Hong Kong & Singapore - 2011

Back in the '90s I had week-long business trips to Singapore several years in a row. My partner Michael would come with me and we discovered that it's one of the world's great food destinations. This year, we finally went back, adding in Hong Kong for good measure.

Saturday, November 19

Our 24-hour journey on Cathay Pacific was pretty tough - hideous food and no service, not even a bottle of water! It had been years since we had passed through the international terminal at LAX, and we were surprised by how shabby it was. The OneWorld Lounge was crowded but okay, with some passable munchies. A friend asked us to photograph everything we ate, so with some exceptions (breakfast buffets, airplane food), we did.

We arrived in Hong Kong and made our way to the Royal Garden Hotel, which, though the decor is stuck in the '80s, came to grow on us. Roof-top pool and jacuzzi, nice breakfast and happy hour, comfortable room - we were set. We set right out for Tim Ho Wan, a neighborhood dim sum spot that is widely reported to be the world's cheapest Michelin-starred restaurant (and is widely blogged about). Ooops! Learning that there was a three-hour wait, we shuffled off to discover the Ming Vun Noodles Restaurant a few doors down.

We just ordered what sounded good. First, the fried noodles with shredded pork. It was actually pretty bland, with crispy vermicelli, which wasn't what we had expected.

Also, curry spareribs with rice - tasty, spicy, yellow curry. Delicious! With two iced teas the tab was HK$ 75, or about 10 bucks.

Dinner our first night in Hong Kong ended up being a high point of the trip. We headed to the Temple Street Night Market, and although the market itself was less than thrilling, there were endless outdoor food joints. We ended up in the Woosung Street Temporary Cooked Food Hawker Bazaar. This is what we came to Asia for, and were disappointed to discover that it's not the norm for Hong Kong.

There wasn't much English spoken, and the menus were rudimentary. It was more the kind of place where you point at someone else's place and hope for the best. The guy who took our order noticed us taking pictures, and offered to take one of us. We were the only Causcasians in the place - always a good sign.

We just ordered a roast duck and Chinese broccoli, with rice. The duck was simple, and room temperature, absolutely delicious in a sweet/sour/salty dipping sauce. Also, of course, beer: San Miguel, an inexplicable name for the local Hong Kong brew, but with that formaldehyde kick we've come to expect from beer in the tropics, and served by the "beer girl" in her little short skirted uniform that we've seen all across southeast Asia. The tab same to HK$ 111, or about 14 bucks.

Here's a little taste of the ambiance. If we could have eaten only in places like this, we would have been thrilled!

As we were walking back to the subway, Michael noticed this spot that we really should have investigated ...

Sunday, November 20

A hazy, overcast day, still jetlagged, we head to the "Ladies' Market," four blocks of street stalls open every afternoon. On the way we stopped at Good Hope Noodle, apparently known far and wide for its won ton noodle soup. So, we had won ton noodle soup, really pretty delicious in a rich pork broth, the won tons rich and meaty.

Also, "shredded pork with noodles in special sauce" - the noodles had a really nice bite, the sauce a good balance of sweet and savory, with a little cup of pork broth on the side. The portions were small (this turned out to be typical), but the meal was satisfying, at HK$ 52 = less than 7 bucks. (Sorry for the blurry photo, these were all taken with my phone.)

Walking back to the train from the market, we were hungry and grabbed a steamed pork bun from a street vendor for HK$ 5. Life is good!

By dinner, the jet lag was catching up with us. We read in the tour book that Shanghainese is a popular "foreign" cuisine in Hong Kong (where Cantonese is the local fare), sought out a place called Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain with branches across Asia and a few in the US. It was a shiny place in an upscale mall - not really the vibe we were looking for. The food was quite good, though nothing you couldn't find east of LA. We started with "drunken chicken," marinated in sweet wine and served at room temperature. Not at all highly seasoned.

Noodles in peanut sauce ...

Pork and crab roe dumplings, and pork dumplings - this is a type of dumpling called xia long bao, involving a complex process that involves liquid broth inside the dumpling. Hard to eat, easy to wear on your shirt. I found the pork and crab roe really delicious.

Pork buns, and vegetable and mushroom buns. With two beers, we ran up a tab of HK$ 375 = almost 50 bucks. Good, but not the street food we were looking for!

Monday, November 21

Both of us were feeling pretty wiped out, and slept until noon! This kind of travel seemed easier when we were, well, younger. We took the subway over to Hong Kong island (our hotel is in Kowloon, a peninsula off the mainland), and walked to the Sheung Wan neighborhood - supposedly full of fascinating street markets remininscent of "old Hong Kong." Disappointing - Hong Kong seems less exotic or engaging than we had imagined. Smoggy and dirty! After browing by various shops we settled on a little place called Malay Mama. An absolutely lovely lady helped us order - she said she wasn't "Mama".

We love Malaysian food and can't wait to get to Singapore for more. But this wasn't bad. We started with prawns and pork mee, with both vermicelli and broad noodles. The broth was delicious, seasoned wtih shrimp paste. We perked it up with chili.

Also, chicken curry, actually more of a rendang, a thick strong spicy paste with a cinnamon note, served with aromatic white rice. With two glasses of lime juice, the tab was HK$ 121, or 15 bucks.

We got back to the hotel and crashed - spent some time in the rooftop jacuzzi (nice, cool weather but good views). After that late lunch, we just munched a bit at the hotel cocktail hour and Michael crashed. I found myself still wide awake so walked down to Victoria Harbor and made some video postcards. Following is a sample. Then found an "Irish pub" (apparently every city in the world has several), enjoyed a pint, and then went back to the hotel.

Tuesday, November 22

We took the subway back over to Central on Hong Kong island and walked around the Graham Street wet market, a stretch of market stalls stretching for several blocks up a steep hill, near the Central Escalator, a novel public transportation concept. There was a lot of street food, and it smelled great, but it all looked a bit dicey. We needed to save our stomachs for Singapore!

So instead we found a much blogged-about spot called Yuan Dumpling, and it deserved the acclaim. We had pork and leek dumplings, which were absolutely delicious.

Also ...

I'm sorry, did I say sliced dork? I meant pork, of course, and it was really, really good.

We were still a little hungry so we went a few doors down Wellington Street to Mak's Noodles, well known for its beef brisket noodles. Serious comfort food in a fluorescent-lit diner. We rolled home to a beer in the pub, and bed.

Wednesday, November 23

We took a mid-morning cab to the Kowloon ferry terminal, to catch the hourly hydrofoil to Macau. While waiting for the boat, Michael received an email that our dear friend Ron had died. Though perhaps not surprised - he was in terrible health - we were shocked, heartbroken. The dread we felt, knowing he was in the hospital, melted to heartbreak. Our day trip to Macau was melancholy.

When we got off the boat in Macau ferry terminal, there was a scramble for cabs, with all the tourists converging on the same place: Largo do Senado. The Portuguese colony's "senate square" is paved in the manner of Lisbon, and the square has an intimate scale. In fact, the tiny colony could be a little European town, if not for the Chinese signs, with winding cobbled streets. The center is mobbed with tourists, but as soon as you venture a few hundred yards you find yourself in a lovely, quiet town.

Just off the largo we noticed a storefront with dozens of people crowded around.

When you get to the front of the line, you put the skewers you want in a metal bowl. The lady spoke a little English, but we were still ordering blind, and just grabbed everything that looked interesting. I'm reminded of a lifetime of my dad's jokes about liver on a stick.

We handed our skewers back to the nice lady and she cooked them up in broth, then served them in a bowl with curry sauce. Some were fishy, some were tofu-ey, one was cheesy. The bowl cost 45 patacas, which is the same as HK$ 45 - about six bucks.

One ended up being a kind of fish lollipop.

As we wandered away, we passed another stall with dozens of people lined up, for the "famous pork burger." After a long wait, the sandwich was a letdown, one tiny slice of meat in a crusty little roll. At least it wasn't expensive - 15 patacas, and it came with iced tea.

In need of a beer and finding no pubs, we wandered toward the casino zone. The original casinos, like this one, looked pretty over the top. Just behind were the Wynn and the MGM Grand. We went into the Wynn, and were surprised to find it quieter and more restrained than its Vegas counterpart. We ordered two of the weakest gin and tonics ever mixed, but at least they were (much) cheaper than they would have been in Vegas - about 100 patacas for the two, or about 13 bucks.

As dark fell, we took a taxi to Restaurante Litoral, reputed to have the best Macanese food around. Apparently Macanese food is Portuguese with some local Chinese flavors and ingredients. The street it was on seemed a bit dicey, but the restaurant was rustic without being contrived. The service was careful and attentive. Our hopes up, we ordered cod cakes, hoping to recapture the "patiniscas" we still reminisce about, that we ate in a Fado joint in Lisbon. Unfortunately, these were light potato fritters with little fish flavor.

Now the duck, on the other hand, was wonderful. The menu said duck in herb sauce, and we had read that this duck in a black sauce was a specialty of the place. When we ordered, the server warned us that the sauce was made of blood. Hmmm - I'm not sure we would have ordered it had we known, but what the heck. So - I don't know enough about Portuguese cuisine to say how this measured up, but it was delicious - rich and spicy and complex, though I wouldn't say I noticed herbs. We had it with white rice and a plate of broccoli. The portions were very generous, and were relieved not to have ordered a second meat dish.

Thursday, November 24

Back in Hong Kong the next morning, Thanksgiving. Still thinking of Ron.

We walked down to the famous Star Ferry terminal at Tsim Sha Tsui for the lovely 7-minute chug across the harbor to Hong Kong Island.

From there, we transferred to a ferry for Lamma Island.

Lamma is the third largest island in the territory of Hong Kong, but is inhabited by only a few thousand people and one enormous power plant. The island has two small towns, no roads or motor vehicles to speak of, and lots of hiking trails across its mountainous terrain. We were hoping for a leisurely stroll between the two towns, on the first sunny day we'd had since we arrived in Hong Kong. Unfortunately the "easy walk" was not so easy on our 50-something knees, up and down steep inclines. Still, the jungle and some of the views were pretty, particularly once we'd put the power station behind us. We walked from the larger town of Yung Shue Wan, to Sok Kwu Wan to dine a Rainbow Seafood Restaurant, which was mentioned in all three of our travel guides as well as in the local paper, as one of the best seafood restaurants in Hong Kong.

Why do we listen to reviews? We paid almost 100 bucks US for not enough food, one beer, lackadaisical service, and dirty vinyl table. At least the sun was shining as we ate our squilla, a bizarre crustacean we'd never seen before, though wikipedia tells us it's a Mediterranean specialty. It looks like a giant silverfish with no discernable head. The meat was tender and mild, though there wasn't much in there. The fried garlic it was served on was delicious, though.

We also ordered prawns in garlic, and bok choy. I hate to complain, but we do better scampi at home.

We were still hungry so ordered a plate of sweet and sour squid. I didn't really get the sweet and sour, unless they meant the dipping sauce, but the squid was well-prepared, cooked just right, and we had never seen the presentation before, the squid's body cut into lengthwise strips, with a couple of tentacles attached to each strip. One plus of the restaurant is that it runs a free private ferry to Hong Kong island, but we didn't want to wait an hour. Miffed to be disappointed by our last meal in Hong Kong, we took just took the public ferry home.

Friday, November 25

Early cab to Kowloon station to take the train to the airport. Disappointed that the famous, opulent Cathay Pacific lounge in the Hong Kong airport is closed for renovation! After a four-hour flight, we arrived in Singapore, and took a cab to the Hotel Fort Canning. The hotel was highly rated in Trip Advisor and the New York Times, but it's a weird, quirky place, sleek and luxurious but with some annoying rough edges, not the least of which is that it's halfway up a hill. Singapore is densely urban, yet the hotel feels a bit remote. At any rate, we were beat. After exploring the neighborhood a bit, finding my way to the nearest MRT rapid transit station (Dhoby Ghaut), and locating a supermarket, I found some takeout wonton noodle soup, which we ate in our room.

Saturday, November 26

We slept in and ended up taking the MRT to a random station - Boon Keng. This isn't a bad thing to do in Singapore - there is often a large food center somewhere nearby, and this was the case a Boon Keng. Oh, yeah, it rains daily in Singapore.

We poked around the food center a bit and settled on a bowl of barbecued chicken with rice. Very cheap. You can eat so well, and so cheaply, in Singapore!

Hungry for more flavors, we walked to another stall and tried some chicken with chili and mushrooms. Both selections were good, but not amazing. We waited for a lull in the rain and went home to laze around at the hotel. Having seen Singapore before, sightseeing wasn;t a priority - just relaxing.

Later, I was hungry, so after Michael crashed I went to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre for some Hainanese Chicken Rice. This is a dish where they cook the rice in rich chicken broth - very lush comfort food. Singapore's Chinatown is quite lively at night, with several pedestrian streets - some for food stalls, some for shopping. I happened upon a little gay bar I had read about so went in for a beer. The beer was absurdly expensive - SGD 10 (about 8 bucks) - but the place was pleasant with a lovely second-floor balcony looking down on the hubbub in the street.

Sunday, November 27

We went back to Chinatown to find the Hong Lim Food Court, a hawker center buried in middle of a large housing complex. It's noisy and a little dirty, and there is a lot of interesting food being service. Being Sunday, some of the famous stalls that we had read about were closed. However, we found a place reputed to be quite good - it had a very long line, which is always a good sign.

The specialty of the house was Mushroom Minced Pork Mee (noodles). The lady behind the counter didn't speak English but the people behind me in line helped me work through how to order - you have to choose what kind of noodles you want, how spicy you want it, what things to add (e.g. deep fried pork lard). Delicious. In all the food courts you order your beverage from a separate stall, so Michael went off to get the drinks while I stood in line. He came back with fresh sugar cane juice, which is wondrous stuff - they actually run the cane (which looks like bamboo) through a giant press and serve you the result over ice - no added water, sugar, nothing. It's sweet and fresh and herbacious - no surprise given that sugar cane is just grass.

Then we walked down the street, past a mosque, a hindu temple, and a Buddhist temple, to the Maxwell Road Hawker Centre. Unfortunately, this place has been "improved" since our last visit, though not so drastically. It still has some dowdy charm, but everything is paved now. Ten years ago the stalls were actually set up in a grassy field. I had my heart set on Char Kway Teow, but unfortunately the stall we ordered from wasn't great - the fried noodles were a little gluey, with too much dark sauce, so you couldn't enjoy the smoky flavor of the noodles themselves.

The Chinese lady at the next table noticed that we were taking pictures of our food and asked earnestly if we wanted to photograph hers. We explained to her that we were recording everything we tasted on our vacation, and she said, "Then try my food too! And then take a picture!" So she shared with us her duck rice, and her "pig organ stew" - stomach, intestine, and fatty bacon. Believe it or not, the intestine was delicious!

On my first business trip to Singapore, I had been told that as soon as I had checked into my hotel, I should take the MRT to Newton Circus Hawker Centre to eat. I did, and in the steamy equatorial dark, jet lagged, I was overwhelmed with the sights and smells. It was on the basis of that one experience that I insisted that Michael come with me on my next trip to Singapore, and we've been hooked on Singaporean food ever since. Newton is Singapore's most famous food center, and it suffers from that. It's a little more expensive than others, the vendors are more insistent and less friendly, and, sadly, since our last visit, it has been "improved" and therefore has lost much of its charm. Still, we ate well.

Michael wanted to return for the chili sotong (squid). Squid rings and onions in a smoky thick chili sauce. Delicious with Tiger beer.

Sorry for the fuzzy photo of these popiah - a kind of a cross between a spring roll and a burrito, with crunchy vegetables and a sweet sauce.

Satay is a classic Malaysian dish, barbecued skewers of marinated meat. In the really authentic places the skewers are spears of sugar cane. We had beef, mutton, and pork - Malaysians are Muslim, but Chinese love pork, so ... a Malaysian dish with pork!

Monday, November 28

If you spend a little time in Singapore, you'll hear about fish head curry. Locals debate about where it's best. There are a lot of different "native" cuisines in Singapore, but this (with satay, chili crab, and a few others) has a shot at being the national dish. But ... fish head curry ... eww. So we had never tried it. Since we don't know when we'll be coming back, we decided this was the day to change that, and we kept hearing that Banana Leaf Apolo in Little India does the dish very authentically. So, in (another) rain storm, we headed out to find it. We forgot to photograph it until we had already dug in - yes, that's an eye socket. Supposedly the eye is a delicacy but I have to say, one was one too many for me. It's a big red snapper head, with a lot of tender meat in it, but a zillion bones. The curry was good, but nothing special - I guess you have to be a local to "get" it. It's served in the traditional manner, on a banana leaf, and some of the patrons were eating in the traditional manner, with their fingers, but we had done that before, so decided to be ourselves and pick up our forks.

Much more satisfying was the mutton Hyderabad, supposedly with mint and almonds, that what we noticed was lime leaf and cardamom. Anway, it was really delicious. We mopped up all the sauce with our garlic naan.

We rounded out the meal with jasmine rice, stewed vegetables, papadams, and lime juice. Not cheap at S$ 50 (= 40 bucks) but much better Inidan food that we can ever find in San Diego!

For dinner, we headed down to Lau Pa Sat, a hawker center in a beautiful Colonial-era pavilion. Being close to the business district, it is busy morning, noon, and night, and although it's not known for having the best of any given dish, you can find just about anything served in Singapore there, so it's a great place to get a sense of the culinary diversity of the island.

I had been hungering for laksa, a spicy noodle soup in a shrimp and coconut broth.

That was pretty satisfying, but we couldn't stay away from the pork buns.

Tuesday, November 29

It was a particularly rainy day, and Michael was down with some traveler's distress, so I ran out looking for a cookbook cafe I had read about. It was no longer there, but often a goal like that is mostly about just seeing new things, and I enjoyed exploring a pretty Chinese neighborhood with a big Hindu temple in it.

I just grabbed some take-out wonton noodles to eat in the hotel room.

Feeling revived, we ventured out into the warm night - it seems only to rain in the afternoon - to explore Clarke Quay. As has been the theme, it was much "improved" since our last visit, with less charm, but it was still a beautiful and interesting place to hang out, thronged with people eating, drinking, and shopping (which, after all, is about all there is to do in Singapore ...)

Wednesday, November 30

Our last morning in Singapore, we were up early and it was a beautiful sunny day. It was guaranteed to start raining at some point, so we made the most of the sun to sit by the hotel pool.

After the rain started, we took the MRT to the Marina Bay Sands, an enormous casino and hotel that has changed the Singapore skyline. Grazed on some "curry puffs" we bought from a street vendor outside a construction site. They were delicious and we had inhaled them before I realized that we hadn't photographed them.

Two of our goals had been to have some pepper crab, and to eat some good Malaysian food. Eating the best pepper crab means an excursion to the East Coast Seafood Centre, and we just never got it together for the schlep. But we did read repeated references to Sabar Menanti Nasi Padang, which is reputed to have some of the best Malaysian food in Singapore, which should translate to have some of the best Malaysian food anywhere. It's in the "Little Arabia" part of Little India, around the corner from the Grand Mosque on Kandahar Street. "Arabia" refers to it being the Muslim quarter - Sinapore Muslims are mostly Indian and Malaysian. As a side benefit, we found Zam Zam, a place we have reminisced about from past trips. They make a kind of Indian crepe called murtabak. Unfortunately, we found it on the way back from Sabar Menanti, and our stomachs were too full to eat there.

It's a tiny place with seating upstairs, and a few tables along the sidewalk. The lovely lady behind the counter, who is also the cook, serves up small plates for you - we tried five things that she helped us choose, and they were great together. Clockwise from the beverage, there was fresh lime juice, cabbage and green beans in curry, eggplant sambal (chili), squid in a spicy black squid ink sauce, curry chicken, and beef rendang (a thick spice paste) - all served with rice. Everything was delicious - this was without a doubt our best meal in Singapore.

Thursday, December 1

We got an early start to the Singapore airport - bad advice from the front desk at the hotel made things a bit stressful - turns out you can't just call a cab and expect one to show up at 6 AM in Singapore! But the cab driver got us to the airport quickly. We had a four-hour layover in Hong Kong and found a better Cathay Pacific lounge than the one we used on the way over. Ramen cooked to order - nice!

Back to reality - Cathay Pacific's food left something to be desired. The bowl of pasta we had for dinner at home after a 24-hour voyage tasted really, really good!

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