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January 30, 2012

Temple Street Night Market

Temple Street Spicy Crab Dominic Armato

Business lunches are all fine and good... okay, usually a lot more than good... but this was a trip where I couldn't wait to get my hands on some street food. Given our work schedule, that wasn't going to happen during the day. Which was fine by me, because it had been close to a decade, possibly more, since I'd visited the night market on Temple Street.

Beer MeDominic Armato

It hurts, really, to see throngs of people crowding a half mile stretch of Temple Street at 11:30 on a school night when there are only a handful of nearly deserted joints that are open at that hour back home. Yeah, a good chunk of the folks are tourists, the goods are of dubious origins and the food is... well, we'll get to that... but the energy of a place like this is intoxicating. All the neon of Vegas crammed into narrow streets that are little more than glorified alleys, crowds of people crammed in shoulder to shoulder, and hawkers selling wares from rickety stalls. Walk towards the north end of the market and the bazaar gives way to palm readers, dozens of them lined up, and dozens of people lined up for the most popular ones. Chinese opera performances used to be routine at the market, and perhaps they still are, but at least on this evening makeshift karaoke bars seemed to be more popular, a machine, a mic and a few tables set up under a tarp, three or four of them in a row, one amateur vocalist singing over another the next booth over. And, of course, the food.

Spice CrabsDominic Armato

I read a number of years ago that most of the old street stalls and carts had been shut down, and it kills me to know there's a piece of Hong Kong history I could have experienced when I first started visiting, but didn't. Still, Temple Street certainly isn't lacking for eats, even if the ones now scattered throughout the area all have some kind of permanent lodging. And even if it isn't being made from mobile carts and temporary stands, the restaurants in the area bring the food out into the open, selling items from windows to snack on as you walk, and coopting sidewalks, corners and alleys -- wherever there's some open space -- tables and chairs spilling out into the streets. So I picked one that seemed especially popular, a move that can always be a good or bad thing, and settled in for some seafood at Temple Street Spicy Crab.

Black Bean ClamsDominic Armato

More than a restaurant, they've practically taken over the entire corner of Temple and Nanking Street. The restaurant covers the storefronts on three of the four corners, and by the time the tables have moved into the streets, it seems like a hundred people sitting outside, under massive tarps and awnings, plowing through crabs and other seafood and putting away a healthy amount of beer. It's tough to argue with that kind of logic on a balmy night, so I followed suit, ordering one of the house special spicy crabs, and some black bean clams. When the crab arrived, it looked and smelled fabulous. But even though I was halfway through a rather sizeable beer, it didn't leave much of an impression. It was surely stir fried to order, piled with crispy garlic, scallions and dried chiles. But the texture and flavor of the meat within suggested that the crab had been pre-cooked earlier. A lot earlier. It was dry, stuck to the shell, and devoid of natural sweetness. To tell the truth, I had a far, far better version of the same dish back in Phoenix at Nee House, where they call it Kowloon Style Crab. Though to be fair, I'm quite confident this wasn't Kowloon's best food forward. The clams were better, but still left me wanting. The sauce wasn't terrible, but it was overthickened and somewhat dull. The clams did their best to fight through it, with only marginal success. After paying my bill, I was halfway down the street before I did the math and realized I'd been charged $25 US for the crab. Even if that was the actual price (which I doubt), it was still robbery.

Boiled ShrimpDominic Armato

Lesson learned. Convert the bill before paying, and make sure dinner's still swimming before ordering. So I walked a little further down and spied a spot named Aberdeen Seafood Restaurant that had tubs brimming with little critters, still flopping about. One of the women running the joint walked over to ask if I saw anything I'd like. I decided to keep it simple. It's such a treat in China to get shrimp that haven't been frozen, that still have that incredible natural sweetness. So I pointed to a tub filled with smaller shrimp, and told her I'd like some of them boiled. I took a seat 20 feet away, and waited for her to grab the net to fish out my dinner. She never did. The ones that did arrive were fine, but enough of them were off that I doubt they were swimmers. They were a long way from the piles of almost candy sweet shrimp I've had the unparalleled pleasure of devouring on many previous visits to China. Bait and switch on Temple Street. Too bad.

Street Food Vendors Dominic Armato

With two strikes, I figured I'd give one of the street food stands a shot on my way back to the hotel. Three ladies were running a stand that was getting a lot of traffic, and that offered two items I'd read about.

Curry Fish BallsDominic Armato

The first was curried fish balls, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Anybody who's done Asian hot pot is familiar with these fellows, pulverized fish mixed with a little egg white and starch and formed into balls that have a kind of light, springy texture when cooked. Here, as at other stands in the area, they sat bubbling away in a pan of curried broth, and upon being ordered one of the ladies would grab a pair of tongs and a skewer, fish out and stab a half dozen or so, and hand them over. I'm not sure why they inspire the devotion I've read elsewhere, but I certainly enjoyed them. These had a very light, spongy texture, light and airy, and the curry was just a little spicy, possessed of more fragrance than flavor, and not the slightest hint of sweetness. I love fish balls, and while I'd hoped for more given the swooning I've seen others do in their honor, I could see these growing on me.

Fried IntestineDominic Armato

For a second item, after a largely disappointing evening, my first instinct was to take the safe route and get some shumai. Then I figured, screw safe. Who knows when I'll be back to Asia again? Churning away in a cauldron of bubbling hot fat was another popular street food I'd read about. Long, bright red coils of pig intestines, folded upon themselves multiple times over, were lightly browned on the flat lip of the pot, dropped into the fat to sizzle away for a while, then removed, sliced and skewered. I hesitated at first because... well... the scent of this stuff is something to behold, even from three storefronts away. James Brown wishes he was this funky. But you know, there are a lot of foods that are abusive on the nostrils and far gentler on the palate. So I went for it. When I bit in, my first thought was that the exterior had a fabulously light, crisp texture that I-- oh wow. No more than three quarters of a second later, I got the interior layers. And as much as it pains me to say it, I was defeated. It was, indeed, too funky in here. There are frontiers of offal that I'm just not yet prepared to explore, and this particular snack is at least three levels removed from where I am now. It is with great chagrin that I admit I deposited the remaining bites in the nearest garbage can as stealthily as I could, and I accept whatever food nerd demerits I've earned for this action. My limits are few, but for the time being, this is one of them.

So I had substandard Chinese seafood, I got ripped off by unscrupulous merchants, and I went down in flames when trying to push my limits a bit. And yet, I'd call it a good night. Because the truth is that it's a much a cultural experience as it is a culinary experience, and sitting out on the street on a balmy night, enjoying a beer on my right and a spicy crab on my left, surrounded by throngs and throngs of Hong Kong natives who are doing the same, it's an exhilarating feeling. Sometimes... sometimes... it isn't all about the food.

Temple Street Spicy Crab
210 Temple Street
Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
2780 8438
Aberdeen Seafood Restaurant
105 Woosung Street
Yau Ma Tei, Hong Kong
2384 3226


Glancing back through some of your older posts, I read this one. Is the pig intestine dish similar at all to chitlins (chitterlings)? Chitlins are generally boiled for quite a while which undoubtedly mitigates the funk, but I wonder how they compare.

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