Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Little Garden of Beef

As the descendant of Cantonese sugar planatation workers, I tend to favor the flavors that I grew up with, that my Po Po cooked for me.   I'm also very protective of these flavors, because I always worry that they could easily be lost to time and history.   However that doesn't mean that I don't like other regions or other flavors.  Indeed, if you were looking to find the best most definitive Chinese food in the world, I would probably recommend that you wander out from the rice paddies of Guangdong, and towards the little peninsula and island just outside called Hong Kong.  Hong Kong takes Cantonese food, indeed all Chinese food, and kicks it up a notch.   The reason for this?   Hong Kong has long been the central hub of activity, China's interface with the world.   It's a jam packed city filled with hungry people who have no time or space to eat at home.   So naturally, they've taken the best of Chinese food, and refined it to it's most polished and sophisticated state.  The excess is trimmed.    The flavors have are made much more intense, and they have a much more metropolitan and worldly air about them.  

Being a British posession for such a long time, Hong Kong has always been much more open and accessible than the rest of China.   So it is no wonder that the Hong Kongese have also made their way to the islands, much later than the original Cantonese transplants, but for quite a long time now.  As such, many of our Chinese restuarants also have a more Hong Kong influenced cuisine.    Some are more modern and glamourous, others reflect tastes that were established by an older generation.  If you were to ask me which restaurant would be my favorite among these, it would easily be Mini Garden.

Mini Garden, or Ming Yuen (as it's called in Chinese), is definitely not a new restaurant.    It was established a lifetime ago on Smith Street in Chinatown.  I was having lunch with an old friend there one day, and she reminised about how her father would bring home Won Ton Mein, late at night when she was a little girl.   But the Mini Garden of today is not nearly the same as it was 30 years ago.    The original Mini Garden, was a typical dingy dirty Chinatown establishment with old tables, worn down floors, and a weathered exterior.  However, they've semi-recently remodeled, to a more modern Chinese look.   Rounded faux wood paneling, and shiny fancy glass everywhere.   While it may look new and shiny, the food was defintely not the same.   I went there several times to discover that the food overcooked and tough, and at times undercooked and potentially stomach upsetting.   It wasn't until later that I realized why.    Mini Garden had sold that location (along with their name), to new owners who did not take nearly the same care as the original owners.    And the Mini Garden Express over at the 99 ranch food court is not nearly as good (it is fast food after all).   But fear not, I found the true Mini Garden, which moved to a shiny new location on Beretania Street just before McCully.

Beef Brisket/Tendon Noodle at Mini Garden

The new location Mini Garden, is still much more chic than the old school classic I remember.   Shiny nouveau porcelain plates, a white leather couch, and a big plasma tv will do that for you.    But the food is just as good.  If there is one thing that Mini Garden has always done the best, it's their noodles.   Their noodles, are the thinner firmer Hong Kong style of noodles, which because of their thinness have a wonderful feel in your mouth.  My favorite dish there would have to be their ngau lam/ngau gun tong mein (or beef brisket/beef tendon noodles soup).  They make perhaps some of the best beef brisket on the island.   It is so incredibly soft you cannot believe beef can get this soft.   Because of the softness, the soup soaks into it and permeates it.  At the same time, the richness of the beef melts throughout the broth.   But the real kicker is the tendon.   Admittedly, tendon is not for everyone.   But then that may be because most people have never had good tendon.  When done wrong, it's hard, kinda crunchy, and has a very unpleasant mouth feel.  When done right tough, as Mini Garden consistently does, it is soft to the point where it tastes almost like a beefy gelatin.  Doesn't sound appetizing?  Trust me, taste it and you will know what I like about it so much.   The beefiness, broth, and noodles just harmonize perfectly in this dish.  

The other thing that Mini Garden has going for it, is a second, entirely vegetarian menu.   This is not just a few vegetable dishes, but a really fantastic faux meat substitute.   They have dishes like sweet sour fish, barbecue spare ribs, and beef broccoli, which are entirely made out of gluten, soy, and mysterous vegetables.   Again, that doesn't sound very appetizing.  It sounds like hippie, tree hugger, granola birkenstock food.   But trust me it's not.  It's done the way that Buddhist monks have done it for hundreds of years.   When you're a vegetarian THAT long, you find a way to make your way to taste good.  If you close your eyes and eat them, especially the fish, the texture is almost exactly that of fish.  What's missing, is the essential fattiness that real meat has.  But then, if you're looking for a healtier diet, that may work for you.    In my life, I've had classmates, a sister, and most recently a niece who have embrassed vegetarianism for various reasons.  So it is nice to have a place to take them that is vegetarianism taken to a higher level, and really done right.   When my niece was recently visiting this summer, I took her there as a special treat, and I think she quite enjoyed it.

The food at Mini Garden is the kind of food that my Hong Kongese friends grew up with.   It's not quite the same as what my Po Po made, but is probably similar to what their Po Po's did.  It's still Cantonese food, but you can taste the subtle distinction.   It's even there in the language.  The accent is slightly different, the way that British English is different from American.  Case in point, when I ordered my "ngau lam" (beef brisket), the proprietor repeated it to me as "au nam".  Not so different that we couldn't understand each other, but different.   Hong Kong is like the big city to the farmers that my ancestors where.   I imagine it's the way that upstate New Yorkers feel about Manhattanites.  It's the story of the country mouse and the city mouse.   While I love the excitement and glitz that is the big city, I'll always be a country mouse at heart.

1 comment:

  1. Are you Kidding!?! You aren't a country mouse, buck-o. I know you'd like to think that, but you wouldn't last there for a week. You're much more of a suburban mouse.

    I didn't know Hilary is a vegetarian. How come? she doesn't like meat? and, i'm not a vegetarian. I was only a vegetarian for 7 months cause mommy made me go on a weird diet when I was in highschool. I LOVE meat...well..mostly fish and lean meat. but, you get the idea.