The secret to enjoying Castro Valley's Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant is the secret to finding the best food at any Cantonese restaurant: Make friends with the waiter.
"Some of my most personal relationships have been with Cantonese waiters," jokes Jim Leff, founder of Chowhound.com, the online community of America's most devoted Shanghai-style dumpling fanatics and taco-truck cataloguers. "There used to be a restaurant called Shing Kee [in New York] where I could go in and the waiter knew what I wanted and that they were the best dishes on the menu. He was like my psychologist."
Leff, who started Chowhound in 1997, edited the recently published The Chowhound's Guide to the San Francisco Bay Area -- a quirky, wide-ranging guide to Northern California's best hand-pulled noodles and flakiest croissants, a guide that you want to argue with as much as you want to clutch it tight. As I was writing this review I called Leff to ask his strategies for ferreting out the best dishes on a massive menu like HKBBQ's. Not the most authentic dishes. The best ones. "I never order what I feel like eating," he says, "I order what I suspect the house does best."
Leff offers three tips. First, do the perp walk: Before you sit down, meander around the room. "Anything you spot on three or more tables, order," he says. "If you're not sure what something is, ask a waiter. This would be frowned upon in some cultures, but Chinese waiters and customers are total foodies, and will be delighted to help with this. Just act eager and happy." He adds that you shouldn't only scout Asian Americans but serious-looking eaters of any ethnicity.
Second, start by ordering an insider's dish, something that demonstrates you're familiar with the cuisine and not going to be a picky gringo. (Leff uses "gringo" to indicate anyone who doesn't share the ethnicity of the restaurant's staff.)
But the third -- and possibly most important -- tip is to treat your waiter right. "A restaurant is not a one-night stand," he says. "You're building a long-term relationship. Win over your waiter. Tip him well. And never, ever show the slightest sign of disdain, even if you are served something you deem icky. By the third visit, you'll have achieved 'hip gringo' status. Proud Cantonese restaurateurs respect nothing more than a hip gringo."
Though I spoke to Leff after my second visit to HKBBQ, he could have been speaking about our waiter there, a rapid-firing woman in her forties whose smile, when she chose to wield it, would take over her face. Maybe it was because we asked her to translate the Chinese specials on the wall (they're actually on the menu under "À La Carte"), or maybe we just looked like big spenders, but early on she decided that we would let her take charge. "Get the West Lake beef soup," she said. Okay. What kind of barbecue should we try? "Combo platter. Four kinds." Fine. We haggled over a few other items, but she signaled that the time to order was over when we tried to tack on a claypot dish. "That's too much food," she said firmly, and walked away.
Oakland and Fremont residents are spoiled for mom-and-pop joints hawking barbecued meats and straightforward, homey Cantonese food, but Castro Valley and Hayward aren't so lucky. Hong Kong BBQ Restaurant, located on ticky-tacky Redwood Road, is a one of a kind in its area. The shoebox of a restaurant, wrapped in a bright yellow sign, manages to stay half-full at lunch and dinner with a mix of Chinese and non-Chinese diners.
Perhaps the most inviting aspect of the linoleum and faux-wood decor are the lacquered ducks and crispy-skinned pork haunches hanging from hooks behind the counter. Showcased on a combo plate big enough for four people, the restaurant's Hong Kong barbecue showed the cooks up well: There was duck, whose fat had melted in the oven, enriching the meat left behind; moist soy sauce chicken, brushed with a sweet brown sauce; slightly oversweet barbecued pork strips, not as fatty as you often find; and the crispy pork, lean and juicy beneath a shattering layer of fried skin.
Not all of our waiters' suggestions succeeded. No one could accuse HKBBQ of using Choice grade meat, or even top-grade Select; the stringy meat proved the bane of both the West Lake beef soup (does anyone know where West Lake is?) and the steak cubes in garlic and black pepper, a gentrified version of the pepper steak of my youth. Clearly, the waiter and I had to work out some kinks. "A waiter has to prove his or her credibility as well," Leff commented when I told him about our troubles.
The two dishes that we proposed ourselves and were allowed to order, however, proved excellent, where the cooks faded into the background and let their ingredients do all the work. There was just enough of a garlic-and-stock sauce on the black mushrooms stir-fried with big pea sprouts -- thick pea shoots with spinach-sized leaves -- to flush out their savory flavors. And there wasn't much more to the steamed shrimp-stuffed tofu beyond the title: Straight from the steamer came an oval plate containing squares of custardy tofu so fresh you could taste their beany origins, and scooped out in the center to hold a spoonful of minced shrimp. Baby bok choy wreathed them, and a delicate soy-ginger sauce brought them together.
The owner came by a couple of times to observe our progress. "You ordered well," she commented. It was like having a friend compliment you on wearing a shirt he forgot he had given you.
A week later, I returned to Castro Valley with a slight change of personnel. I must have established that I was both impressionable and a good sport, because this time our waitress got bossy. "You should get the sea bass," immediately followed our hellos. "The guy over there just had it and it's good. It's very fresh today," she told us. "Well, actually, we were thinking about the seafood hot ..." I countered.
I didn't get to finish the sentence. "Get the sea bass. Steamed with ginger and scallion. You'll love it."
We sparred for another five minutes, working another couple of items into the order, before a compromise was reached: We'd get both the seafood hot pot and the steamed sea bass. By this time, my tablemates were cowed into silence while I had developed a crush. Note to self: Discuss with therapist.
We were rewarded for our splurge ($60 for four people) with complimentary bowls of the house soup, a thin, clear broth in which the flavors of chicken and corn melded completely. "Definitely get the house soup," Leff said several days later. "It's one of the holy grails of Cantonese restaurants." Pass on the rest of the soups, he says. They have nothing on "the really simple, really cheap soups that are almost water with a few bits of meat, but really soulful. If they don't give you the house soup, look really, really sad."
Our second barbecue plate, a two-item combination of barbecued cuttlefish and kuei-fei chicken, the one tasting like a cross between calamari and Easter ham, the other a straightforward roast chicken served cold. But the chicken came with my tipster's Cantonese restaurant must-have, a paste of crushed ginger, scallions, and salt. The pesto was so aromatic that it opened new chambers in the palate, and my friend Joseph ended up dabbing bits of it on everything he touched.
After that came a tableful of mothering food, simple and satisfying. The hot pot arrived bubbling furiously, and once it settled down we plucked out bits of fried tofu, fish, prawns, black mushrooms, and squid scored to curl up like hedgehogs as they cooked. The sauce wasn't much more than a soy gravy. The Singapore-style noodles, skinny rice noodles tossed with shrimp, pork, onions, and peppers, were coated thickly with yellow curry powder and white pepper -- frankly, too much of the latter for my taste. But they picked up a lovely wok char, those crunchy browned spots of concentrated juices and smoke that come from a thin wok, a hot flame, and a fast-moving chef.
The steamed sea bass? Not ravishing, but as fresh as promised. The whole fish is always a pretty sight, silvery scales covered with ginger threads, julienned green onion, and a bouquet of cilantro. Its sweet, mild flesh was easy to pick off with chopsticks, but had the soy-wine-oil sauce been as assertive as the praise, we might have been wowed. Our waiter returned to the empty fish to check on it. Well, almost empty. "You didn't eat the cheeks!" she exclaimed, and carefully fished the dime-sized nuggets of sweet flesh out with a spoon, to dole them out to whoever batted his eyes the fastest.
Clearly, our relationship was building. But two visits aren't enough to cement it. I tried to order the ong choy (water spinach) with preserved tofu, which smells like hell when you fish it from the jar but melts into a miso-like paste that's incredibly savory, especially with sautéed greens. Every gringo I know who's tasted preserved tofu loves it. The trouble is convincing Cantonese cooks that we will. Sure enough, I asked the waitress several times to confirm that she'd written down "preserved tofu," and still the greens arrived dressed in the basic garlic and oil.
It turned out later that watercress with preserved tofu is Jim Leff's insider dish, the one he uses to persuade Cantonese waiters that he's one hip gringo. "You should have said 'fu yi,'" he advised me, the Cantonese name for preserved tofu.
But failure is all part of the process. Leff, once a newspaper critic in New York, takes a controversial stance toward restaurants. He believes that one sublime dish redeems a lousy place, and that's especially true of Cantonese restaurants, where you have to wade through hundreds of bad to decent items to find the shining moments. "I enjoy the kibitzing with the waiters," he says. "I enjoy if the noodles aren't so good and I'm not putting yummy things in my mouth. It's an adventure. And thank God." For Hayward and Castro Valley residents, the adventure is one worth embarking on at cheerful, bossy Hong Kong BBQ.
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