Hong Kong's finest late-night nosh

Is it getting easier to find a real meal in the city after midnight?Nan-Hie In joins the night owls

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 September, 2012, 12:45pm

Software developer John Chapman regularly eats dinner after midnight, courtesy of a job with unusual hours, one that requires testing software on real-time financial market data overseas.

Sometimes he's in his Central office from 4pm to 3am. A career-long night owl who has worked in major cities around the world, the Chicagoan has become something of a nocturnal dining connoisseur by default. "You can always get high-quality ramen [in Tokyo] no matter what the hour, especially in Roppongi," says Chapman. In New York, the possibilities are endless. "There are areas dedicated to 24-hour dining, like Koreatown, where I go for pho at Pho 32, a franchise found all over New York," he says. Pizza is another favourite pre-dawn meal as a fine slice can be had at any time in Manhattan.

But when asked about top twilight eats in Hong Kong, Chapman's mind draws a blank. With so few kitchens open all night in Central, his choices have narrowed to eating for sustenance alone: kebabs at small outlets such as Beirut or Ebeneezers, or omelettes at round-the-clock breakfast diner The Flying Pan. "Hong Kong is a bit limited when it comes to late-night foods because it's such a small place," says Chapman.

While Hong Kong's dining landscape boasts a dizzying diversity in cuisine, most gourmet opportunities vanish by midnight, leaving late-night diners with a dispiriting choice. It is one area in which the city fails to measure up against other international culinary capitals.

But the selection is improving with a few game-changers opening recently, such as Loyal Dining - a restaurant by entertainment mogul Steven Lo Kit-sing's food and beverage arm, BMA Catering Management.

The company's marketing and public relations director Joan Law is familiar with the menu limitations in the area. "Most options at night are cha chaan teng, so the selection is narrow and in environments that are not always clean or comfortable," says Law.

Although Loyal Dining doesn't see itself as a cha chaan teng, the year-old restaurant was designed to give an upmarket version of Hong Kong's street food. It aims to dish up an extensive menu filled with local favourites, available until late, in a soothing and clean environment.

In the same neighbourhood, AKA Japanese Cuisine and Lounge gives sleepless gourmets options they are unlikely to have encountered before - soft shell crab tempura, soba noodles and more. Satisfying a late-night gourmet food craving has become a question of exploring tasty possibilities rather than overcoming a challenge.

Loyal Dining

66 Wellington Street, Central Closing time: 4am on Fridays and Saturdays; 3am weekdays Once upon a time, hungry night owls from Lan Kwai Fong seeking Cantonese options had little choice but Tsui Wah, a canteen on Wellington Street known for its no-frills food, setting and service. So when Loyal Dining arrived offering retro-Hong Kong fare (including localised Western dishes) until late with polite staff and a soothing jazz backdrop, the venue became proof that class and comfort doesn't have to fade with the day.

The nostalgic Hong Kong theme, visible at every turn in vintage photographs on the walls, is also apparent on the menu. Deep-fried prawn toast and roast pigeon survive here but the focus is on late-night dim sum (available from 9.30pm onwards).

But the after-hours options don't stop there: a truncated version of the à la carte menu lists signature plates such as snails, among other classics such as king prawns and eggs on rice, cloaked in a yolk-heavy sauce. Other local favourites done with quality ingredients include beef fried rice noodles prepared with Loyal Dining's bespoke soya sauce. Food takes longer to arrive (evidence of fewer staff on the night shift) but that hasn't lowered the quality of the cooking.

AKA Japanese Cuisine and Lounge

Mezzanine floor, LKF Tower, 55 D'Aguilar Street, Central Closing time: 1.30am weekdays; 3am Fridays and Saturdays The only place in Central to tuck into green tea soba noodles, udon, tempura and yakitori at 3am on weekends is this latest contender where two of the city's busiest nightlife districts meet. The location (in the former Balalaika space) explains the clientele of bar-hoppers and party-goers, a demographic that has no qualms about tucking into Japanese fare while seats tremble to the beats - courtesy of the DJ blasting high-decibel music.

Having opened just three months ago, everything in this enormous space feels new, from the marbled tables to the pastel sofas. The day menu is extensive, listing sushi, sashimi, omakase, yakitori and more.

By night, the selection is limited to casual Japanese staples such as tempura, noodles and skewers. The yakitori is popular, although it can be a bit hit or miss: skewered chicken wings arrive with that essential crispness; beef skewers are well-seasoned and flavourful, but others such as the still-raw green peppers or excessively salty strips of grilled dried blowfish are not so good. Even so, AKA has already developed a reputation for late-night bites to soak up the alcohol. On a recent 1am visit, we saw many patrons savouring grilled skewers and tempura with Asahi beer.

San Hing Restaurant

10 Hau Wo Street, Kennedy Town Closing time: 4pm daily This yum cha standby opens at 3am when the streets are empty and tranquil, but in the pre-dawn hours it's the most lively place in the neighbourhood. The rock-bottom prices (HK$13 to HK$19 for various dim sum; HK$33 to HK$43 for mains) have defied inflation, staying low for years. Despite the bare-bones interior and experience (there is no menu and precious little charm from the staff), the night-shift crowd and nearby residents have been patronising this venue for decades. So have local celebrities, judging from the snapshots on the walls. Few things are translated here so if you can't speak or read Chinese, bring someone who can.

The scene is perpetually chaotic, with patrons packed elbow-to-elbow and waitresses trafficking hot steamers, while other staff can be seen punching and kneading dough in the kitchen. These handmade bites are wonderfully fresh, such as lau sa bao buns generously filled with a sweet yet salty and yolk-rich custard centre. The kitchen still prepares old-school dim sum, which partially explains why the average age here is about 60. Try the pork liver or quail egg siu mai, which are seldom seen on mainstream yum cha menus.

Chicken HOF & SOJU

G/F, Kam Kok Mansion, 84 Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui Closing time: 4am daily (except Sundays) In Seoul, there are countless restorative dishes spurred by the nation's notorious drinking culture. Haejangguk (which translates to "soup for hangover stomach") is a fortifying bowl of pig- or ox-blood pudding and bean sprouts in long-simmered beef broth, available at 24-hour stew restaurants throughout the capital. Korean fried chicken, a popular fast food that has caught on worldwide, has become a favourite post-party snack and is available from all-night delivery services. Chicken HOF & SOJU brings these plates to Tsim Sha Tsui, catering to local businessmen, bar-hoppers and other insomniacs in this high-traffic area, although most patrons are Korean nationals.

The double-fried poultry is highly recommended and served in generous portions. The regular flavour fried wings and drumsticks arrive encrusted in a thickly battered white-pepper dominated exterior. If you can take the heat, opt for the spicy variety where the crust is glossed in a hot and sweet red sauce based on garlic and gochujang (Korean red chilli and fermented soya bean paste). The chicken arrives piping hot, the flesh tender and full of flavour, with an irresistible crunch bite after bite. Sides of pickled radish and cabbage salad with thousand island dressing act as palate cleansers.

Mori Hachi Yakiniku

3/F 38 Plaza, 38 Shan Tung Street, Mong Kok Closing time: 3am daily Mong Kok is notorious as an after-hours destination for fulfilling all sorts of cravings. That includes wagyu beef and oysters grilled in the shell with a dollop of garlic and butter at this yakiniku-style restaurant (the Japanese interpretation of the Korean barbecue). The chain has branches in prime neighbourhoods in the city and this outpost is usually packed with groups of predominantly twenty- to thirty-somethings grilling meat at their tables. Yet, even when full, the space is relatively smoke-free, a sign of stealth ventilation.

Besides the usual Japanese staples, meat is the primary speciality, notably beef in various cuts, from USDA-graded meat to wagyu imports from Japan and Australia. Shellfish is another crowd-pleaser, reminiscent of teppanyaki-style cooking, except the raw seafood is cooked on the grill by the customers. Try scallops or large rock oysters topped with various sauces or ingredients such as sweet yuzu-accented miso sauce or savoury garlic and herb butter.