Sai Kung's restaurant scene goes beyond seafood with Caribbean, Sri Lankan, Portuguese and multinational tapas
Sai Kung's vibrant dining scene has so much to offer with an international line-up of good restaurants
Most people who visit Sai Kung for a bite head straight for the waterfront strip of seafood restaurants. Locals, however, tend to regard those places as tourist traps, and the frequency with which tour buses block the roads in the area lends credence to that view.
In recent years, a lively dining scene catering to varied tastes has grown up in the area just behind them. If you are seeking something spicier than steamed grouper, take a stroll through the narrow alleys of Sai Kung's old town, just off the car park next to the Tin Hau Temple, to Hoi Pong Street.
Ban Thai (tel: 2882 9189), which opened a year ago at 5 Hoi Pong Street, is notable for reliable food and friendly service, but AJ's Sri Lankan Cuisine (tel: 2792 2555) is one of a kind.
Managing director and executive chef Ajith P. Muthu Mudalige states confidently that AJ's, which also offers a popular takeout and delivery service, is the only Sri Lankan restaurant in Hong Kong. The establishment has been there for seven years, making it one of the first non-Chinese dining options in the area.
Mudalige - who confusingly answers to "RJ" - says he got the idea to set up AJ's while working at another restaurant in Sai Kung and customers would ask him about his native cuisine. So he set up his own shop in 2009 and never looked back. To keep the cuisine authentic, Mudalige says he imports ingredients from Sri Lanka.
He declines to single out particular dishes as specialities, but among the most popular are the lamprais, a dish influenced by the period during the 17th century when areas of Sri Lanka were colonised by the Dutch; the stuffed capsicum with shrimps; the black lamb curry; and the Sri Lankan street food favourite, string hoppers.
Lamprais is a banana leaf rice dish, available with beef, chicken, mutton or vegetables. The black lamb curry, and the stuffed capsicum, the latter deep fried in breadcrumbs, both have three chilli icons next to them on the menu to denote intensity of the spice heat.
"We can make most of the dishes - except the black lamb curry and the capsicum - with varying level of spiciness according to people's tastes," says Mudalige.
The restaurant serves Sri Lankan Lion Beer in frosted mugs, and if you do order the capsicum, it is wise to have one on the table.
A more recent addition to the old town's dining options at 24 See Cheung Street is Mandy's Caribbean Bar & Restaurant (tel: 2791 2088), which opened last year as an extension of a well-established private kitchen and catering business run by Mandy Kaur, who is of English and Indian descent, but who learned in depth about Caribbean cuisine when she moved to Trinidad and Tobago with her Trinidadian husband.
Kaur also imports her own spices, and offers Jamaican Red Stripe Beer - one free with every main course - or a connoisseur's selection of Caribbean rums (sadly not free but affordable) to cool the palate.
"Caribbean cuisine is very different to Indian, and very different to French and Creole, but it brings it all together. The only adaptation I've made here is to reduce the spice a bit, hence the Scotch bonnet hot sauce that we serve on the side to increase the heat for the Jamaicans that come in. Some people can take a lot of heat, some can't," she says
Her jerk chicken skewers are sweeter and less spicy than their Jamaican counterparts, but that apparently is the way people in Trinidad and Tobago prefer them. There are obvious Asian elements in many of the dishes, which, Kaur says, are not Sai Kung add-ons, but reflect the culinary influences migrant workers brought to the Caribbean when they replaced slaves on the plantations.
"Of the mains, our biggest seller is probably the curry goat, which is a young Australian goat in a dense rich curry with no fat. It's not too spicy, but full of flavour," she says.
"Among the appetisers we've got small nibbles like Jamaican patties and the Caribbean dips served with warm pita bread, celery and carrot sticks, and the vegan mash, which is roasted aubergine and roasted tomatoes infused with chilli - a lovely vegetarian dish. The sweet potato fries are very popular and we've recently added the crab fry-up, which is two soft shell Vietnamese crabs marinated in our own special marinade and then deep fried," she explains.
Small plates or tapas - call them what you will - are a trend in Sai Kung, as elsewhere. Cava (tel: 2217 3389) at 54 Po Tung Road and Casa Tapakaya (tel: 5594 0007) in the Sui Yat Building in Hoi Pong Square both draw a good crowd, particularly at weekends.
The latter is particularly popular with craft beer enthusiasts, offering Sai Kung's largest on-premises selection, along with one of the better lists of wines by the glass at relatively reasonable prices.
Offering what it calls a "modern take on tapas"- which is to say a culturally eclectic one that incorporates the cuisines of Croatia, Japan, India, Mexico, Morocco, Sweden and the US, as well as Spain - the restaurant is a good grazing spot.
Of the recognisably Spanish dishes - the spicy tiger prawns and fried chorizo with tomato coulis - are both tasty, and the Casa Platter offers a good selection of house favourites.
Still not exactly purist, but more consistently Iberian in its offerings is Mike's Chicken Comida de Portugal, a Portuguese restaurant at 43-45 Hoi Pong Street (tel: 2392 3328) that opened earlier this year. Specialities include the potato and kale soup caldo verde, Portuguese roast garlic chicken, grilled sardines and serradura, the crushed biscuit and whipped cream dessert from Macau.
Away from the Old Town and the waterfront, the newest additions to the Sai Kung scene are both slick looking bar/restaurant operations, one with a pool table and the other with a bowling alley.
Each, on the face of it, would be a better fit in SoHo or Tsim Sha Tsui than rustic Sai Kung, but the opening of Tikitiki Bowling Bar (tel: 2866 3103), which occupies the entire floor of a large commercial building, Centro at 1A Chui Tong Road, has been much anticipated.
A tiki bar on a vast scale, with live music and a dance floor, and a separate restaurant area under the name of Beach Bums and Cannibals, Tikitiki is already serving cocktails, but not yet food. Beyond the vague description "island style", it is not yet clear what form the cuisine will take.
Replacing Agua Plus at 72-74 Po Tung Road is .com (tel: 2660 5755). About as unhelpfully named as a restaurant could be so far as internet searches go (try Googling it), it has been designed as an entertainment as well as F&B venue.
A mixed East-West menu reflects the something-for-everybody approach, but an interesting inclusion is the Burmese samosa salad, served with a warm lentil gravy, which reflects general manager Rick Ney's time spent managing restaurants in Yangon.
Both .com and Tikitiki seem to be geared less to visitors than to a local clientele that wants a bit of urban glitz, but can't be bothered to make the journey into town.
Whether that clientele exists in sufficient numbers remains to be seen.