An Aromatic Adventure: What to Eat in Hong Kong

Fire up your appetite in the Fragrant Harbor with heaping platters of ultra-fresh seafood, exquisite French-tinged dishes, steaming bowls of noodles and more.

By: Janice Leung Hayes

Photo By: Eric Hong

Photo By: Beef & Liberty

Photo By: Kaum

Photo By: Gary Suen

Photo By: Grassroots Pantry

Photo By: Okra

Photo By: Gary Suen

Photo By: Janice Leung Hayes

Photo By: Justin Lim

Photo By: Oddies Foodies

Photo By: Janice Leung Hayes

Photo By: Teakha Kitchen

Photo By: Seafood Room

Photo By: Gary Suen

Feasting Your Way Through the Fragrant Harbor

In Chinese, "Hong Kong" means “fragrant harbor.” Though it’s called so for its abundance of incense trees, the name is also an apt description for a city brimming with appetite-inducing aromas, thanks to the multitude of dishes being stir-fried, steamed or baked around virtually every turn. The city’s dining scene may be dominated by Cantonese cuisine (characterized by subtle, nuanced flavors and fresh ingredients), but international influences also abound. Because Hong Kong is a port city, plenty of global food trends — and gorgeous seafood — find their way into the city’s kitchens. Thus, old meets new in this city that boasts a culinary scene as vibrant as its glittering skylines. Go forth and uncover the culinary treasures that await.

Tasting Menu: VEA

An exemplary way to experience the exquisite, globally tinged creativity that characterizes Hong Kong’s new culinary landscape is by opting for the tasting menu at VEA. Executive Chef Vicky Cheng (the V in VEA) has carved out a stellar reputation in the city for his meticulous modern French cuisine. Upstairs at VEA (where the tasting menu is served), however, he harnesses those classic French culinary techniques to transform the traditional flavors of Hong Kong. This visionary approach has resulted in stunning dishes such as steamed razor clams dotted artfully with garlic and ginger cremes, as well as pork belly with powder made from dehydrated mui choy (pickled mustard greens). Amplify the experience by pairing Cheng’s dishes with cocktails by Hong Kong bartending legend Antonio Lai (the A in VEA).

Go to: VEA

Burgers: Beef & Liberty

The burger frenzy that started back in 2014 may be finished, but some of the best patty purveyors to set up shop in Hong Kong are fortunately still going strong. One such joint is Beef & Liberty, which turns out top-notch burgers made from grass-fed beef. And though the end of the burger craze may have curtailed the competition, Beef & Liberty has continued to up its game, having tapped Uwe Opocensky as group executive chef in 2016. Opocensky previously oversaw the culinary team at Hong Kong’s Mandarin Oriental hotel (home of several Michelin-starred restaurants), which means Beef & Liberty’s customers now get the benefit of his fine-dining pedigree at burger-joint prices.

Go to: Beef & Liberty

Brunch: Kaum

A favorite way for food-minded locals to while away a weekend afternoon in Hong Kong is with brunch, preferably involving copious amounts of champagne. And while most spots typically pair the bubbly with oysters, smoked salmon and eggs, Kaum offers a strikingly different spread. Here, the menu traverses the culturally diverse islands of Indonesia via a dazzling array of dishes brimming with the distinctive flavors of the archipelago’s tribal cuisines. With Indonesian-inspired decor and a chilled-out ambiance to match, Kaum provides a welcome break from the ubiquitous hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.

Go to: Kaum

Cantonese: Kin’s Kitchen

Stepping into Kin’s Kitchen is like visiting a culinary-minded friend who trekked into China’s most-remote villages and amassed a treasure trove of recipes passed down from the elders. Culinary gems waiting to be discovered include guoza, a savory egg custard that is steamed, then deep-fried into neat golden nuggets. This delicacy, along with many other items on the menu, features an intriguing backstory (it was apparently inspired by a northern Chinese street food and became favored by the Cantonese upper classes in the late 19th century). You don’t need to be a history buff, though, to appreciate the restaurant’s wholesome food that’s made without a single shortcut.

Go to: Kin’s Kitchen

Vegetarian: Grassroots Pantry

Dining out as a vegetarian can be difficult in this town, where the meat consumption per capita is one of the highest in the world. For a long time, Buddhist restaurants were the only option. The quietly dynamic, earth-loving Peggy Chan set out to change that with Grassroots Pantry, an airy, greenery-filled spot that serves meat-free fare. As executive chef and director, Chan draws upon her fine-dining restaurant experience and global travels to transform vegetarian ingredients into innovative, artfully plated dishes. The selection may change according to what local farmers are harvesting on any given day, but Chan is certain to always include raw, gluten-free and other special options that cater to dietary restrictions.

Go to: Grassroots Pantry

Date Spot: Okra

Okra’s 24-stool izakaya is an ideal spot to get close while sharing superb plates. The intimate space is definitely on the small and narrow side, but it has an outsized character, thanks to quirky details such as a provocative mural by underground artist Toshio Saeki and a playlist rife with Chinese indie rock and '70s punk songs. It’s clear that Chef-Owner Max Levy, who, in fact, opened his first Okra in Beijing, is passionate about Japanese techniques and sake. However, to categorize his thoughtfully layered, flavor-packed food as entirely Japanese would be to ignore his interest in Chinese la rou (cured pork), Sicilian seaweed and carabinero from the Mediterranean; the menu varies according to what piques his interest. You never really know know what to expect, but that’s all part of the charm.

Go to: Okra

Iconic Spot: Mak’s Noodle

Walk into a Chinese restaurant anywhere in the world and wonton noodles are likely to be on the menu. The Cantonese variety, in which the dumplings are filled mostly with shrimp, is a relatively modern classic — and its history is intertwined with this noodle shop. The restaurant’s current owners are descendants of Mak Woon-chi, who reportedly invented the dish in the late 19th century and brought it from mainland China to Hong Kong. There are many shops named Mak’s around town, and each has its own twist on the recipe. This shop on Wellington Street, though, is by far the most popular and, with its small bowls brimming with intense umami soup, silky-smooth wrappers and always fresh shrimp fillings, rightly so.

Go to: Mak’s Noodle

Late-Night Spot: San Hang Yuen

Hong Kongers are not averse to a late night out, but true round-the-clock spots are few and far between. San Hang Yuen is one such reliable standby for midnight snacks, having been in operation since the 1960s. The business started out as a dai pai dong (street food cart), but it is now housed in a permanent space. However, the spot still retains its no-fuss vibe, complete with communal tables and rickety stools. The bare-bones space is no deterrent for the masses eager to devour the comforting dishes churned out in the tiny kitchen. The bustling spot is typically crowded with diners filling up on the signature toasted beef omelet sandwiches, as well as the slow-cooked pork knuckle noodles with fermented tofu sauce. And for those night owls who need a powerful pick-me-up, there is a super-strength Hong Kong-style milk tea made with a secret blend of more than 60 types of Ceylon tea leaves.

Go to: San Hang Yuen

Cocktails: Foxglove

Not so long ago, it was virtually impossible to find a proper cocktail outside of Hong Kong’s best hotels. Thankfully, times have changed and the city now offers an abundance of choices serving top-notch tipples. If you’re looking for a unique cocktail experience — complete with a clandestine location and glamourous ambiance — try this art deco aviation-inspired speakeasy hidden in an umbrella shop. If you’re fortunate enough to make your way through the covert entrance, you’ll find yourself standing in a sleek retro space dotted with bartenders turning out exotic twists on classic libations. Standout drinks include the Tonka Smash, featuring tonka bean-infused bourbon, and the La Femme, made with yuzu and red pepper-infused gin. The top shelf holds rare bottles from a bygone era (some date back to the 1930s). And on most nights, there are live jazz performances to complete the throwback vibe.

Go to: Foxglove

Modern Chinese Gastropub: Second Draft

Chef May Chow’s whimsical takes on quintessential Chinese flavors (take her fermented tofu and lamb tartare, for example) have won her plenty of fans at her first restaurant, Little Bao. She applies this same creative approach to standard bar fare at Second Draft, where she reinterprets old favorites through a Chinese lens, all without compromising their compatibility with the craft beers on tap. Innovative dishes such as the mapo burrata inject new flavors into beloved bites. Other standouts include buffalo wontons that incorporate the old-school Chinese hot sauce known as Yu Kwen Yick and Shanghainese noodles tossed with flower crab (a South China Sea crab variety) and Chinkiang vinegar. Pair your picks with one (or more) of the 20-plus craft beers on draft, many of which are made at local breweries.

Go to: Second Draft

Sundaes: Oddies Foodies

Most people who grew up in Hong Kong remember eggettes, or egg waffles (crisp, cake-inspired waffles covered in small egg-shaped bumps instead of the standard square indentations), sold from carts on the street. There aren’t as many vendors hawking the sweet snack today, but Oddies Foodies has you covered when an eggette craving hits. The owners of this popular shop have not only revived this nostalgia-inducing treat, but they've arguably done it one better by building on the basic old-school recipe. Oddies’ new-school takes come stuffed with all sorts of fillings and flavors. If you want the ultimate treat, though, opt for an eggette sundae loaded with soft serve, cookies and Jell-O.

Go to: Oddies Foodies

Dim Sum: Lung King Heen

Almost every Cantonese restaurant serves dim sum during the day (from breakfast through to late lunch), but Lung King Heen is one of the few restaurants to be awarded with three Michelin stars. A favorite of tourists and locals alike — particularly for Sunday brunch — this fine-dining establishment attracts the crowds, so making a reservation well in advance is strongly recommended. Unlike many other restaurants where you’ll find a huge spread, the dim sum menu here is tightly edited so that each and every dumpling that arrives is a work of art, made fresh by hand, with the finest ingredients. Lung King Heen’s location on the edge of Victoria Harbor is another draw, given the striking panoramas of the water and skyline that can be viewed from its fourth-floor perch.

Go to: Lung King Heen

Rock Star Chef: Richard Ekkebus of Amber

To Hong Kong food lovers, Executive Chef Richard Ekkebus is as iconic as the city itself. As culinary director of The Landmark Mandarin Oriental Hotel and, more notably, its flagship Amber, the French-trained Dutchman has been credited as a pioneering force who helped shape Hong Kong’s contemporary dining scene. He is widely acclaimed for his use of highly prized Japanese ingredients, being among the first to bring premium seafood such as sea urchin and amadai (tile fish) that are more typical of sushi restaurants to a modern European fine-dining restaurant. For a scene that was more accustomed to flying everything in from France, he set an example for chefs and restaurateurs throughout Asia and beyond. Hong Kong’s culinary landscape may not have developed into what it is today without Ekkebus stepping outside the box.

Go to: Amber

Teakha Kitchen

Once a high-flying lawyer, the only heights that interest Nana Chan these days are rolling hills lush with tea leaves. Chan left the legal profession to fulfill her long-brewing dream of starting a tea shop, which came to fruition in 2012 when she opened Teakha. The success of this first spot prompted Chan to expand her operation with a second locale: the larger Teakha Kitchen. Both cafes serve teas that are meticulously sourced from all throughout Asia, then masterfully brewed in-house. Chan’s passion for tea is evident in her precision, from the masala chai made in individual pans to the iced tea with caramelized lemon slices — blowtorched to order. For the perfect accompaniment to these artful brews, check out the assortment of rustic cakes and scones on offer.

Go to: Tea and Cake: Teakha Kitchen

Local Cafe (Cha Chaan Teng): Kam Wah

Hong Kong’s unique status as an ex-colony and a major trading port has meant that every facet of the city’s culture — including its culinary identity — has been steeped in influences from around the world. For instance, the influx of industrialized foods (think evaporated milk and dried macaroni elbows) that poured in from the West during the 1950s spawned a new genre of restaurants. Known as cha chaan teng, these dinerlike establishments are now central to the Hong Kong identity, as they are neither Chinese nor British. Menu mainstays at these spots include macaroni in soup topped with processed ham and Hong Kong-style milk tea (a strong Ceylon tea with evaporated milk). One sweet snack not to be missed at Kam Wah is the pineapple bun, a soft roll that derives its name from its crackled, sugary top.

Go to: Kam Wah

Sunset Cocktails: Seafood Room

The spangly skylines that flank each side of Victoria Harbour appear on virtually every Hong Kong postcard for a reason: They’re simply stunning. Sunset is an ideal time to take in the view — and the Seafood Room’s expansive rooftop bar offers the perfect vantage point from its perch on a harborside high-rise. In addition to its extensive beverage list, the spot offers flip-fresh seafood and other bar bites. Head downstairs to the restaurant for an even more expansive selection, including signature platters piled with seasonal fish, sea urchin and oysters.

Go to: Seafood Room

Cheap Eats: Mui Kee

Looking for a tasty bite that won’t break your budget? Follow the lead of “wet” market (fresh food market) stallholders and neighborhood shoppers and head to the food court at the top of the market building. Here, you’ll find Mui Kee, a humble stall serving affordably priced, filling bowls of fish stock congee (rice porridge). People are known to cross town just to order this milky white concoction that is served steaming hot and loaded with a customizable combination of toppings. Options include beef slices (they’re added raw, but they cook as they soak in the congee), preserved “century” egg with minced pork, and, if you’re lucky, the catch of the day.

Go to: Mui Kee

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