Last time I was in Hong Kong, I fled the city's nonstop roaring energy for a leisurely day hike half-around the circumference of peaceful, unpaved (and nearly car-free) Lamma Island. Several popular outdoor seafood restaurants abut the landing on the south side of the island; I chose the ferry to the northern landing at the tiny village of Yung Shue Wan. Within minutes of debarkation, the path southward took me to an old and lovely little roadside temple, its entrance flanked by two stone lions.
I was admiring the smiling temple-guardian figures just inside the door when a fast-moving boisterous foursome of T-shirted teen-agers poured in. Abruptly stifling their laughter, each made one swift, excessively deep kowtow to the goddess sculptures on the altar, deposited some coins in the offering box, and lolloped out, resuming full giggle at the doorstep. The temple's honoree was Tin Hau, a poor fisherman's daughter who foretold a typhoon and saved the fishing fleet's lives. Elevated to a sea goddess, she's the divine protector of the "fragrant harbor" and its fisherfolk, and a deity dear to all Hong Kong -- including agnostic city teen-agers.
Tin Hau's birthday is observed in late April or early May; where to celebrate here in San Francisco? "You want real Hong Kong food? Great Eastern," said our friend Joey. "It's one of my favorite restaurants. Just look inside; you'll know by what you see!"
We did and I did: Great Eastern's great wall of live seafood took me back to Kowloon, in Hong Kong proper, where a larger Tin Hau temple graces a multishrined square -- and the route to it is devoted to a less spiritual form of maritime adoration. At 6 p.m., Temple Street is closed to traffic in order to turn itself into a raucous half-mile-long street market, where the corners become outdoor seafood restaurants with sidewalk cooks offering live whelks, periwinkles, clams, mussels, dancing shrimp, tiger shrimp, fairy shrimp, spiny lobsters, and weird-looking sweet hairy crabs from the Yangtze Delta, all ready to leap into wok, steamer, or stewpot the moment you point at them.
The tanks set against Great Eastern's rear wall -- carefully lighted to display their denizens' loveliness -- reveal an array of sea life worthy of any corner of the Night Market. A bulletin board high on another wall names the species currently on hand and their prices per pound. Just one look, and I was hooked.
Our fivesome -- Joey, Melba, Dave, TJ, and I -- sat near the tanks, which drew our eyes in like TVs but showed prettier pictures. "They're live fish as art objects," Melba said. Besides the usual hard-shelled characters (including abalone and geoducks), huge Maine lobsters hunkered next door to showboat-size bullfrogs singing "Old Man Ribbit." Another tank featured various swirling shapes, sizes, and shades of gray and silver -- the freshwater fishes (cats, steelhead, et al.). Above them conspired a cell full of reds (various rosy-hued Pacific rockfish). Several multistory condominia housed live spot-prawns (which require spacious living or they'll crush each other, our waiter later told us). A pair of sculpins skulked alongside, resembling mossy rocks, suddenly spreading golden fans of fins to "walk" on. So mesmerizing were they that Dave began yearning for a fish tank so he could take them home as pets.
Although tempted by several appetizing banquet menus, we meant to wend our own way. We agreed on live prawns, but debated which finned species to choose for "fish two ways." We settled on steelhead. "That's a very sweet-tasting fish but it has many tiny bones," Joey said. "You ever have Chinese raw fish salad? My parents always take me here for steelhead salad on my birthday." It wasn't on the menu, but the waiter said the chef could certainly make it, he'd ask. We received a complex mixture of clean-flavored fish flesh with shredded leaf-lettuce, fried rice noodles, carrot shreds, nuts, candied ginger, and candied scallions, surrounded by orange slices dotted with scary green and red fake cherries. The waiter brought us Chinese mustard to add at will, and dressed the salad with hot oil and fresh lemon juice, then tossed it carefully. We consumed it like sharks. Great dish, great waiter, great pick by Joey.
Next came my choice, Chinese herb soup with soft-shelled turtle ($16). A clear brown broth floated over a bed of Chinese roots and herbs and jujubes (Chinese dates). The sweet, tender cubes of turtle meat didn't taste like chicken. "This is a winter dish, to make you feel warm inside," said Joey. "Well, it's been so damn cold, I really need it," I answered, and everyone nodded. Then came juicy spot prawns steamed and halved, heaped with minced garlic. Only Joey received a female, and enjoyed the scarlet roe while the rest of us envied him.
Our last "live" dish was Part 2 of "fish two ways," savory steelhead broth made from the bones and shreds, with puffs of white "silken" tofu. Instead of the usual black beans, the chef had seasoned it with rich brown-bean sauce: "When he got your order he felt you were choosy eaters and would like this better," the waiter said, and the chef was right. Despite the alarming prices per pound for the live-tank items, our fish salad, prawns, and fish soup came to a grand total of $16 per person, or $5.30 each per dish. (Beat that, Aqua!) The trick is to go with at least four people -- most of the tables are large -- so the tab becomes affordable when the luxuries are shared and are mingled with more plebeian dishes.
Our "plebeian dishes" included a hardly proletarian sauteed sliced squab fillet ($14) with slippery straw mushrooms and juicy, crisp sugar snap peas. "The peas explode in your mouth in sweet juices," said TJ. "I hardly ever order squab," Dave noted. "Usually, it's fried or roasted and comes all dried out." "And normally it comes halved," said Melba, "and you have to struggle to cut it up. I'm glad somebody else did it for me." We concluded with interesting, slightly bitter Asian greens ($4.60), and pan fried pork hash with salt fish ($7), a plate-size patty that looked like Spam, and tasted like Spam-with-anchovies. "This is Chinese soul food," said Melba. "My grandma makes this with a duck egg in the middle. Your mother, Joey, makes it too. Everybody's mother makes it." But mine never did. Desserts (red bean soup, almond jello) were free but superfluous.
Before we left, Joey asked the waiter whether the three tanks of prawns meant the prawns were separated by sex. No, the waiter said, beckoning Joey toward the aquaria. "We can tell the sex by the red under the belly," he said, pointing. "If you want all females, just ask for them. They're the same price, because some people don't like the roe," he continued, glancing toward the guai lo contingent at our table. Joey followed his eyes. "No," Joey said, "they like good food, too." That's the other trick, of course. In San Francisco, as in Hong Kong restaurants, the staff often assumes that outsiders don't like "good food." So if you do like shrimp roe (it resembles tobiko) or steelhead or what-have-you, then ask for it. "Choosy eaters" eat better.