My dear friend Jeanette and I — two women who have been driven by our stomachs in the 20 years that we have been the best of friends — we wake up in the cool grayness of Hong Kong bleary-eyed and starving.
Even in the fog of sleepiness, our mission is clear — we stumble out into the dusty bustle of mid-morning Hong Kong and make our way toward Central. On a corner of narrow Wellington Street lies our destination: Lin Heung Tea House, a dim sum place that has been around since 1928 and is packed most mornings with regulars who head there for a morning dumpling fix, strong pu erh (or po lei as it is known in these parts) and some quality time with the day's newspaper …
The dim sum at Lin Heung is supposed to be among the most authentic in Hong Kong, given its been serving it for decades. The same can be said of its large dining room, which is packed to the gills with diners even in the mid-morning on a weekday. (The restaurant serves dim sum daily from 6 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.)
There is no line today but that's apparently not the case on weekends, so be sure to budget time for waiting if that's the only time you can make it.
Confusion reigns at the entrance to the dining room — we understand Cantonese (Jeanette far better than I) but the mad swirl of people around is disconcerting. Through the bodies, we spy a man pointing at us and then pointing toward the middle of the room before scurrying off with a pot in hand. We follow the finger and find two seats at a packed round table for eight and gingerly sit down.
A steaming pot of po lei, a tea brewed so potently it's almost the color of coffee, instantly appears. When we attempt to order food from the man who brings it, he practically snorts and then points toward the carts, nudging us to go get it ourselves.
The carts do wend their ways around the room, but when we spy people jumping up and bum rushing the carts for food, the ever-determined Jeanette leaps up and does the same.
Jeanette has great success acquiring food, since she understands most of what each dim sum lady is saying when they tell her what they have in their carts.
Inspired by Jeanette's spoils, I decide to try my luck with a dim sum lady, who proceeds to bark out a litany of dishes that she has on her cart and then glare at me when I dare to take a few seconds to try and decipher what she has said.
I am flummoxed, so I ask if she'll open her containers so I can see what dishes she has in them. After she quickly unveils chicken feet, beef tendons and a myriad other dim sum dishes I'm not generally keen on, I shake my head and tell her "No thank you," which, to my chagrin, slips out in English. Immediately, the flurry of curses — accompanied with hand gestures — begin. I suppose it is good that I don't fully understand what she is saying.
If you do go to Lin Heung, this is the fierce dim sum lady. Do not piss her off.
Thanks to Jeanette, we have amassed a little feast. We begin with a version of cheong fun — a flat rice noodle that comes in a sheet and is wrapped into a roll — that neither of us has seen before.
Instead of the usual cheong fun filling of roast pork, shrimp or beef, this is filled with the chicken, Chinese sausage, mushroom and scallion mix that's usually stuffed into lo mai gai, the sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaf dish that's a dim sum staple. The filling is truly delicious as a cheong fun option — the mix of seasoned chicken, earthy Chinese mushrooms and Chinese sausage is complex and lovely. And in cheong fun, the flavors aren't clouded by the sticky rice that usually surrounds it. Also, it has the bonus of sweet soy sauce, which usually accompanies cheong fun, poured over it. The dish disappears in a flash.
Char siew bao — roast pork buns — are a must, of course. At Lin Heung, these, too, are delicious. The char siew within comes in big juicy chunks laced with a thick layer of fat. You won't find such massive chunks in most char siew baos you'll find in New York.
After the amazing lo mai gai cheong fun, the shrimp version, though perfectly good, is a bit of a letdown. We're spoiled now — the shrimp filling suddenly seems bland and inadequate.
The beef balls had been recommended as a specialty of the house so we're practically pawing at the dim sum lady who comes by with them.
They're not worth the fuss — or the calories. Largely flavorless with a disturbing rubber-spongey quality, the balls end up going mostly untouched on our plates.
At any dim sum place, shu mai (pork, shrimp and Chinese dumpling in a yellow wrapper) and har gow (a white bonnet-shaped shrimp dumpling) are essential. These are the compulsories of any dim sum restaurant — if they screw these up, you know they're probably screwing everything else up.
Sadly, the har gow is nowhere in sight but the intrepid Jeanette commandeers some shumai for our table. The filling is perfect — and very, very tasty — and the dumplings are delicious.
It's been quite a breakfast but there's one last stop to be made: Lin yong bao or buns filled with sweet lotus paste. Since my Chinese name (Lien) means lotus, I've always been partial to these Cantonese sweet buns. I'll eat them anytime — as a snack or as a dim sum closer.
At Lin Heung, the lin yong bao have the not-so-common addition of a salted egg yolk wedged into the lotus paste. The combination is delightful — the salty, crumbly egg is a lovely foil to the gooey sweet paste, which sometimes can be so saccharine that it's cloying.
As we slowly sip the last of our thick, oaky po lei to wash our big meal down, we're a little reluctant to admit that the meal is over. The carts are still circling, there are dumplings that could still be eaten.
Outside, however, a morning of shopping beckons. As we settle up, another surprise awaits. The price of our decadent morning feast for two comes up to Hong Kong $100 — about U.S. $12.90.
If we didn't know it before, we definitely know now — Lin Heung is a keeper. We're definitely coming back.
Lin Heung Tea House, 160-164 Wellington Street, Central 2544 4556