Cafe Hong Kong
I was the first to arrive at Café Hong Kong in Chinatown on a steamy evening when the cramped sidewalks of Bayard Street were overflowing with black plastic garbage bags, their stench signifying the true arrival of summer. Rick had again passed on his appointed pick for our group, this time giving us a week’s notice instead of a day. Because of the semi-abrupt announcement, I suggested we convene at Café Hong Kong and resume our scheduled picks with Rick again attempting to commit to our next dinner, followed by Mike from Yonkers.
Café Hong Kong was packed when I arrived, but a table was put together for the five of us. When I sat down alone, a harried waiter immediately inquired if “my friends were coming.” I told them that they were. He quickly returned with tea.
“They coming now,” he asked again anxiously not daring to experience the ownership’s wrath by holding a table when other paying customers were waiting.
“As far as I know, they are on their way,” I said and then sent out urgent texts to Zio and Gerry to find out their whereabouts.
“Where are you?” Zio inquired via text. “I didn’t read the emails.”
I cursed under my breath. Zio had informed us that he had a commitment on the Lower East Side on the same day we had chosen. The Chinatown location of Café Hong Kong was picked in an effort to accommodate him. And he didn’t read the emails. Thankfully, Gerry responded that he was close and would arrive very soon.
While I waited, I flipped through the menu noticing immediately, the curious section titled “baked rice/spaghetti.” Also offered were bizarre—at least for Chinese food—options Chinese such as ham and egg sandwich, bacon and egg sandwich, and borsch (sic) soup. This was a “café,” however so allowances were made and along with Hong Kong-style milk tea, cappuccino, lattes, and macchiatos were on the full espresso bar menu.
When Gerry and Eugene arrived, our table was proclaimed legitimate and I was no longer harassed by the equally beleaguered waiter. Mike from Yonkers informed Gerry that he would be coming from the train and might be late. We were hungry and instead of waiting, ordered a soup, fish with bean curd, an appetizer, sweet and sour fish filet, and pickled sour radish.
Just as the reddish orange, sweet and sour fried fish filet, complete with the familiar pineapple chunks, arrived, Mike from Yonkers made his sweaty entrance. The hot soup came next, administered by a more patient waiter into four smaller bowls. The soup dampening Mike’s shirt even further and his perspiration creeping alarmingly close to my food. After a few sips of the soup, fragrant with ginger, the broth refreshingly light and with chunks of fish and tofu, I no longer cared about Mike from Yonker’s sweat.
Soup for a hot summer’s day.
What to order from the vast menu was our next business. Gerry warned me about the “baked” dishes when I asked if I should dare try one. “I don’t know—baked pasta?” he said dubiously. But I couldn’t resist. Where else could I have pasta, baked no less, in a Hong Kong-style café unless I ventured to Hong Kong and that was not happening anytime soon? I couldn’t, however, even though I was sorely tempted, choose the baked pasta Bolognese. Instead I decided on the baked beef stew. Eugene also picked from the baked section going with the coconut chicken. Sticking to more familiar and traditional Cantonese dishes, Gerry went with the salt and pepper squid while Mike from Yonkers decided on the fish filet bean curd casserole. Sautéed Chinese broccoli with garlic completed our order.
While we waited for our dishes to arrive, I noticed that there was a missed call from Zio. The sautéed Chinese broccoli came first. I quickly snapped a picture of the dark green, perfectly steamed broccoli on my phone camera and sent it to Zio. And then the enormous bowl of baked beef stew, the tomato sauce congealed on top of the spaghetti from the baking process. The baked coconut chicken also had a semi-hard topping, a few burn marks speckling the white exterior.
Just as I sent Zio more of the pictures to remind him of what he was missing at Café Hong Kong, his rotund frame appeared in front of us, and to all of our surprise, with the Colonel in tow. There was no room at our table and Zio and the Colonel grabbed an adjacent table. I muttered a quick hello and then tasted the sweet and sour “tomato” sauce that was drowning the overcooked spaghetti. Complete with thick layers of gelatinous fat over morsels of beef along with chunks of bland tomatoes, even a few tablespoons of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, if offered, could not rescue this dish, Worse was Eugene’s coconut chicken featuring the same overcooked pasta with a white, sweet coconut cream Alfredo sauce, pieces of what seemed like canned carrots and peas, and chunks of chicken. The creation was like a Paula Deen nightmare. And you really can’t get much scarier than that.
Sweet and sour Chef Boy Ar Dee.
Gerry’s salt and pepper squid was good, but not up to nearby Great New York Noodletown’s standards while the fish and bean curd casserole Mike from Yonkers ordered was a true winner. I realized that ordering the baked pasta at Café Hong Kong was like going to a burger joint and then ordering linguini with clam sauce. I should have known better and had no one to blame but myself.
The winner: fish and bean curd casserole.
As we were leaving, Zio and the Colonel were about to order the coconut chicken. Despite the unfortunate baked beef stew experience, I was in a benevolent mood and warned him off it, instead I gestured to the beef stew; making it his penance for not reading his emails. We said our goodbyes and went to cleanse our palates at the nearby Chinatown Ice Cream Factory.
“Why didn’t you warn me about that spaghetti slop,” Zio wrote in a text the next day. “It was worse than Chef Boy Ar Dee. Sickingly sweet with globs of fat and tired pale tomatoes. You’re killing me!”
“You should be grateful,” I wrote back. “I saved you from the coconut chicken.”
“Thanks for that,” he replied.
Cafe Hong Kong
51 Bayard St.