Rice Plate Journal
is a yearlong project to canvas Chinatown, block by block, discovering
the good, the bad, and the hopelessly mediocre. Maximum entrée price:
To walk up to the counter of Good Mong Kok and spend a few minutes looking over the menu posted up on the wall would seem both luxurious and alarming. All of us in line cluster up against one another like a penned-up flock of turkeys, all craning our necks to peer through the glass into the giant steamers to see what looks good.
Planning ahead is both impossible and necessary, because the moment each one of us makes it through the doorway, we're at the counter, with no time to contemplate our purchases. The women behind the counter have too many steamer trays to shuffle through, and pink plastic bags to fill, to answer questions, and someone is always pressing up against our backs.
The muscly guy in front of me spends the 10 minutes we wait outside explaining to his boyfriend which buns his family prefers, then orders several dozen of them. The counterwoman fills a pink box with so many orbs of steamed dough that its thin walls begin to buckle. I'm trying so hard to see what's on the baking racks that a couple of women dart past me with fingers up, guerrilla style, to snag a counterwoman.
And then I'm up: Three har gow! You have custard buns? What about pork and vegetable? Can I get a handful of those? No, those. Maybe this much? The woman behind me tells me to check out the eight-inch-long triangles of green onion bread, but since I'm already worrying how I'm going to bike back to the office with $8 worth of 60-cent buns and dumplings -- some of the fattest in Chinatown, no less -- I hold off trying them until the next visit.
In fact, it takes several visits to Good Mong Kok, never spending more than $8 for a shopping bag's worth of food, to figure out what all the place serves, let alone what I would order again.
Those irregular fried sesame cookies in the window? Oil sponges. The shark-fin dumplings are bloated and watery, and the tiny cola-colored cookies I pick up one day contain pine nuts and chewy pork fat. Interesting, but hard to eat more than one a month.
Good Mong Kok's har gow are solid, though -- the shrimp pop juicily when I bite down, and the translucent wrappers are stretchy, not flabby. And the shop's talent for inflating balls of dough into puffy, light rounds the size of pomelos is hard not to appreciate.
Perhaps my favorite is the steamed brown-sugar cake, which the woman who helps me out calls "fancy cake": Six inches high and smelling of egg yolks and caramel, the cake barely weighs more than a single har gow. It pulls apart in giant, moist tufts, and tastes as substantial as a meringue.