|Making mapo tofu in the kitchen at Da Ping Huo. (Yalun Tu for the Boston Globe)|
Precious and nearly private
Speakeasy restaurants draw natives, tourists
HONG KONG — When he takes out-of-town visitors for dinner, Chris Hougland, a banker, has an ace up his sleeve. “I start by walking them down the main streets, right past the big commercial restaurants, until we stop at an old dingy building,’’ he says. “I then tell them we’re picking up a friend and we walk up to what looks like someone’s apartment. It’s only when they open the door do they realize that we’re at this beautiful restaurant right in the middle of nowhere.’’
Hougland, 26, and guests have walked into one of Hong Kong’s private kitchens, small speakeasy restaurants located in commercial or residential buildings all over the island. Popularized in the late ’90s, the first private kitchens often laid out meals in the chef’s own apartment with one menu, a few tables, and one seating per evening. Diners had to book weeks, sometimes months, in advance. The fare was always billed as the most authentic Chinese regional cuisine. Recommendations were largely word-of-mouth and dinner was always a cash-only affair, as most proprietors could not afford (or did not wish) to pay the business registration and government licensing fees.
Today’s private kitchens cater to an upper-middle-class population, and dinners cost $25 to $50, a good value in a very expensive city. The clientele has grown from local in-the-know Chinese to expatriates and food tourists looking for authentic cuisine and adventure. When the dot-com crash shortened the lines at all restaurants, many private kitchens had to close their doors. Then in 2003, the SARS outbreak served as a renaissance for some of the kitchens. Diners became fearful of large spaces and unsure where restaurateurs were buying their ingredients. More people crowded into the private dining rooms with few other patrons and a chef who sourced food locally.
The private kitchen Da Ping Huo has seen its clientele change in the 12 years it has been open. Its spicy and succulent mapo tofu includes beef, garlic, and chilies. Somewhat ubiquitous in Chinese restaurants, mapo tofu is different in every chef’s hands; Da Ping Huo’s is generally acclaimed as one of the most authentic in Hong Kong.
The Chinese phrase for private kitchen is “zi fong choi’’ (literally “private room menu’’). Food lore says private kitchens date to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1912, when the court chefs suddenly found themselves out of work. To make ends meet, they took to entertaining in their homes, preparing special set meals for a fee. Nowadays private kitchens have become more varied, more established, and more closely akin to small restaurants, though a small contingent of unlicensed private kitchens still operate under the radar. Legal or not, they have largely maintained their hallmarks: a set menu, one to two seatings, and no signs or advertising. The scope, however, has grown, and in addition to regional Chinese cooking, you can find Japanese, Italian, French, and even Creole menus.
From their hole-in-the-wall beginnings, private kitchens remain a unique facet of the Hong Kong culinary tradition, giving guests a chance to sit back in a small apartment setting, dine well, and focus on the food. The fact that it’s in a secret location only adds to the allure.
Yalun Tu can be reached at email@example.com.