Where to go and what to eat in the world of dai pai dong
Whether you know them as cooked food centres, dai pai dongs (大牌檔) or still don’t yet know them at all, the communal consumption of cheap and tasty Cantonese cuisine in the boisterous setting in which it is enjoyed best, has been part of the Hong Kong eating experience for over a century.
Formerly an open-air, street-side affair, the unashamedly no-nonsense dining that characterised the traditional dai pai dong has largely moved indoors these days. But rather than destroying the atmosphere for which they were renowned, the move to the relative cleanliness of the cooked food centre may well just have enhanced the experience.
To date, I can count fifteen cooked food centres at which I’ve had the pleasure of eating, though there are dozens more throughout Hong Kong. Of those not listed here, Shek Tong Tsui Cooked Food Centre and the one at Centre Street Market in Sai Ying Pun deserve an honourable mention. Shau Kei Wan and Hung Hom were decent but nothing spectacular. While the only cooked food centre that’s ever disappointed me, at Lockhart Road in Wan Chai, might just be due a second chance.
The ten that follow, are thus ten of the best, each notable not only for the quality of the food, but for the experience as a whole. Taking price, food, atmosphere and everything else into account, the first six would be my current cooked food kings. If you have your own favourites or think there’s anything I’ve missed, let me know in the comments below.
Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre, Wan Chai (鵝頸熟食中心)
My first, my local, and still my favourite cooked food centre, Bowrington Road is a culinary delight. Located two minutes from Times Square, its combination of top-notch food at reasonable prices, make Bowrington Road Cooked Food Centre a winner in every respect. Always with a good atmosphere and plenty busy throughout the week, Wing Kee Restaurant is the pick of the stalls inside for an evening visit. It’s the first restaurant you encounter upon entering, with some excellent seafood and still the best roasted chicken I’ve tasted in Hong Kong. There’s also the halal duck, chicken and lamb curry-serving Wai Kee Restaurant to sample if you fancy a spot of lunchtime goodness.
21 Bowrington Road, Wan Chai
MTR Causeway Bay Exit A. Or tram/bus along Hennessey Road stopping at Times Square/Canal Road.
Java Road Cooked Food Centre, North Point (渣華道熟食中心)
Once featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations programme and seemingly the default destination for those seeking to show their friends just how local they really are, Tung Po Seafood Restaurant (東寶小館) at Java Road Cooked Food Centre, has a deserved reputation for cooked food excellence. Famed, among other things, for its squid ink pasta, Tung Po does a fine line in Cantonese-cuisine-with-a-twist. With a constantly evolving list of specials alongside usual favourites like fried fish with corn sauce and its wind-sand chicken, Tung Po’s delights may come at a slight premium to other cooked food joints, but it’s always worth the trip.
99 Java Road, North Point
MTR North Point Exit A2. Or bus 10 from Kennedy Town via Central and Causeway Bay.
Kowloon City Cooked Food Centre (九
Did somebody say Thai food? Hong Kong’s cooked food centres are not only great places to get your fill of Cantonese cuisine, many other culinary delights from around Asia have made the transition to the low rent and reliable customer base that the cooked food centre offers. Amporn Thai Food in Kowloon City is one such gem. Delicious pad Thai, tasty coconut curries, and the biggest salt-crusted lemongrass grilled fish I’ve ever seen, all accompanied by an iced red bean and coconut milk drink with sticky rice and mango pudding afterwards … Hong Kong dining doesn’t get much better.
100 Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City
Bus 107 or 116 from Causeway Bay. Bus 113 from Kennedy Town via Central/Causeway Bay.
Nam Long Shan Road Cooked Food Centre, (南朗山道熟食中心)
If you still haven’t had your fill of Thai food after Kowloon City, then this place is even better. With several different restaurants serving several different cuisines, it’s Pattaya Thai Food restaurant you should be heading to. Large portions, cheap cheap cheap, and most importantly delicious, it’s one of my favourite hidden places to eat in Hong Kong. It may be a little out of the way, located next to Wong Chuk Hang just out of the southern end of the Aberdeen Tunnel, but if you make the effort to get there, you really won’t be disappointed. Check it out!
1 Nam Long Shan Road, Wong Chuk Hang
Bus 38, 42 or 42C run from North Point via Causeway Bay.
Wo Che Estate Market, Sha Tin (沙田禾輋邨街市)
Located under what looks like a huge permanent gazebo in the middle of a public housing estate, the dai pai dong at Wo Che Market in Sha Tin is not strictly a cooked food centre, but it is one of the busiest and ultimately satisfying experiences out there. Chan Kun Kee (陳根記) is the largest and best of the restaurants inside, though turning up at peak time on a Friday or Saturday night will likely see you having to put your table grabbing skills to the test. But rest assured, the food is worth the wait. They do a beautiful drunken chicken and damn tasty crispy tofu rolls with a tangy vinegar dip. The shredded chicken and stir-fried clams in black bean sauce also seemed to be popular favourites amongst the locals.
Wong Nai Chung Cooked Food Centre, Happy Valley (黃泥涌街熟食中心)
For an evening visit, Wong Nai Chung Cooked Food Centre is hard to beat. Tucked away in the middle of Happy Valley and home to several award winning chefs, the place is testament to the quality that can be found in the world of the cooked food centre. In both of the two dinnertime restaurants – Gi Kee and Sheung Kee – the food is consistently fantastic. It even became my cooked food centre of choice for a few months (along with Bowrington Road) after I first discovered it, with the tram trip from Causeway Bay becoming a weekly weekend ritual. Seafood, again, is the big thing here. You can even choose your own from the buckets and tanks. It’s a small place and pretty laid back as far as cooked food centres go. But for quality Cantonese cuisine, it’s one of the best.
2 Yuk Sau Street, Happy Valley
MTR to Causeway Bay Exit A then tram from Percival Street to Happy Valley. Or bus 1 from Kennedy Town via Central and Wan Chai/bus 8x from Chai Wan via Causeway Bay.
Tai Po Hui Cooked Food Centre (大埔墟熟食中心)
Fancy a bit of cooked food centre dim sum? Then make the effort to get yourself up to Tai Po and grab some of the cheapest dim sum in Hong Kong. Arriving on a Sunday lunchtime the place was packed, with over twenty stalls open and doing business. There were Thai food stalls, congee stalls, dim sum and noodles. But if dim sum is what you’re after, try Lam Kee (林記點心) at shop 8-9. It’s cheap cheap cheap and tres delicious. The best thing about lunchtime at Tai Po Hui, is that if something else catches your eye across the room, you can order it, pay for it, and bring it back to your table to eat with your dim sum. You can then settle your dim sum bill, or whatever you’re eating at your chosen stall, at the end of your feast. Perfect!
8 Heung Sze Wui Street, Tai Po
MTR Tai Po Market Exit A and follow the crowds towards Tai Po town centre.
Ap Lei Chau Cooked Food Centre (鴨脷洲街市及熟食市場)
Buy your seafood from the market downstairs then take it to the cooked food centre for cooking. That seems to be the routine for the locals arriving at Ap Lei Chau Cooked Food Centre on a Saturday night. And being that Ap Lei Chau is directly across the harbour from the Aberdeen Wholesale Fish Market, you can’t say that what you’re eating isn’t fresh. It also makes for a far more economical night out than you might have at a regular seafood restaurant. If you don’t fancy buying your own ingredients, there is still a decent selection of seafood to choose from inside, as well as your usual choice of Cantonese favourites from off the menu. It might be a little out of the way, but if you are up for a bit of a cooked food adventure, you should be handsomely rewarded.
8 Hung Shing Street, Ap Lei Chau
Bus 90 from Central or 590 via Wan Chai & Causeway Bay.
Queen’s Street Cooked Food Market (皇后街熟食市場)
Queen’s Street Cooked Food Market is all about variety. There’s Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Nepalese, and even a Hong Kong version of what Italian food might be like at ABC Kitchen. Located between Sheung Wan and Sai Yin Pun, Queen’s Street Cooked Food Market has a fairly relaxed atmosphere compared to some of the other centres on the list, making for a relatively cordial introduction to the cooked food experience. The roasted suckling pig at ABC is said to be particularly splendid.
38 Des Voeux Road West, Sheung Wan
MTR Sai Ying Pun Exit A2 and walk 5 mins east along Des Voeux Road towards Central
Pei Ho Street Market, Sham Shui Po (北河街熟食中心)
If there was an award for noisiest Hong Kong cooked food centre, Pei Ho Street would take it hands down. It’s big, it’s loud, it’s pretty filthy as far as cooked food centres go, but if you want dai pai dong as you might imagine it should be, Pei Ho Street in Sham Shui Po is the place to find it. Most of the food here is classic Cantonese, with plenty of stalls to choose from. There are also Thai and Vietnamese stalls if you fancy going all South East Asian. Even the cats get in on the act, wandering in, looking for scraps. It’s slightly scary, but it’s certainly worth checking out.
333 Ki Lung Street, Sham Shui Po
MTR Sham Shui Po Exit C2. Bus 112 or 102 from North Point via Causeway Bay.