Saturday, March 16, 2019

G** D**mit the "Famous" Egg Tart is Much Better

I had a whole post planned out here for you, team. I wrote it on the one-minute walk back to my hotel in Central from the famous egg tart bakery to which I'd just popped out, single $10HKD egg tart in little white bag. The post was like this:

there are these things that get anointed as the version of a foodstuff that is actually pretty demotic and widely spread out and--while they are good, often, these avatar examples--they are reliably no better than the 'average' example of that demotic foodstuff; in fact, sometimes, because the reason you've heard about them is marketing or whatever, they are less good than the average example you'll find, wandering around on your own two feet.

The post was longer; it had more jokes in it, more comparisons and stuff. But you don't get that post, because that post in this instance turned out to be wrong.

I was not even going to try Tai Cheong Bakery on this trip. Because of the logic laid out above; logic that, I should emphasize, I still stand by IN GENERAL.
you see this egg tart, fam? This egg tart is famous.
Buuuuuuuut -- I was sitting here, working. And it occurred to me that it was 8:29 a.m. And it occurred to me that the activation energy required to slip on my shoes and go downstairs to this famous egg tart-ery that is literally thirty seconds from the front door of my hotel was extraordinarily low; and that this famous egg tart-ery often had lines et cetera et cetera (this is true. I have seen them.); and that I had, in fact, wanted an egg tart this morning -- but laughingly (rightly) passed by some corporate bull$hit that was trying to sell me egg tarts for $25HKD cuz that $hit was written in English or something. $10HKD is high, but what I'd expect for a "high street, super-famous" egg tart. More than that is just nuts.

So anyway yeah my whole point was supposed to be: y'know what, it's delicious, but not clearly more delicious than the egg tarts that're $3HKD from those little tiny places in (say) Kennedy Town. And that being the larger point I would lay out in the post previewed above, and then—

But: stop. forget it. For I must yield to fact. For this egg tart, this famous egg tart from Tai Cheong...was kind of clearly superior to the 'average' egg tart. Low let's be crystal: by 'average' I do not mean some b.s. mass-produced, commercial centralized bakery egg tart. I mean the tiny little bakeries and cha chaan teng that sell egg tarts out their fronts in the mornings — those places. They make them fresh; they are very delicious.

But this one was better. Mainly cuz of the filling; the egg-y custard bit. I couldn't discern a major difference in crumbling pastry 'tart' part; it was good, but not clearly that different or better. But the custard was better. It kind of had layers? There was a flan-ish depth, beneath a top that was not just the very top responding to air, but like a 1cm layer that sort of thickened more, almost like a shell but not. I'd experienced things a bit like this—I guess it's something the custard does—but this one did it more, and more richly, and more notably deliciously.

Years ago, with one of my best friends, I went on a brief tasting tour of wines in Napa. We were both surprised—and, I think, a bit dismayed—to find that we could pretty easily tell the difference between some vineyard's $20, $50, and $90 bottles (I forget the exact price points, but you get the idea). I had certainly conceived of that exercise as a chance to free myself once and for all of the idea that I needed to buy more expensive wine, ever; it was interesting and surprising to have an opposite finding.

This isn't that strong — I did not buy this egg tart with any agenda. I wanted an egg tart, and one with a bit of narrative attached happened to be very close and I happened to know the exact opening time because only the famous places like this that cater to tourists etc. show up on google maps when you search for the stuff that I search for at 4:13 a.m. in Hong Kong. But I did buy this egg tart, and I loved this egg tart, and I tip my hat to it, and to Tai Cheong, for the excellence and distinction they bring to a classic food item.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Sun Hing @ 3:28am Today, March 16 2019

I've been to Sun Hing (this place) twice this trip.

The first was with my colleague F., during daylight hours. I remarked to him that I'd never been there during daylight hours; he asked me, as we were leaving, what it was like at 3 a.m. I had told him over email that I found it (always) pleasantly chaotic; he'd exclamation-mark agreed. F. is nice, and I enjoy spending time with him and his generosity about sharing his city with me.

The second trip was just now; arriving eating and leaving before about 4 a.m. The place opens at 3 a.m. -- that's one of its distinctions.

I want to tell you about my table.

I walked in, said "one" and help up one finger; the lady held up one finger and pointed me to an empty stool next to a lurching guy which had another empty stool to its right, but that one had shortrib bones all over the table in front of it so I chose the one next to the lurching guy. Who got up, shortly.

At my table were four people, together. Students, not college I'd say -- a bit older. I'm going left to right as I sat:

1L -- sort of a Platonic ideal of 'student'; like that character in a Chekhov play who is the quintessence of student, although probably a bit nattier of dress and presentation than that guy in the Chekhov play. White shirt; nifty hair cut -- talking enthusiastically.

2L -- a little older and thicker than 1L; wearing a jacket (blazer); a little less expansive than 1L but as engaged.

3L -- the only woman in their group, and poorly. Slumped in her chair; red-rimmed eyes; visibly 'holding it together'. She wasn't leaning or lurching or nodding off drunk; she looked more like someone with a very bad fever than someone drunk, although I'm pretty sure she was someone (at almost 4 a.m. this is, remember) sort of coming down from having been very drunk and feeling pretty rough about it. I wasn't "literally" worried she'd fall over or boot at the table, but you get the idea.

4L -- the only not-ethnically-Chinese person in the group; he looked Filipino to me, which to me--because of the biases of the narratives I have in my mind about the typical demographics of Filipino folks in Hong Kong, and who they are and the work they come to do--made his presence with these other three, speaking fluid Cantonese (or Mandarin, I suppose -- I cannot hear the difference) interesting. He had a different look, too; whereas 1L and 2L were natty and masculine, and 3L was prim in a "hip student gal" way, he had on a t-shirt and long wild hair. But he was locked in with the group -- I am differentiating him with my outside eye, based on appearance. He and 1L, seated farthest from each other, were also loudest and most engaged, and their laughing loud relays were the backbone of interaction at the table.

I got up to get my food; everyone at a place like Sun Hing is kind of sharp and abrupt -- they're like that with everyone, like in some contexts in New York, and you learn pretty quickly to see distinctions within it. The woman who poked me at a little plastic stool by the bones on the table was abrupt in a nice way; she was friendly and 'liked me' (I actually think she did; that sometimes happens once people see what I'm eating). The woman at the stall where the dim sum is stacked did not like me. It made no difference; I'm just saying. So I got my food (pork shortribs with rice from the little "hot drawers" that I feel very advanced for using; egg buns; chicken feet) and sat down,

by which time lurching guy--who had been to my immediate left--had been replaced by "other dude eating alone"...let's call him SoloDude. I liked SoloDude at once; he was dressed in the same efficient-casual way I was; he seemed to be going about his food in the same way as me (how he'd apparated into that seat, and thus apparated with food, is a mystery that is still and will always be unclear to me); he had an unrushed but 'hey, just here to eat some good food' manner that I felt reflected my own. We made eye contact 0 times during the course of all things.

The bones were still to my right. Then, they put down the wash-your-hands hot water bowl, tea, tea-cup, chopsticks, and spare little bowl for eating/bones/yourcall in front of me; then, the nice abrupt server lady leaned over me and said one word in Cantonese and--seeing that I had started eating without washing my hands and was not going to use the hot water bowl--used it to clean up the bones. So great.

Meanwhile, 3L is struggling. She gets up from the table for awhile, at some point. She goes outside, for cool air or to throw up, or both. She comes back, slumps again. She and I do make eye contact, and I effectively convey, "aw man that sucks, you feel shitty," and she gave me a very sweet rumpled smile that was like, "yeah, I really feel shitty." I was a little annoyed at her three companions for the extent to which they were all still going full tilt, yelping and laughing, while she was, y'know, visibly feeling like crap. 1L did keep refilling her tea, which I think was meant as a nice gesture; she was drinking her tea. She was not eating any more of that pork bun; no sir.

SoloDude and I made no eye contact. But he seemed to notice my food. It was a lot like his. He had pork shortribs with rice; chicken feet; tripe. In fact, the tripe was what I'd planned to have, had I not spotted the shortribs, wanted to challenge myself by going into the "advanced" hot drawer thing, and also felt like some rice. He put his bones in the little dealer's-choice ancillary bowl, which I appreciated about him and emulated as a choice; he clocked the fact that I had chicken's feet, shortribs -- didn't seem that interested in the buns. Interestingly, he seemed to clock that I did the obviously smart thing of putting the very saucy chicken feet onto my rice once I'd had enough shortrib to clear out some space. I like to imagine that he was clocking this with admiration. Perhaps not. Perhaps he literally noticed nothing about me at all.

I ate my food, got up to pay -- with the little chit marking down all the things I had eaten in one hand, and two of my egg buns in the other. I was intercepted on my way to the cashier by the lady who did not like me, who--in a gesture of hostly compassion--held open a plastic takeout bag for me to put the egg buns in. I'm pretty sure what she then said to the older gentleman manning the cashier station was "plastic bag, too" (there is often a small charge for takeout accouterments in places like this;

I find it interesting that you pay a little bit for takeout paraphernalia. Not because it's crazy or offends my sensibilities of what one should or should not pay for in a restaurant. Because it makes sense, and yet is also opposite of another different-but-reasonable paying rubric in eateries. What I mean: in New York City (or LA, or Chicago, etc.) -- you pay the same price for food you take out or eat in; you might pay a delivery fee for delivery, for the price for the food etc. is the same. In Hong Kong: you pay a bit extra for the take-out stuff. To which I say, 'sure, why not?' Those are physical things; they do have to supply them. Is it a tiny bit nickel-and-dime-y? Maybe. But these aren't fancy places--like, opposite, really--and whatever if I'm paying ten dollars for an excellent filling meal I'll pay thirty cents for my plastic bag and styrofoam tin. BUT, counterpoint: in London you'll often see two sets of prices: one to take-out, and one for eat-in, and in that market you pay less to take-out. Now, for a long time, I thought this was another intuitively logical thing: that there is a cost to cleanup of eating in, plus you're taking up space in the restaurant, so it behooves venues to just get your money, give you food, and get you out the door. It turns out that's not the case; it's just how VAT is calculated (less on take-away food; more on eat-in food). Except for one of these smart folks on Quora, who thinks that my first intuitive conclusion was correct and the VAT story is just a cover to allow venues to make up for costs of venue management and incent customers to leave tables free. So, who knows! But the point to me is that these are diametrically opposite approaches, both of which--to me, as the consumer--are like, 'muh. yeah, sure. that makes sense.'

so I'm paying and next nice/fun thing happens. It's 83 HKD. I make a show of--well, no: not a show of; I actually do count out to see if I can give this guy something close to that, but I cant without breaking a 500, so I ask him to break a 500 and he does, and right as he's starting to he slaps 3 HKD down on the counter and I see what has happened, and then he plots 410 down in bills so we're good, but I hold up the 3 and say "seven" and he's like "what?" (of course) and--I'm really happy with how this went--I hold up fingers and I say "bill was 3" fingers, "so...7" (coins). And he got it! He paused, ducked his head and made a grunt or a word and put seven up on the counter.

And I left. And there was 3L, again taking in the night air, curled over herself in a dark stoop of the closed shop next to Sun Hing. We made eye contact again--I want to be clear she did not appear to be in duress; she was an adult, kinda bummed out and drunk-sick--and she said "[somethingSOghtingn]Hong Kong". Maybe, "Do you live in Hong Kong"?  And I smiled and for a second had the impulse you have when someone is panhandling you--to be respectful but say "no" and move on--and then I put away that urban reflex and did my best to understand what she'd said and I paused and said, "No just visiting. For work. Feel better!" And she smiled again like, 'oh, wow yeah -- not anytime soon'

and that was that...I walked home with two egg buns left,
the second of which I'm going to go eat now.