Hong Kong Cafe: Preserving China's Most Enduring Cuisine

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(Sacramento, CA)
Friday, December 12, 2008

Hong Kong Café is a Broadway landmark. The food is Cantonese to the core. All the Chinese restaurants on Broadway are Cantonese, but Hong Kong Café’s the oldest. Three food-savvy members from Sacramento’s Cantonese community take us into the cuisine, starting with a dish that everyone thinks they know.


“We say, ‘Chop Suey! Chop Suey!’ says Lana Chong, singing a phrase from Flower Drum Song. She’s not singing about common chop suey, the chop suey that’s a dingy plate of celery, pork and bean sprouts. At Hong Kong Café, Chinese Americans like Chong order chop suey with pride.


A waiter brings it to the table. “Har jau,” the waiter announces in English and Cantonese. “Shrimp chop suey.” Chop suey translates as “mixed miscellaneous”. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Chop suey’s an amalgam.


“You take a lot of the veggies, stir fry it as quickly as possible and put it out like an extra dish,” Chong says. 


Also in the party tonight is Frank Dong. He’s impressed with the pink shrimp and bright greens in the colorful chop suey. He should know. Sacramento’s historic Hong King Lum restaurant was opened in 1906 by Dong’s family.


“Properly done, it’s the use of all these fresh ingredients,” Dong says. “It’s a very healthy dish, and very tasty.”


Both Frank Dong and Lana Chong share roots from Cantonese villages. Joining them for dinner is Helen Yee. She grew up eating Cantonese cooking in Hong Kong. “It’s an art to cook Cantonese food,” Yee says. “Highly valued by all the Chinese people.”


The three diners are among the 38,000 residents with Chinese ancestry in Sacramento County. It’s no accident most can trace dishes popular here to Canton’s Pearl River Delta. It’s the homeland of the miners who came here for the gold rush. Their clans – and recipes -- have been coming to Sacramento ever since.


Helen Yee says Sacramento was the perfect destination for Cantonese cooking.  In Canton, it’s so similar like this Delta area. Fresh produce, catch fresh fish by the Sacramento River, and the Chinese community is nearby and so they feel comfortable.”


They feel comfortable at Hong Kong Café, too. Not because it’s fancy, which it’s not. This restaurant still has one foot back in the old country.


Amid the sounds of stir-frying and big woks clanging, the owner, Hon Wong, shouts orders to the kitchen. The cooks start stir-frying on command with long metal stir-fry tools. Their bodies lunge over the frightening power of the woks -- like a form of aerobics.  


Hong Kong Café began in the late 1940s by a partnership of Cantonese men near Sacramento’s original Chinatown. Hon Wong is a son of one of the partners. After Interstate 5 sliced up the block, the restaurant moved to a former drive-in on Broadway in 1962. The drive-in’s red counter repurposed nicely for a Chinese concept.


Wong took over from his dad. “We work hard, put in long hours, make a living,” Wong says.


Hon Wong may see his life today as just a job turning out food familiar to the public -- like chow mein, won tons, egg foo young and noodles. But down at the bottom of the menu is a beloved Cantonese dish. It’s called Kow Yuke, and it’s one of Helen Yee’s favorites. “I’ve had a craving for this dish for a long time. So, tonight is very very reality.”


Kow Yuke is this fatty side pork with skin. It’s boiled, deep fried and steamed with a preserved vegetable. It comes out with a strong taste of star anise. Lana Chong calls it Chinese Decadence. 


Chong says, “People may think it’s a little bit fatty, but it’s the absolute ultimate dish for the palate.”


Here, you can treat your palate to one other Chinese restaurant quirk. Have you ever wondered about all that writing on the walls of Chinese restaurants? Frank Dong gives up the secret.  “The Chinese who can read the writing on the wall are in for a treat,” Dong says. “They’re the specials that cater to Chinese tastes.”


On this night, Hong Kong Café’s dark paneling is bare except for a calendar. But when a sign’s posted, you don’t have to fear the unknown. “Part of that posting is seasonality,” Chong says. “Fantastic things from the sea and there’ll be some wonderful crab coming in.”


Hong Kong Café once held an unofficial title, that of doing the largest volume of Chinese take-out in Sacramento. But no matter whether you eat in or take out – as long as the woks are hot, Hong Kong Café will be the tie that binds the Cantonese cooking along the Pearl River forever with Sacramento.