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Cafe Hong Kong and Ken's Asian Taste

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After being urged in this discussion http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/919565 to hit Cafe Hong Kong for serious Cantonese food, I did a quick hit. There were just three of us, so too few dishes were ordered for any sort of authoritative experience. But I doubt I'll go back.

We got beef chow fun dry, beef ribs with bitter melon (in black bean sauce), salt and pepper shrimp (I know, calamari would have been better, but one of our party insisted), soft shell crab (also done salt and pepper style), and bok choy with foo yee (fermented bean curd sauce).

This was by no means serious Cantonese cooking. Salt and pepper stuff wasn't crispy, just soggy/greasy (like the oil wasn't hot enough). Quality of crab was good, shrimp so-so.

Ribs with bitter melon and chow fun were absolutely pedestrian - which is to say pretty good. Exactly like what I'd expect to get in one of the generic humdrum little quick/cheap Chinese lunch haunts in the garment district. Zero panache, just a good cheap diner-ish fill-up.

Bok choy was mushy and overcooked, and the foo yee sauce was out of a jar - and not one of the better brands. This is, again, quickie/cheapie midtown lunch cooking. It can't compare to late lamented favorites like Shing Kee, Kam Chueh, Tindo, and Fuleen's (back when it was good).

Afterwards, feeling dissatisfied, we hit Ken's Asian Taste on Bowery for a scientific comparison via some similar dishes (beef chow fun, salt and pepper shrimp, clams in black bean sauce, and snow pea leaves). Nothing was decent. Chow fun was all rubbery noodles, very little beef (and no wok flavor). Shrimp were bland and boring (though at least crisp). Clams were severely undercooked, and served in the thickest, gloppiest, most canned-seeming black bean sauce imaginable, and the pea leaves contained no garlic....something I've never before seen and hope never to see again. The characterful manager made no fewer than three pitches for the upstairs massage service, each time emphasizing a bit more explicitly the extra services which can be obtained there. As we left, I noticed a health grade of "C" in the window, the first I've ever spotted.

I think I need to go to Flushing for my Cantonese.

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  1. I think I need to go to Flushing for my Cantonese.
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    4 Replies
    1. re: ipsedixit

      For twenty years, I enjoyed sublime Cantonese food in the four Manhattan Chinatown restaurants mentioned above. It's becoming clear that no such experience is available there at this moment, but it's certainly not silly to hope. There has been great Cantonese in Chinatown for many more years than there hasn't...

      1. re: Jim Leff

        It's becoming clear that no such experience is available there at this moment, but it's certainly not silly to hope. There has been great Cantonese in Chinatown for many more years than there hasn't...
        ___________________

        Same could be said for dinosaurs' reign of earth.

        And I, for one, hold out no hope of their return.

        1. re: Jim Leff

          that's possible Jim bc I've lived here for about 12 years and there has never been a great Cantonese restaurant in NY to my knowledge.

          I've actually mentioned to people in HK that I noticed my taste buds get somewhat dulled if I'm in NY a really long time (well actually just in the US in general) and I notice it when I go back to HK and remember exactly how stuff should taste

        2. re: ipsedixit

          These days some of the best straight Cantonese in California is found at the Hong Kong style cafes which are ubiquitous out here (some blocks in the San Gabriel Valley have three). Offhand I can't think of a Hong Kong style cafe in Flushing, though there are a few in Manhattan Chinatown.. And while there is better Cantonese in Flushing I've got a suspicion that some of them are run by Fujianese, which probably caps the potential upside.

        3. I've been to Cafe Hong Kong twice, having ordered a total of eight or so dishes, and all have been stellar -- their steamed carp, an eggplant casserole, the "fried" chicken, even the fried rice... Enough so to recall Proustian memories of a Chinatown of two decades past for me. So, sorry you had such a run-of-the-mill experience there. But I'll continue to look forward to my next visit with great relish.

          Ken's Asian Taste, on the other hand, I have found to be mediocre.

          1 Reply
          1. re: sappidus

            Not two decades past. Two decades long....the cumulative length of time I ate in those four wonderful restaurants. Hundreds of meals in all.

            Could Thursday be the night the top chef takes off?

          2. My wife and I return to Cafe Hong Kong frequently, but always for her. The lobster with XO sauce has become one of her favorite dishes, but I haven't found an entree that I'm equally excited about. The string beans are excellent. They weren't available during summer, but they've had them the last few times we went. I've had the bok choy be excellent, but also overcooked and insufferable. braised tofu with mushrooms could work with a big group, but it gets boring fast. Same for the e-fu noodles with mushroom, both of which are well done and enjoyable in small quantity.

            the whole chicken is good, but it doesn't excite me. Really enjoy the salt and pepper fried pork chop, but the sweet and sour pork was awful. the mapo tofu - well, i accept it as my fault for ordering a sichuan dish in a Cantonese restaurant.

            24 Replies
            1. re: coasts

              A good Cantonese restaurant should still be able to churn out a decent "mapo tofu", which has become a Chinese restaurant staple crossing the different regional styles, so no excuses there for Cafe HK.

              1. re: klyeoh

                klyeoh - NY chinese restaurants are not good at everything in fact they are generally bad at most things except some very key dishes which you will notice on all local's tables. This is not like Asia where you will have restaurants that can do an across the board generally good job. Unfortunately, you have to know exactly what dishes to order (try to convey that in my posts) otherwise you run the risk of having a very mediocre meal at a restaurant that is capable of turning out a good one.

                what you have singapore / malaysia would blow away anything in NY a long shot.

                Btw its funny you point that out about mapo tofu bc its sort of become ubiquitous Cantonese dish overtime much like peking duck where its from another region but has been adapted and now is very popular amongst cantonese

                1. re: Lau

                  BTW, Lau - maybe you should go back to Cafe HK with Jim Leff yourself. I hope I'm wrong, but do you think the same dishes might be prepared differently by Cafe HK's chefs if the person ordering that is Chinese-looking?

                  1. re: klyeoh

                    I'd be happy to go back with Jim Leff (Jim - email me at lauhound@gmail.com if you have any interest). That said i believe Jim that those dishes weren't good, I've had some very mediocre dishes there, which is why i think *what* you order is basically as important as what *restaurant* you picked here in NY. I don't think it has to do with Jim not being Chinese.

                    The bad chinese restaurants in NY can get nothing right, the good ones can get some things right.

                    1. re: Lau

                      But, Robert, while I didn't (due to logistical reasons) order the perfect set of litmus dishes, wouldn't you agree that the stuff I ordered was pretty close to the rice-and-beans sweet spot a Cantonese kitchen should knock out really well? I DIDN'T order mapo tofu...or xiaolongbao...or hot pot...or General Tso....etc etc.

                      If I'm wrong, go ahead and argue. Again, I'd have rather had salt/pepper calamari than shrimp...but still....

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        by robert i think you mean me? (that's not my name haha)

                        Anyhow, i dont disagree with your statement. Those are all old school cantonese dishes. With that said it sounds like they are just not good at them. The dishes i recommend, im pretty sure you will like them which is why im so specific in my reports as to what to order (its an unfortunate situation, but ive just accepted that when i go to a chinese restaurant in NY i need to know exactly what dishes they make well and stick to those)

                        1. re: Lau

                          Geez, sorry. For years I've had in my mind that that was your name. At this moment, I can't say how that happened, but it's funny how our minds can embellish - even randomly - dabs of data like terse message board nametags (e.g. everyone tends to call me "Jeff"!).

                          1. re: Jim Leff

                            I've got a friend in Singapore called Jeff Lim!

                            1. re: klyeoh

                              And in Singaporean style, he's referred to as Lim Jeff!

                    2. re: klyeoh

                      "do you think the same dishes might be prepared differently by Cafe HK's chefs if the person ordering that is Chinese-looking? "

                      No, I'm sure not. I'm extremely sensitive to gringoization, and I didn't feel that here at all. Also, they didn't blink when I ordered foo yee.....and that's definitely an item on the "gringos-don't-like" warning list. He added plenty of it, too.

                      Also, none of the problems I've described were the result of pandering or dumbing down. I can't imagine the chefs assume non-Chinese prefer non-crispy fried stuff, for example.

                      Everything was properly salty, garlicky, etc. That's not it. Also, Robert, above, reasserts that the cooking here is a bit dull. I'm guessing he'd have loved my beloved Shing Kee, Kam Chueh, Tindo, and Fuleen's (the latter's still open fwiw....but downhill).

                      It may, however, have been an off night. But while I can mentally extrapolate to better fried stuff, just the overall impression was one of dullness....as Robert seems to corroborate.

                    3. re: Lau

                      "This is not like Asia where you will have restaurants that can do an across the board generally good job."

                      But it should be.

                      Too often we fault the patron for a bad meal (due to education, or all manner of excuses). NY Chinese restaurants all have specialties, without a doubt, but we're talking about basic execution problems and a lack of care.

                      1. re: sugartoof

                        "But it should be." - I agree with you, but the unfortunate reality is that its just not the case in NY. So with that fact in tow you kind of have to work with what you've got if you want to eat chinese food (meaning face the reality that each restaurant can only make a few dishes well).

                        If i focused on how Cantonese "should be" and expected "across the board good" in NY I'd basically just crap on every restaurant and just not eat at any of them bc not a single one would even be an ok restaurant in HK if my criteria was "I expect across the board good". Not one chinese restaurant in NY (cantonese or not) is across the board good in my mind (unfortunately for us!).

                        1. re: Lau

                          Right, and it's a continuation of discussions that have come up with Szechuan reviews. I think there's been a certain intellectualizing of the mediocrity, and some unfair endorsements made. Offering your strategy is well and good, guidance for any cuisines (get the good reputable dishes, and specialties, don't stray too far) but I don't believe in this idea of magic dishes when a kitchen is serving food that's soggy, or product from a jar, or poorly made noodles, or inferior proteins. These point to vastly different experiences, not a flaw in how one person approached ordering it.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            i hear what you're saying, but i mean not believing in it is not very pragmatic, you just have to see what they can do well or not. there are plenty of restaurants in NY that can churn out like one good dish but the rest of their food is whatever (not just in chinese food btw)

                            1. re: Lau

                              Without a doubt, but we recommend those places with the guidance and disclaimer of sticking to that single dish, and typically, there's some logic, like the place is good at pork dishes, or has a good burger. Here, we're saying you can order two shrimp dishes, and only one might be cooked properly.

                          2. re: Lau

                            I know that this is a minority opinion, but I feel that if a restaurant makes one single great dish, even if the entire rest of the menu is crap, it's still a great restaurant.

                            I've never seen it as the responsibility of a restaurant to necessarily do every last thing at an even level (exception: specials, which had better be at a reasonable level 'cuz there's no way to gauge). It's my responsibility to learn how to order (and that's an extension of my responsibility to choose a restaurant; I go to certain places for certain dishes).

                            Anyone who orders veal parmigiana in a diner deserves what they get. And diners, being business enterprises, have to serve veal parmigiana because a certain number of people demand it....even if it's no good.

                            There are other reasons certain dishes in a given place might not be good. But, regardless of the basis, I've only very rarely patronized, recommended, or even reviewed a restaurant as an open ticket to whatever's cooking.

                            So if this is just a case where I didn't hit the right dishes (compounded by an off night at the fryer), that's cool. I will, after all, go back....and will order Robert's dishes!

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              I'm reacting to this blame the patron idea that comes up frequently whenever someone has a less than stellar report of Chinese places, when in reality, many well regarded ones are just serving less than stellar food.

                              Let's say you had ordered Mapo Tofu. Unlike a diner parbaking dishes, they should still have fresh bean curd, and minced meats to use. What would be off is spicing, saucing, providing they have a capable cook. You would still be unlikely to get a good version of that dish, but the food quality itself wouldn't change. I also find it faulty to assume the ownership and the cook are always of the same region and experience, or worse, that a well traveled New Yorker knows Mapo Tofu better than Chinese because they serve Cantonese. The cuisines aren't currently segregated like that in China.

                              I generally agree about the one great dish - but even now, nobody is telling you the single can't miss dish, the response is that you should still have had a great meal. I think it's more likely you went on an off night (or the place has gone downhill) instead of thinking that the person ordering did something wrong.

                              1. re: sugartoof

                                "blame the patron" - i think it cuts both ways. i clearly think restaurants are at fault bc they put out these huge menus which i mentioned above.

                                in Jim's case, i dont think he did anything particularly wrong ordering (like ordering a dish that was not from the region etc). But as i stated before the fact of the matter like it or not is that chinese restaurants in NY are just ok, you will not find a place that everything is good on the menu. So taking that as fact, you really need to figure out what they're good at and then stick to it. Veering from that can end up with bad results unfortunately

                                1. re: Lau

                                  I fully agree... I just dispute the idea that aside from someone's trial and error, there is a methodical educated way to assure a good meal, or that we shouldn't expect certain kitchen skills to carry through similar dishes.

                                  1. re: sugartoof

                                    there is no way to go about this other than trial and error and doing some of your own research before you go and thats no different for any restaurant chinese or otherwise. i try my best to do that for people or at least convey a roadmap in my posts although its a matter of taste end of day so i try to convey what i personally found to my liking usually over several trips to a restaurant.

                                    the whole original reason i actually started posting reviews on chowhound and then later the whole blog thing was bc i thought in alot of chinese restaurants (food in general though) people would just order crazy stuff and be like oh that restaurant sucks not bc they're dumb but simply they are ordering something completely foreign to them whereas its not so foreign to me

                                    1. re: Lau

                                      Of course, and in addition, people like yourself are a great resource. On top of it, despite different sensibilities, I think there's a desire to eat real Chinese food and develop a taste for more challenging dishes at the expense of portraying the food quality accurately. It's not always the oversized menus.

                                      I think it's become pretty evident that some of the rules of thumb people have adopted are misleading. The Mapo Tofu in relation to Cantones is one example.

                              2. re: Jim Leff

                                yah agree to disagree. it bothers me to no end that restaurants will put out these massive menus with lots of duds on them. i think just sticking what you're good at and keep the menu to that will really keep your customers alot more happy. i mean while there are fook lam moon type places in HK, most of the restaurants really have much more specialized menus and you know when u go there you're going to get a great XYZ. I think that is just a much better way to go about things

                                1. re: Lau

                                  Restaurants do the huge menu thing because the overwhelming majority of diners want what they want, period. We who seek to strategize and treasure hunt are a tiny minority.

                                  Most people, strange to say, actually order what they feel like eating, rather than what the place does best. And that means veal parm in diners, xiaolongbao in Cantonese places, and barbecued ribs in restaurants with no pit. Restaurateurs don't do this cuz they're insane. There's tremendous incentive. Places that don't serve a wide swathe (a wider swathe than their overall missions and skill sets accommodate) will lose business, period. And it's a shaky, slim-margin business to begin with.

                                  This is the one facet where I need to concede that upscale "name" restaurants truly can stake out a higher-quality ground for themselves. Le Bernardin doesn't need to serve fried chicken to accommodate their customers, so they can concentrate on doing a great job at only what they do best. Of course, it's one thing to be free to pursue quality, and quite another to actually produce it....

                                  1. re: Jim Leff

                                    i dont agree with that at all really. Good american restaurants do that all the time (i'm not talking le bernadin, much much more affordable ones) where they have smaller menus, its what they are good at, maybe its with seasonal ingredients whatever and they do just fine. this idea you have to have an huge menu is some antiqued idea (people believe in all sorts of nonsense). go to asia you'll find very few encyclopedia menu type restaurants.

                                    my view is that the vast majority of people are not you or a chowhound person who is reasonably serious about food. they do not even know what they want to order half the time and if you give this "uneducated" person an option of 100 choices and 75 of them are duds then 75% of the time they are going to pick a dud and may come out thinking ehh that food was whatever etc. if you give them an option of 25 and 25 of those are good they are going to pick duds much less (matter of taste obviously) and restaurants that are good build a reputation that way.

                                    the closest chinese restaurant to do something like that is xi'an famous foods. i think they get marketing etc. they stick to their knittings, built up a cult following around xi'an foods. Very very few people know much about xi'an foods and they're become quite successful doing that, you don't see them veer off and make a bunch of crap they're not really good at. I'm not saying xi'an is the best chinese restaurant ever or anything, but i think they did what they're good at bc honestly how many people in NY really know what they want when they go to a xi'an restaurant, id take a guess its about 0.1% of NY's population. so taking your approach they'd have offered all type of other crap and that would have been a mistake instead the place is always jammed, does brisk business and is written up all the time

                                    the one caveat i would make it is that i understand having an americanized chinese section to your menu bc there is business for that from people who do not want real chinese food and want general tso's chicken.

                    4. Hi Jim Leff - Sorry you had a bad experience at Cafe Hong Kong. That said I'd urge you to go back and try the dishes I recommended. If you haven't noticed what you order in NY chinese restaurants is basically as important as picking the restaurant. CHK just like every other chinese restaurant in NY has a menu that is too long and has plenty of duds on it. The dishes i ordered are sort of a greatest hits list in my opinion and is what i try to convey in my posts. Those dishes are as good as anything in Flushing really.

                      Even the best cantonese restaurant in NY (Imperial Palace / East Lake) has a bunch of duds on its menu (clams in black bean sauce, salt & pepper anything, steak etc are all total duds).

                      btw that's really weird about the salt & pepper batter bc CHK is literally one of the only restaurants that can do a proper salt & pepper calamari (i can think of literally only one other place)

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Lau

                        " I'd urge you to go back and try the dishes I recommended"

                        I will. But not on a Thursday! :)

                        I did get the impression it was an unusually bad day for salt/pepper frying. I'm quite sure no one would have raved over the stuff I got. But just everything else had a blurriness to it. I got the familiar sensation that the food wasn't being cooked by chefs, but by grunt workers trained rotely to cook. Obviously, there's a lot of that around here....

                        1. re: Jim Leff

                          yah that surprised me bc they are literally one of two places that can do a decent job on salt & pepper batter

                      2. Went to cafe hong kong on friday for lunch. Ordered peking pork chops , fried chicken with garlic sauce and savoy noodle. Everything was delicious. Pork was crispy and tender though the sauce was a bit too sweet. Fried chicken was really crisp outside, moist and tender inside. Savoy noodle, my new discovery was delicious as well though I had a better version at big wong a few weeks a go. Overall I was very pleased with our meal.