Dining Review

Hong Kong may be old school, but its dim sum never gets old

CorrespondentMarch 21, 2013 

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    Hong Kong

    3003 Guess Road, Durham



    Cuisine: Chinese

    Rating: * * * 

    Prices: $$

    Atmosphere: traditional Chinese in a converted bungalow

    Noise level: low to moderate

    Service: variable

    Recommended: dim sum

    Open: Lunch and dinner Wednesday-Monday, dim sum Saturday (11 a.m. to 3 p.m.) and Sunday (10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)

    Reservations: accepted

    Other: accommodates children; modest vegetarian selection; parking in lot.

    The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: *  *  *  *  *  Extraordinary *  *  *  *  Excellent. *  *  *  Above average. *  *  Average. *  Fair.

    The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $16. $$$ Entrees $17 to $25. $$$$ Entrees more than $25.

The converted bungalow that houses Hong Kong – an 80-year-old structure whose charm has long since been obscured by add-ons – isn’t particularly encouraging to the first-time visitor. The mood is more inviting indoors, where dining rooms retain the homey scale they inherited from the original house. Even with a modest overlay of bamboo prints and lithographs, the setting is unapologetically old school. So is the main menu, a compendium of mostly Chinese-American fare that could have been printed back when the restaurant opened in 1990.

When is the last time you had a flaming pu pu platter? You can get one here, served in a teak lazy Suzan that’s sure to evoke a touch of nostalgia. Granted, the built-in cast iron brazier imparts a Sterno flavor to anything you try to “cook” on it (and everything is already fully cooked anyway). But it’s part of the experience, dating back to an era of less sophisticated palates.

Craving chow mein? Lo mein? Fried rice? Egg foo young? The menu lists six versions of each.

Peking duck? You can get it here with 24 hours’ notice. It’s a one-course abridgment of the authentic three-course extravaganza, but given the paucity of area restaurants that serve the dish at all, Hong Kong’s rendition will do in a pinch.

Sweet-and-sour pork, lemon chicken, beef with scallions, Vegetarian’s Delight, Happy Family – if it’s on the menu at your favorite Chinese takeout shop, you’ll probably find it among the scores of dishes listed here.

Surprises and specialties

You’ll even discover a few surprises under the “Chef’s Special” heading. Hong Kong noodle with pork, for instance, which the menu proclaims is “our specialty.” The pan-fried noodles are indeed toothsome, and the baby bok choy a pleasant surprise. In light of the menu’s boast, however, the dry slices of roast pork in the dish when I ordered it were especially disappointing.

Beef and vegetable chow fun was likewise a qualified success, marred only by overcooked noodles.

There’s a supplemental menu of authentic specialties, too, though you may have to ask for it. If you do, your options will include the likes of steamed whole grouper, fresh pork with longevity noodle, and half a chicken with scallion ginger sauce.

Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce is first rate, and a soup listed as “crab meat in corn paste” is far more appetizing than its name. But shrimp and scallops in XO sauce is undistinguished.

Regardless of which menu you order from, in fact, it’s pretty much a hit-or-miss proposition. Same goes for service, which can be pleasant and efficient or brusque and frustrating. You can’t help but wonder how the place has endured for more than two decades.

The answer can be found in the parking lot that covers what must once have been the entire back yard. In the evenings, the lot is seldom more than half full. On weekend mornings, though, it fills up within a half hour or so of opening.

Tasty dim sum selection

That’s when Hong Kong serves dim sum, the traditional meal of noodles, buns, dumplings and other delicacies served from carts circulating through the dining rooms.

The restaurant was the first in the area to offer dim sum, if I’m not mistaken, and remains one of a mere handful of local options.

Hong Kong’s dim sum selection is extensive, and with few exceptions worthy. Standouts include steamed shrimp dumplings, stuffed crab claws, shrimp-filled fried taro cakes, and pork buns (steamed are good, baked even better). The sticky rice with lotus leaf is the most lavishly filled I’ve had in these parts.

Just be sure to pace yourself so you’ll still have room when the cart with the (subtly) sweet sesame seed puffs rolls around. It helps if you’re a party of four to eight; the larger the number, the more delicacies you can sample.

As to how to avoid the inevitable rush of people during dim sum prime time (typically from around 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.), there are two schools of thought: arrive early, or arrive late. I’m firmly in the early camp. Get there a few minutes before the restaurant opens if you can. Even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll be first in line.

Or you could avoid the problem entirely and go in the evening, when you can order dim sum from the menu. You’ll miss out on the carts, but you’ll be eating the best that Hong Kong has to offer. And you won’t have any trouble finding a parking space.

ggcox@bellsouth.net or blogs@newsobserver.com/mouthful

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