On Tuesday night at the Java Road Market, the usual sounds of hawking fresh fish and meat have been replaced by the hissing of hoses and our soggy footsteps.
We had mixed feelings about a ‘seafood dinner’ after already stuffing ourselves silly with octopus cakes and fish in tangy mango sauce a day earlier at the fishing village of Tai O. The bar was set pretty high for yet another maritime feast.
We had no idea what we were in for as we shuffled along the concrete of the wet market, but all hesitations were left at the door as we crossed the threshold into a raucous, grungy and wonderfully weird restaurant: Tung Po.
The whole space feels as though someone has brought a beer-garden indoors and fused it with a commercial Chinese kitchen.
Faded TIME Magazine articles taped up inside not only show that Tung Po is a big hitter on the Hong Kong dining scene, but also that it is an enduring one. It’s a hawker centre, meal hall and family dinner table rolled into one.
Tung Po is one of those places you might only eat at on the recommendation from a local or expat in the know, though a glowing recommendation from Anthony Bourdain on his 'No Reservations' series didn’t hurt to cement Tung Po’s reputation.
In Spinal Tap style, the fluorescent lighting is cranked up to 11. There’s barely a spare seat in the house as we weave through the crowds to our table, seated right next to ‘the band’, which comes on at eight.
Tonight, it’s Dire Straits – blaring through a jamboree of massive stereo speakers perched on top of the beer fridge.
Speaking of beer, our host and charismatic restaurant owner Robby wastes no time cracking a bottle open with a chopstick. He does it so quickly and with such flourish we have to drink the first 630ml bottle to ask for an encore, this time making sure to capture the party trick on film.
Once you take your place among hundreds of hungry, hungry Hongkongers in the heaving restaurant, a teapot and bowl are set on the table. Don’t be fooled: there's no time for airs and graces here. The tea is for washing your bowls and chopsticks, which is common practice in cheap and cheerful Hong Kong eateries.
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As if the din and the fact that you can see chefs cracking crabs against the counter as you wander to the restroom weren’t enough of a culture shock, we were soon acquainted with another quirky custom: fighting bowls.
Here I was thinking the beautiful blue-and-white porcelain bowls on the table were for soup or rice. No. They’re for beer, obviously.
Why the name 'fighting bowls', you ask? Once your bowl is filled with liquid courage, it’s an all-in race to see who can skol it and slam it down first. I learned to drink beer that night in Hong Kong... and I may never drink it again.
We would later meet a lovely Chinese-Australian entrepreneur who asked if Tung Po was ‘one of those’ restaurants where the beer girls flounce around in costume. She joked about forbidding her husband to frequent such establishments. I kept my feelings about their Austin Powers-style dresses and go-go boots to myself (seriously though... where can I get a pair?).
Rockstar chef Robby with his silver faux-hawk and motley crew weren’t exactly models of refinement, slopping around in white gumboots with the tops serrated in a toothy pattern. But it was perfect.
Pushing 50, Robby proves the secret to youth is good beer, great food and excellent company. Tung Po is best tackled with a group of friends and an open mind.
The space is the size of a football pitch, with several kitchens running along the back. Our table granted views of chefs manically dropping fistfuls of noodles into bubbling pots and waitstaff moonwalking between the tables.
Robby takes our order – all his recommendations, of course – in his own script. It’s docket after docket of scrawl; nothing but incoherent loops and squiggles. He’s either having a laugh at our expense or has somehow trained his staff to understand this mad scientist language.
We feast on creamy clams cooked in runny egg, crispy roast duck with the head still on, a rich, prawn curry served in a coconut with little baguettes that are meant for scooping, and endless sides like fried eggplant and wasabi-coated greens. There is plenty on the menu beyond seafood, though it's easily the star of the show.
The food is good, but eating is only part of the picture at Tung Po. Dancing to Gangnam Style with the guy from the next table who doesn’t speak a lick of English? That’s Tung Po.
Tung Po Sea Food Restaurant is located at 2/f Java Road Municipal Services Building, 99 Java Road North Point, Hong Kong.
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