Introducing the first of what I hope to be many posts by my friend and fellow traveler Trevor Throntveit, an all-around adventurer and lover of all things Asian who attracts women and trouble wherever he goes. Oh, and he’s an excellent writer.
Hiding down an alley and nestled below an antiques dealer, a stone Chinese lion stands guard to the heavy, wooden basement door of an otherwise tattered building. Peer behind it and discover a meticulously manicured, industrial-chic dining room. Photographs of a young woman adorn one wall, modern surrealist paintings flank another, and recessed shelves display Chinese pottery, antiques and heirloom silverware. Have you snuck into the home of a private museum’s scrupulous curator? Not exactly. Instead, you’ve stumbled upon the elusive world of “private kitchens” — or Sze Fong Choi ( ??? ) — an intriguing breed of dining establishment in a city better known for ubiquitous luxury brands than covert dinner clubs: Hong Kong.
Most private kitchens sneaked onto the scene through an unusual legal loophole. Hong Kong allows certain small eateries — those which abstain from marketing, serve set menus during limited hours, and mind certain legal fine print — to escape most government licensing and regulation. Accordingly, a number of small apartments, mixed use facilities, and other innovative settings have been adopted by culinary entrepreneurs looking to find a market for their food without paying exorbitant rents. Other proprietors, however, never intended to sell a meal in the first place. Da Ping Huo, for example, just grew organically from a recurring dinner party among friends.
In the 1980s, owner Wang Hai moved from China to Hong Kong with his wife, Wong Siu King. He was a fine artist, she sang Chinese Opera, and every Saturday night eight friends came over for traditional Sichuan cooking. Eventually, another table was added for eight more guests (friends of friends) and soon there were simply too many eager visitors to accommodate on one night alone. Nowadays, Wong serves two seatings (6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m.) of approximately 30 people Tuesday through Saturday.
Ease into your chair at one of five impeccably set tables and — unless you’ve brought a bottle of your own — select a wine from their discerning collection. The list avoids tannic wines in favor of Chardonnay, Riesling and Pinot Noir, all suitable choices to quell the fire of the meal to come. If you’re celebrating, choose the 2000 Drappier Grande Sendree, a vigorous Pinot-dominant Champagne from Aube.
Before long, Mr. Wang skips over to deliver a trio of appetizers, each introduced with its own piquancy. Gently pickled baby cucumbers are sweet and crisp (“no spicy”) while a jellyfish julienne (“little bit spicy”) prepares you for the incumbent heat. Flat rice noodles (“yes spicy”), served with crunchy soybeans and crisp bell peppers, command your attention to texture, and also introduce the Sichuan pepper, a remarkable mouth-numbing spice with citrus and mint overtones that forms the heart of Sichuan cuisine.
Between appetizers, notice the crowd of thirty is eccentric and well balanced. Brokers straight from the office and hipsters in torn jeans laugh together between courses. The lady across from you, wearing a Big Bird scarf, complements your Prada bag, and soon the entire table is sharing wine with one another. While you pursue new friendships, seven finely tuned entrees are delivered, one after another. Braised chicken in Sichuan spices is soothed by a bowl of sautéed mushrooms, cabbage and minced chicken in subtle broth. Achieving similar balance, stewed spicy beef brisket, which falls apart on command, and fish in spicy garlic sauce precede the elegant humility of steamed pork ribs with delicate sweet potato.
Then, a Sichuan classic appears: ma po dofu. Using braised, tender tofu as a palette, it showcases the characteristic ma la flavor– numb & spicy – that Sichuan cuisine first developed in the early Qing Dynasty. Minced beef complements the soft bean curd well, and rice placates heat for the uninitiated.
A nuanced vegetable soup tempers your palate and anticipates Chengdu dumplings, half moons of finely minced & delicately seasoned pork wading in a deceptively red, caramel chili sauce. While working through the varied textures of sweetened tofu, white fungus and water chestnut offered for dessert, the couple appears at your table, thanks you for joining them, and invites you to stick around for one final display of hospitality.
Mrs. Wong settles in front of the room, clutches her hands near her bosom, hums a brief note for pitch and sings. Her diminutive frame belies a powerful voice, and the Xinjiang aria echoes refined emotion off the raw concrete walls. While listening, you pause to reflect on the twelve courses you’ve finished and the new friendships you’ve established, and are left to wonder what other unique, unhurried experiences lurk behind the branded, fast paced veneer of this truly inimitable city.
Da Ping Huo (map)
L/G 49 Hollywood Rd.
Central, Hong Kong
+852 2559 1317
This article was originally published in Zink Magazine. Copyright by Trevor Throntveit.
Editor’s Note: I am blessed to say that Trevor introduced me to this “private kitchen” when I visited Hong Kong in 2008. Any good pictures are his. The horrible yellowish photos in the links and slideshow — the only pictures of the dishes available — are mine, remnants of a time before I invested in decent cameras. For better food pictures, visit this rad blog called Skillet Doux.