Finding good Chinese food in the States is hard. Yes, I’m well aware that some of the best Chinese restaurants on the planet are in New York or Los Angeles or whatever but if you want just real, old school homestyle Hong Kong food, there really isn’t a lot of it in America. Some areas lack much of a Chinese population so the Chinese food caters more to local tastes. Therefore, most of the time you’ll find sweet and sour pork or kung pao chicken.
I enjoy a little sweet and sour pork myself sometimes but when I talk about authentic Chinese food, I mean the sort of thing guys like my dad crave when they come home from a long vacation. I know my dad likes a good steak but I also see the way he digs into a bowl of rice after he spends a week in France. I get that feeling too after long stints away from home.
I’ve only gotten really good Chinese food from a few places in the States like San Jose, San Francisco and New York, mostly because there are large Chinese populations in each one of those American metropolises. Seattle is close since while there are a lot of chop suey joints, there are a couple of restaurants that taste just like home to me. One such place in Hing Loon Seafood Restaurant, located in Seattle’s Chinatown.
Just by looking at this place, you know you’re getting some authentic Hong Kong-style cooking.
The menu you’re handed is only some of the almost 200 dishes served at Hing Loon. The rest is all over the walls in handwritten “specials”. Either they add a lot on the fly or someone just wanted to show off their nice handwriting.
When I say authentic Hong Kong-style food, I guess I mean more the sort of Hong Kong-style cooking I expect in Vancouver. However, I’ve been to Hong Kong and didn’t find the food there much different from that of Richmond. Either way, here are three old school dishes straight from my childhood.
We started with a preserved duck egg and salted pork congee, which we wolfed down so quickly I forgot to take a picture of the scary “1000 year old eggs”! In case you’re unfamiliar with this Chinese delicacy, “century eggs” are preserved in a mix of…things for months (not actually 100…or 1000…years), turning the yolk a bluish-grey and the white into a dark brown, like amber preserving mosquitos in Jurassic Park. The result scares some people but I love these things. I would so win that episode of Fear Factor.
The congee here is delicious. I think one characteristic of good congee is that it’s the right thickness and that it stays that same consistency as you eat it. Congee that hasn’t cooked long enough or properly hasn’t had the time and heat necessary for the rice and the water melt together into a creamy porridge. You shouldn’t have wet rice and water by the last few spoonfuls. You should be able to tell congee has whole grains of rice but it should all “gel” together…a bit more liquid-y than a risotto. The congee at Hing Loon is thick, full of meat, egg and well seasoned. There’s flavor in the “jook” (Cantonese for congee), not just in the individual ingredients. The pork’s flavor sinks deep into the rice, another sign of good congee.
This is minced beef on rice with an egg. I expected a raw egg dropped in the middle, which just adds a different dimension of richness to a very traditional Chinese dish but a cooked over easy egg works too. Bright, runny yellow egg yolk makes anything better and without any of the white, the rice is kept a little drier. This is a very simple dish. I remember eating it often as a kid when my family would go for lunch at Maxim’s in Chinatown.
Yes, the beef is finely minced rather than ground beef like spaghetti sauce, which means the beef retains it’s texture rather than tasting like hamburger. The sauce is soy and probably some oyster sauce thickened by a little corn starch. The perfect one of these is where you get little bouncy bits of beef and the sauce is savory and thick enough to coat all the rice without being soupy. This is a damned good example at Hing Loon.
Lastly, we have a chicken chow mein. No, those limp noodles underneath the heat lamp at “Wok This Way” isn’t really chow mein. Chow mein should come “seung mein wong”, which directly translates into “dual noodle king”. That makes no sense to me but for some reason, that means to keep the noodles and the sauce separate in Cantonese. The noodles are pan fried to a crisp and then the sauce (chicken, bean sprouts, mushrooms) is poured on top at the last minute. The result is a wonderful mix of crunchy (unsauced noodles, bean sprouts) and chewy (saucy noodles, chicken, mushrooms) textures. Unfortunately, while the sauce at Hing Loon is very tasty, the noodles are fried almost too crunchy and I prefer the thinner noodles.
Hing Loon is a gem in Seattle. It’s not much of a secret…the locals fill this place up at peak hours. It was rather empty at 2pm on a Thursday but there were still two or three tables of regulars that sat down and ordered without looking at menus. The front door and counter are plastered with mentions in the local papers or magazine awards. Service is great for a Chinese restaurant. There was only one server at the time along with two cooks in the kitchen but I didn’t see anyone sit down for more than 5 minutes before getting their food. Everything is snappy and while they aren’t overly friendly…no one is going to ask for your life story…everyone is cheerful. Everything tastes like the cooks have made it a million times and know each dish like the backs of their hands. I’ve been here for dinner too and there’s a lot to like. It’s not expensive either. The rice and the noodles were under $10 and the “jook” was I think $6. Portions are also quite large. Two plates are more than enough for three average eaters.
If you happen to be one of the many Canadians from Vancouver making the trip down to Seattle to spend to that $800 48-hour limit and you’re craving Chinese food as good as what we get at home, then this is the place for you. It isn’t fancy but as anyone that knows good, down-to-earth, Chinese food will tell you, all the best places look pretty much exactly like this.
Summary: Lamenting the lack of good Chinese food when you leave Vancouver? Hing Loon tastes just like home, whether it’s Vancouver or Hong Kong. No fancy table cloths but this place looks and feels like a good Chinese greasy spoon should…without actually being greasy. The chicken chow mein (remember to ask for the sauce and noodles separate) and minced beef on rice are safe bets but if you’re more adventurous, give century egg a try or maybe one of the many offal dishes they serve.