thought it was tripe, which I love, the meat was so chewy, but it was just a fatty cut. But good fatty (though gross seeming, I ate the remnants right out of our mini fridge before heading to airport two days later—it wasnt half bad cold) and tender. Classic ma po tofu arrived almost simultaneously and was crazy hot. It was at this moment that we realized that maybe youre not supposed to eat all of the food presented to you. I had no idea how many items were ultimately coming so it was hard to pace myself. We ended up “taking away” two dishes, both of these only at the owners suggestion. Normally I'd feel weird about this because I couldnt get a grip on doggie bag culture in Asia, which James and I are both unashamedly fond of.

The ma po tofu came with a preface that it would be spicy, which I was only half inclined to believe because I'm so used to restaurateurs saying items are hot when they are not, especially to Americans. Wow, the owner wasnt lying. The dish was tongue tingling in that front of the mouth hot way that you can even feel in your ears, not deep and creeping like Thai hot. On top of the burn Sichuan pepper conducted a background mouth buzz. The ground pork was firm and rich, the silky tofu like atomic white sponges. Breathing in or out merely fanned the flames. Our waiter seemed surprised that we could handle so much and admitted that he didnt like hot food (something we noticed common to many Hong Kongers). Maybe our taste buds have been dulled from smoking.

When new plates and a metal cracking implement were presented we got excited. A chile and garlic laden crab came hacked into large chunks. I'm not so good with extracting the meat since I didnt grow up eating crustaceans, but it was still fun. Seafood was followed by a dish of pork and yams, two flavors I adore but was too full to appreciate. Rich, almost gooey pork belly had melded into sweet tuber slices like a casserole. A peppery palate cleansing broth teeming with pea shoots buffered between the next and final savory course of pork dumplings. Two long slender skins were filled with smooth pate-like meat and sitting in a pool of what looked like red hot chile oil, but turned out to be mild and sweet. Dessert came in the form of tofu drizzled with a ginger syrup, which is very much in the Chinese sweets canon, and totally un-American. Refreshing rather than filling.

James posited that perhaps the cook wouldnt sing since we were the only diners. Ha, no such luck. Being serenaded can put pressure on you (do you smile, stay neutral, make eye contact?) and this was no strolling violinist or dinner theatre contralto. These were ear-piercing notes of Chinese opera. Which one, we didnt know, only that it was a “love song.” We were waiting for our wine glasses to shatter. It was definitely other worldly, at least other country-ish.

Somewhere during the middle of the meal there was a surprise interrupting incident when a large British group, ranging in age from maybe six to 76 randomly showed up asking “Sichuan?” They mustve had an inkling of what they were doing since they found the place and knew the style of cuisine, but thats where their knowledge ended. They then demanded to be served despite being walk-ins. The severe language barrier made it impossible for the owner to explain himself and the normal procedure. I could totally see a comedy of errors ensuing, but severely lacking in the comedy. I almost felt like I should say something helpful because it was going to end badly, but didnt think that was my place.

The waiter set the table, seated them and ran into the kitchen, likely telling the cook that six diners had popped in without notice. Mandarin shrieking commenced. Meanwhile the patriarch of the clueless crew was having a shit fit because there wasnt a menu. He just couldnt get the omakase (I know thats Japanese, but I dont know a better term) concept. “What do you mean, theres no menu. Ive never heard of such a thing.” Which turned into “Well, if theres no menu then well have to leave.” Completely offended and put out, the group were total preposterous British stereotypes, “well, I never…”

I was quietly busting a gut, but felt bad for the proprietors. And they apologized to us after the family left in a huff. And people think Americans are gauche. The fact that we “got” the meal and appreciated the efforts and graciousness of the hosts, made the evening feel more exclusive, like we really were members of some secret club. It's not that often that I feel more like a connoisseur and less like a clod.

Da Ping Huo * 49 Hollywood Rd., Hong Kong

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