Tsim Chai Kee + Mak’s Noodle (Hong Kong, December 2018)

I leave Hong Kong today and so it’s time to finally post my first food report. I’ve been eating like a maniac ever since I arrived—literally, since I arrived: the first thing I did at the airport was eat dumplings at Crystal Jade. As I’m traveling alone on this trip—and as my friends in Hong Kong have busy lives—most of my meals during the days have been eaten solo. And one of the genres that I have been hitting up a lot is one that we could not really do as a family on our last trip in 2016: small establishments that dish out variations on noodle soup and wontons. It’s hard with a family because you invariably have to queue up, then you get seated at very cramped tables, probably with strangers and you’re expected to order and eat quickly, pay and fuck right off so the line can keep moving. With small kids all of this is a challenge. On my own though it’s been very easy.  

If the excellent Graham St. Market is right next to my hotel, so too are two of the area’s better-known noodle shops: Mak’s Noodle and Tsim Chai Kee. I should say first of all, for those who know Hong Kong even less well than I do, that I am staying in the Central neighbourhood of Hong Kong Island. This is the financial centre of Hong Kong and there are a lot of expats and tourists in the area and a lot of restaurants to feed them. Further up the hill (this is a rather vertical city), there are all kinds of hipster bars and restaurants but casual places abound all around. Near the bottom of the hill—my hotel is on Wellington, a couple of streets above the busy Queens’s Road—there are more places that feed office goers in the giant skyscrapers and the noodle shops seem to be mostly in that vein.

Mak’s Noodle is probably a bit of an exception as they have a Michelin star—they’re also far older than their competition. It is fancier than the others that I ate at—much fancier than a couple of them—but it’s not going to be anyone’s idea of a luxurious restaurant. But I’m getting ahead of myself: Mak’s Noodle was not my first stop; my first meal was at their rival Tsim Chai Kee, located right across from them. If you look around online for recommendations and reviews you will come across a lot of people saying that Mak’s Noodle is overrated and overpriced and that Tsim Chai Kee is much better. Since I am a sheep my plan therefore was to do my noodle soup and wontoning there. There was only a short line when I arrived—I was fourth or fifth—and I was seated right away at a small table with a young man and a young couple.

Wonton noodle soup is pretty much all they do. Your major decision is to figure out what kind of wontons you want, what kind of noodles you want (yellow noodle/flat white noodle, vermicelli) and whether you want some greens alongside. I opted for their “King Prawn Wonton Noodle” with the regular yellow noodles. It came out very quickly. Though the bowls appear larger in the photographs, it is by no means an excessive American portion. Wonderfully springy noodles in broth with three large prawn wontons that were rather good. The broth, however, was rather blah, in my opinion.

At all these places you sit down and order, they put an order slip with your order number and total down on your table and when you leave you take it to the cashier and pay on your way out (and these places are all cash only and will not accept very large bills). If you want water you have to buy it; and if you want napkins you’d best bring your own.

Here is the photographic evidence from Tsim Chai Kee.

I finished up and stepped out and saw there was no queue outside Mak’s Noodle. Accordingly, I decided to eat a second lunch. It was the same deal: I was sat down at a table that I had to myself for a few minutes before various others were sat down with me. Mak’s has a much wider menu but to compare things head to head, and because their prawn wonton noodle soup is their most famous dish, I ordered a bowl of it. It’s a bit more expensive than Tsim Chai Kee’s and the portion is probably a bit smaller; the other difference is that their wontons are also smaller. None of these are differences worth getting exercised about. The price difference is about $1, it’s still a reasonable portion, and while the wontons are smaller there were five of them in my bowl. And, oh yes, they give you tea as part of your order.

And how was it? Size aside, the wontons were comparable; the noodles were more al dente; and the broth was far better with strong prawn flavour (though it was also saltier; or maybe it felt that way because I was eating there second). I’d love to say that I liked the less-storied place without a Michelin star better, but I much preferred Mak’s Noodle’s version of the same dish.

And the pictures. Scroll down to see what’s coming next from Hong Kong.

There are a number of branches of Mak’s Noodle, by the way, and the menu can apparently vary a little. The Wellington St. branch is the original location. Not too far away from it is a splinter operation started by another member of the family: Mak An Kee. I ate there a few days later but will report on it separately. Next up from Hong Kong will be a dim sum report and a slideshow of photographs taken while wandering the streets. Next week I’ll have a review of a Korean restaurant in St. Paul. And, of course, whisky reviews in between. And who knows, some Bombay reports might show up as well—I leave for Bombay tomorrow.

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