Saturday, March 17, 2012

Restaurant Review: Ho Hung Kee 何洪記

Location: Sharp Street, Causeway Bay
Type of food: noodles and congee
Rating: ** (2 out of 5)

Opened in 1946 in Wanchai, Ho Hung Kee went from a husband-and-wife noodle shop to one of the city's most trust names in wonton noodle soup, the ultimate Cantonese comfort food. In 1974, the restaurant moved to its current location in Causeway Bay near Times Square. For decades, eager customers -- many of them Japanese and Korean tourists -- congregate outside the modest store front waiting to taste their famous fried noodles with beef (乾抄牛河). But it wasn’t until the hole-in-the-wall clinched a Michelin star last year that Ho Hung Kee achieved international fame. Since then the long line has gotten even longer.

Always a line outside Ho Hung Kee

Seating at Ho Hung Kee is limited and uncomfortable. It is one of those local joints where you are expected to vacate your seat as soon as you finish your food, or risk getting dirty looks from the staff. But neither the discomfort nor the abrupt service would stop me from going, for they used to have this one dish I absolutely loved: vermicelli with shredded pork and pickled vegetables (雪菜肉絲窩米). The mai fun is served in an 12-inch porcelain cauldron and can easily feed a family of four. Every time I ordered it for myself, the waitress would look at me incredulously and remark how a skinny guy could have such a big appetite.

My favorite seat in the far right corner

But the restaurant stopped serving my favorite dish about a year ago – probably because not many customers would order it – and I stopped going there ever since. Then last Saturday afternoon, I decided to pay them a visit for old time’s sake. I took my favorite seat at the two-person booth in the far right corner next to the Taoist shrine. I ordered a wonton soup and fried noodles with beef, two of their best known dishes that I used to order all the time. The wontons tasted alright but they were noticeably smaller than they used to be. The fried noodles, on the other hand, were an absolute disappointment. There was barely any beef in it -- probably a response to rising meat prices -- and the noodles were stale and over-cooked. Judging from the lukewarm temperature of the dish, it must have been prepared by the chef in one big badge and brought to me after it had been sitting on the kitchen counter for a while. I get better quality fried noodles in New York’s Chinatown and that, for a respected noodle house in Hong Kong, is about as big an insult as it comes.

The sub-par fried noodles with beef

It is clear that somewhere in the past 12 months the quality of food at Ho Hung Kee took a sharp turn for the worse. Their signature dishes suddenly became barely edible. Ho Hung Kee is a classic example of how a good restaurant can be ruined by a Michelin star. The tiny mom-and-pop shop was unprepared for the sudden surge in customers that came with the fame. In order to cope, the restaurant must find ways to cut corners and the quality of food became the first casualty. I now understand why so many Tokyoites complain about the way The Michelin Guide has spoiled their favorite neighborhood restaurants. It has spoiled one of mine.


  1. Jason,

    I've been to Ho Hung Kee once since almost ten years ago ! At that time, folks don't even have a glue of what "Michelin" is. I was there only by chance and I recalled that their congee was good especially the traditional one - "及第粥" ! Don't know how's that today ?!! Anyhow, I do agree that too much "fame" may ruin everything if they are not totally ready for that overwhelming success. Good luck ! Ho Hung Kee.


  2. What a sad plight for a trusty old restaurant like this one. I have to admit I don’t recall whether I have eaten there. My experience is: once a mom-and-dad shop grows into a franchise or larger chain, something always go amiss, be it food / product quality or service.

    Again, if the food there no longer spices up our lives, your humour and portrait of the place certain did. I love those booth seats in canteens like these, and they always provide extra room and “security” for my bags and my friends’ guitars etc. Dirty looks from staff is part of the ambiance of the place, right? My elder brother used to mutter worse comments under his breath when queueing for tables (where the patrons are chatting) in canteens. He used to mutter words like, “拜山先講啦” in places in Chinatown where you should best keep silent. Surprise, surprise, he’s still alive and kicking today, though the 拜山 festival is coming up next week.

    Gosh, I love雪菜肉絲窩米too, what a pity they no longer does that. I would have loved to try it. A 12-inch cauldron is not really that big. You should have seen my friends (the guys) finishing their portion and usually half or more than half of my portion. In fact, I think some took delight in being the underwriter of my food when I eat with them, i.e. they would help themselves to the lone bowl of rice in my bento box before the waitress has put the serving down before me!!! And the waitress would be so stunned… Or they will take it for granted that I won’t be able to finish what I order, so they’ll tailor their orders round mine. Not bad if we bear in mind the tonnage of food wastage we are committing each day.

    [To be cont'd]


  3. Maybe it’s the Michelin star, maybe it’s the rising food prices, or it is just a matter of people not putting their “hearts” into what they do anymore.

    It’s certainly prevalent in other professions too, nobody try as hard as they do as the previous generations before us. Maybe we are all growing weaker and more selfish in what we do?! I hope not. No offence, and maybe I shouldn’t bring this up here, but you only have to look at the attitude of the younger generations and you’ll see a lot.

    Rising food prices is certainly another big factor, it is getting so expensive just to get a lunch box / sandwich… Strange that my friend told me the other day her friend returned from Australia and was giving expensive presents for everyone (when you would think Australia is a more simple nation before) because the AUD is escalating. To them everything is so cheap. I still recalled the days when I was studying there and there would be public outcry if the AUD goes over HK$6.00…….. those were the days.

    As for the Michelin Guide, it is certainly disappointing and not very informative. I used it more as a guide as to the new restaurants that have opened (and their location and contact details) rather than as Gospel truth as to how sumptuous a meal I can get to enjoy there. Still, I have been to restaurants which have not degenerated in service or food quality since being awarded a star or more stars, probably because they have to live up to the standards expected of them. They are pricey places in the first place and I guess they just pass the rising costs onto the patrons given that the people paying are going to do it for one reason or the other anyway.


  4. BTW, I forgot to add that your review of the places on the Real Deal blog is certainly heaps more reliable than the Michelin Guide, or any of the other guides out in the market !!!