My wife and I were in Hong Kong to celebrate a certain birthday event which shall not be spoken of. So naturally a surreptitious restaurant was the perfect venue. Da Ping Huo is one of those illegal "speakeasy's" -- private, secret restaurants -- that Hong Kong is known for within food circles. It is so easy to miss this place; just an unmarked door squeezed between random street vendors on a steep, narrow alley. The restaurant is actually the chef's apartment that has been converted into a tiny eatery, with only one way in or out. And you better be sure to only get there at the appointed time, otherwise the door is locked.
Despite its questionable legal status, this is as good a restaurant as one could hope to find. Inside there are just 7 tables. The lively sounds of other excited diners waft around the small room, blending with intoxicating aromas of spicy chilies, rich sauces and luscious smoke.
The decor is very simple, but spotlessly clean, cool and austere, with concrete walls, an unfinished ceiling and a little art hanging around. Tableware is simple and white - no frills here, but nothing lacking either. There was even a small wine collection housed in a cooler behind our table. Perfect for a furtive meeting place.
Within the diminutive kitchen, visible only through a small hole in the wall from which everything comes or goes, stands Madame Wong, cooking while her husband and another helper serve and bus the tables. I peek through the hole where she is hard at work over several hot woks. The onslaught of spices, heavy within the steam and smoke and spatter of the kitchen attack my every sense. My eyes water and my nostrils flare. I fight back a drool. She takes a second to smile, silently, because she speaks no English.
I have no idea what she is cooking for us – there is no menu here. She simply prepares what she wants based upon the fresh ingredients in the morning market.
What I do know is that the food will be Sichuan, and by this I don't mean just screaming hot, but a skillful balance of dishes served in a succession of flavor and temperature variations: spicy followed by mild; hot followed by cool. The shimmering, novacaine feel of the Sichuan peppercorns mixed with fiery chilies is calmed by light, cooling broths or crisp, sweet vegetables, only to be reawakened by the incendiary, hurts-so-good bite of the next plate set before us.
And boy can Madame Wong cook. All the dishes in this huge, 8 course meal were excellent, pure and honest. No fusion food tricks here. Just exceptionally-prepared Sichuan masterpieces on simple white dishes.
Selections this night jumped from the crunchiest sweet and sour cucumbers to jellyfish with shredded carrot and celery in sesame chili. From cellophane noodles with soy beans, scallions and chilies to seared chicken with peanuts and sesame.
An opaque vegetable soup cooled things down before the beef tendon and potatoes was presented in a complex, fiery chili gravy. The citrusy fragrance of the
peppercorns tickled our olfactories with spicy, Novocain vibrations. A cooling melon soup brought us back.
Then came the thing dreams are made of -- the amazing ma po tofu was an incredible combination of diced bean curd with minced beef and screaming chili sauce. There was both a deep and light earthiness to the dish, with a savory punch of flavor infused in shimmering fresh tofu cubes. Its flavors spawned a juxtaposition of emotions, evoking comparisons like love and war; fire and ice. It was painful to eat on conflicting levels: the near-panic burn on the lips and palate contradicting the devastating realization that with every bite there would be that much less to keep eating. It instantly became a monkey on my back; my new drug-of-choice.
The roller-coaster heatfeast continued with dish after dish and we didn’t want it to end, despite the promise of the price we each would pay the next day. Spicy prawns with scallions, so moist and tender, tasted like the sea despite the Sichuan heat seamlessly blended within its thin sauce.
Pork with sweet potato followed, chased by a benign soup of assorted mushrooms, white cabbage and minced chicken, cooling the fire of previous dishes.
Until in a culinary crescendo came a dumpling of minced meat, ginger and herbs in steamed milky skins and bathing in a mind-blowing chili elixir hot enough to awaken the mouth, yet somehow tempered by a deep, infused sweetness.
All fires were then extinguished with a light-as-air silken jellied tofu to bring our palettes gently back to earth. It was a classic Sichuan closer to a meal that will be long remembered.
The totality of the evening made for a magical experience, from the hunt for the place, to the surreptitious setting, to the amazing food, and ending with the chef herself coming out to show off her other genius and passion: Chinese opera. Aside from breathless smiles and exchanges of compliments to the chef in a language she didn’t know, there was nothing more to be said as Madame Wong unlocked the door to the street. It was as perfect a night of exciting dinning as one could ask for and, had the cops burst in and arrested us all for our gustatory acts of crime, I would have gladly done all it over again immediately upon being sprung.