Hoi Tong -
I would’ve never thought that a typical Chinese dinner (for two adults and two children) comprising of typical dishes involving non-exotic ingredients in a restaurant barely larger than a typical hole-in-the-wall joint and located in an nondescript strip mall in Richmond would cost me $170 after taxes and tips. There were no bowls of shark’s fins soup, no abalone, no fish maws, no lobster, no crab, no prawns, and not even a scallop in any of our dishes.
What we had were two meat dishes, one veggie, one fried rice, and one soup. The soup alone costs Fifty five dollars and eighty cents. Fish head and fig soup. Who would’ve thought? To be fair, I did preorder the soup – sight unseen and price unknown – over the phone.
My expectations for the soup were raised exponentially once I sat down at our table and read its price on the menu. I imagined that we would be receiving a HUGE bowl of soup with an equally HUGE head of an exotic and deep-sea fish species braised with all sorts of dried-up and pricey accompaniments. When the not-so-big bowl was brought to our table, my previously high expectations fell immediately down a flight of stairs. As the ingredients of the soup were removed and revealed on an empty plate, the lowered expectations took another tumble down to the basement.
What I saw were pork shank, bits of a partial fish head from a medium-to-small-sized fish, and a bunch of rather ordinary soup ingredients that could be found in complimentary soups from complimentary-soup-serving local Chinese restaurants.
Then I tasted the soup. It exceeded my expectations. It not only exceeded my twice-lowered expectations, it exceeded my originally lowered expectations and actually almost matched what I expected when I was first experienced the sticker-shock after reading the menu. The soup tasted more complex and refined than an ordinary bowl of complimentary or even non-complimentary daily soup. It had a clear, dark brown complexion with only a minimum amount of floating debris. The soup looked like pure and simple stock, but its flavours were enjoyably complex. It was sweet from the figs; it was unctuous from the included pork and fish; it was aromatically briny from the fish; it was citrusy from the orange peels, and it had the essence from all of the rest of the included Chinese herbal/medicinal bits. Each one of us had spoonful after spoonful and each one of us had our second bowl immediately after our first bowl. Unfortunately, there was not enough soup for us to have thirds. If there was, I have no doubt that all of us would’ve had our third bowls of the soup.
The ingredients of the soup were much less flavourful than the soup. The lack of flavours was totally understandable and expected because all of the aromas and flavours of the ingredients have presumably been released into the soup.
The first meat dish we had was the sweet and sour pork:
The sweet and sour pork came highly recommended from online reviews and blog posts. My daughter was the first to have a piece of the sweet and sour pork and she immediately claimed it to be “yummy”. Both my wife and I agreed with her after we had our first pieces of the pork. It had two layers of crispiness. The first layer of crispiness came from the caramelization of the (what I presumed would be) sugar-based sauce. The second layer of crispiness came from the breading. The meat underneath the breading was pleasantly bouncy and bitey. It was just firm enough to not be considered limp, and its fat to meat ratio was just right. That was what I felt after I had the first piece. The flaws of the sweet and sour pork were gradually revealed as I was having the rest of the pieces. The second piece of the pork revealed to me that the ‘sour’ in the sweet-and-sour was almost non-existent. There was only a slight hint of it in the pork, and there was non of it in the pineapples. It might seem odd to complain about sweet pineapples, but I expected them to play the part of the ‘sour’ in a sweet-and-sour pork dish. My third piece had a much tougher texture than my first two pieces, which gave me the impression that the dish was not as consistent as it should be. My fourth and final piece of pork revealed to me the small portion size of the dish. The dish was definitely the right portion size for two adults and two kids, but it would no doubt not be enough for four adults.
Our second meat dish was the deep-fried salt-baked chicken:
This dish was the highlight of the night. It was the only flawless dish of the night, and it was an improvement on virtually every single deep-fried chicken dish I’ve had at other Chinese restaurants. The skin was as extremely crispy as the best versions of the dish I’ve encountered. The meat, having the flavours of flavourful salt-baked chicken, was without a doubt the most flavourful meat of any Chinese deep fried chicken dish I have filed away in my food memory. The meat was not only flavorful, it was both tender and juicy. The tender and juicy dark meat came as no surprise; the equally tender and juicy white meat was surprisingly good. I wished more chicken came with the order, but I guess the size of the chicken was also a contributing factor in its tastiness, so I really shouldn’t complain.
The vegetable dish we ordered was the fried baby bak choy:
The baby bak choy was fresh, and tasted very much like the simple fried baby bak choy served at other Chinese restaurants. I was unfortunate enough to get the piece that received probably 50% of the sodium content of the entire dish. After eating that piece, my taste buds could not detect any saltiness from the subsequent pieces of baby bok choy I put into my mouth.
The last savory dish we received was the lotus leaf wrapped fried sticky rice, which was one of the two dishes I preordered over the phone:
Although not extraordinary, both my wife and I thought that the fried-and-steamed sticky rice was pretty good. It had a nicely firm texture that was an unexpected departure from the usually sticky sticky-rice. The enjoyably firm texture of the rice was further enhanced by the bits of shrimp and meat interspersed between the grains of rice. Sticky rice is usually paired with dried shrimp, but the ballsy pairing of fresh shrimp in this version worked; it worked very well in adding a fresh and subtle brininess (as opposed to the concentrated brininess of dried shrimp). The sticky rice was also the only dish of the night that we didn’t manage to finish. Its portion size was large enough that we had to take home the third of it that we were not able to finish.
To finish, there was complimentary taro-tapioca soup with almond cookies:
The sweet soup was good. It was sweet but not too sweet. It had both rich coconut-milk and taro flavours. The tiny dots of transparent tapioca added a chewy texture that allowed the full-flavoured soup to linger enjoyable on my palate for an extra few seconds. I will never complain when I can enjoy food for a longer period of time without adding any extra calories to the dish.
Because we had to vacate our table in a timely manner for those who reserved a table at the night’s second seating, we weren’t able to try any of the almond cookies.
All in all, the food we received at Hoi Tong was pretty good. It was better-than-average, and the food was good enough that I would consider driving all the way out to Richmond just for a meal there. But then I remember the price I paid. One hundred and seventy dollars is not a price that I could afford paying for a half-portioned family meal on a regular basis. Even without ordering the soup, the hundred dollar price is a bit too rich for my blood. I think I’m going to file Hoi Tong under the special occasions with non-adventurous traditional-Chinese eaters category. I’ll visit it again if my parents are visiting for Chinese New Years or some other special occasion. For all other family dining opportunities in Richmond, I’ll stick with more economic choices.
…I forgot to mention that the service was exceptional- as it should be for the price they charged.