Visiting a dai pai dong is a quintessential Hong Kong food experience, like going for yum cha or to a cha chaan teng or snacking on street food. The traditional open-air restaurants used to also be synonymous with good cheap eats in Hong Kong, but the no-frills eateries have been an increasingly rare sight on our streets in recent years. Given that the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department is not renewing any dai pai dong licenses, it’s a decline that seems destined to continue. But grandfather laws are keeping them alive, and as long as this generation is passing down their licence to the next we’ll still be able to enjoy a slice of old Hong Kong. So in support of good and cheap eating, we’ve compiled this list of the best of the city’s remaining dai pai dongs.
Hong Kong’s best dai pai dongs
Ball Kee is a classic wok-and-toss joint, serving up fried rice and fried noodles with various meat-veg-soy-sauce combinations. Situated on the narrow passageway of Staveley Street, the shop is usually filled more with passersby than patrons. At lunchtime it’s popular with local businessmen, who come in their suited droves for the tasty noodle dishes. Around $35 per person.
Food: B+ The waitress recommended the pork sautéed in red chillies, over rice. Unfortunately it was a bit dry and over salted. The patrons around us seemed to be enjoying the noodles – so we followed the herd, and were not disappointed.
Hygiene: C We noticed the cooking water being reused for cleaning. The top of the stove was caked in a weird black gunk.
Atmosphere: B- There is a rushed feel to the place at lunchtime – a sensation only increased by the constant movement of pedestrians.
Service: A- Helpful and quick. The waitress took our poor Canto skills in stride and helped explain the menu.
Overall mark: B-
The working-class neighbourhood of Tai Hang is a mishmash of narrow streets, old-style five-storey buildings, and monolithic slabs blotting out the sun for all pedestrians. Just like the neighbourhood it’s in, Ping Kee has a casual air. Come here to find workers from the nearby car shops plus a spattering of Hong Kong hipsters ordering the stall’s best-known dish: pork ramen. Around $35 per person.
Food: A-. As good as ramen can get. Neither the noodles nor the pork were overcooked. A little heavy on the salt though.
Hygiene: A+. The cleanest stall we’ve seen yet. The tarps, cooking station and tables looked good as new. There was a massive steel sink devoted to cleaning dishes alone.
Atmosphere: A. We could sit here all day. Great laid-back feel in a quiet neighbourhood. Spacious but never empty, the tables always had customers but no one ever had to wait.
Service: A-. An all-male staff. A bit snappy, but the head waiter speaks English pretty well and recognised us from our first visit.
Overall mark: A
The large colourful menu on the wall shows but a few options: noodles, noodles with pork knuckle, fish balls, and fish balls with noodles. But that’s okay – because Cheung Fat is famous for these classic dishes. Middle-aged locals and the odd Filipino maid pack into this pavement stall to enjoy the toothsome noodles – made with “special” (MSG-laden) soy sauce and yummy pork fat. Around $40 per person.
Food: A. The fish balls had a great texture and were flavourful. The noodles weren’t overcooked, and the sauce had a wonderful aroma.
Hygiene: A- Pretty decent. While the seating area may have a slightly dirty feel, the cooks use gloves, and items are properly stored in the kitchen.
Atmosphere: A- There is an especially laidback vibe here, with the green tarp canopy overhead and a relaxed clientele. Minus one point for the massive cardboard canisters of MSG on prominent display.
Service: B+ Nothing special, but quick and efficient nonetheless.
Overall mark: A-
As with most Sham Shui Po dai pai dongs, Keung Kee is as authentic as they come, with local workers and neighbourhood families making up most of the clientele. Just off bustling Apliu Market, the stall takes up half the pavement with its six tables and roaring wok. And since the tables face the kitchen, you get a clear view of the restaurant’s two middle-aged, short-shorts-wearing chefs. If that doesn’t put you off, go for the Hainan chicken, chicken’s feet, and tasty seafood dishes. Around $70 per person.
Food: A-. The fish was fresh and firm, but slightly flavourless and a tad too oily. We’re big fans of the chicken’s feet though, which were delish right down to the last claw.
Hygiene: A-. Above average. The seafood is kept alive with oxygen fed into buckets of salt water. Surfaces are relatively clean.
Atmosphere: B. On a quiet side street, it was more creepy and desolate than serene. Customers are a stoic-seeming crowd. The space is open and breezy though.
Service: B. Our waiter seemed to know everyone who stopped by, and was more than willing to show us all the seafood on offer. We were made to switch tables during dinner however, and the service was a little slow.
Overall mark: B+
Sing Kee represents the essence of dai pai dong street-food culture. Among the numerous stalls on Stanley Street, it is the most packed, with a wonderful diversity of clientele. I-bankers off from work mingle with bare- and tan-bellied grandpas over San Miguels. Hygiene is lacking, so look away from the kitchen, throw back a couple of $10 beers, and enjoy what you can. Around $50 per person.
Food: A Extremely flavourful. The salt-and-pepper pork was crisp and juicy, if a little over salted. Sing Kee is also famous for its crab and clams, which we didn’t have the stomach to try.
Hygiene: C Very dirty. Has a before-Lysol-was-invented kind of vibe. Seafood and meat lounge around in the heat, and we spied many a cockroach.
Atmosphere: A- As mentioned, cleanliness is an issue. Other than that, the place has a vibrant energy, and the crowd is excited and boisterous without being overly loud.
Service: A- Very helpful with the menu. The San Miguel beer girl was bubbly. Yes, they have a beer girl.
Overall mark: B+
Tucked away on secluded Mee Lun Street, Sing Heung Yuen is Central’s most famous dai pai dong. Businessmen, tourists and day labourers line up during lunch hour for the stall’s well-known macaroni-and-tomato soup. Naturally, you have the option of adding pork chop, beef or fried egg on top, and substituting the macaroni for ramen. Around $35 per person.
Food: B-. A tad disappointing, what with all the hype. The tomato soup was watery, and we noticed stray bits of rice noodle mixed in with the macaroni. The pork-and-tomato sandwich was tasty though.
Hygiene: B+. Better than average. Clean walkways and table tops. Minus one point for the dirty overhead tarps and coolers.
Atmosphere: A. Breezy and open. This place is a veritable oasis, shielding patrons from the bustle of trendy Gough Street.
Service: A. The ladies here are dai pai dong veterans. Service with a smile – and they’re not afraid to chat you up, either.
Overall mark: B+
The Hong Kong tradition of serving yuen yeung (a mixture of coffee and Hong Kong-style milk tea) probably originated in joints like this one. And while tea and coffee drinks can be found across the city, stalls like So Kee are still some of the best “cafés” around. Patrons of the café/noodle shop mostly order the pork ramen with an egg on top – a dai pai dong staple. For a real treat, order the French toast and a glass of yuen yeung. Around $30 per person.
Food: A-. The French toast was excellent and fried to perfection. Noodles are of the standard dai pai dong variety.
Hygiene: B. About average. We did notice rubbish strewn around the dining areas.
Atmosphere: A-. The decor is a mixture of new and trad. The low hum of conversation was pleasant; the location, spacious.
Service: B-. The disgruntled middle-aged waiter seemed too distracted to be attentive. The French toast took a while.
Overall mark: B+.
Up on steep Elgin Street, Yuk Yip Dessert sits next to the once-famous, now-defunct Man Yuen Noodle. You can get decent noodles here too, priced at $30 a bowl. Desserts include the usual sweet soups and rice balls, and unusually, a seaweed dish. Around $20 per person.
Food: B-. The black-sesame sweet soup betrayed distinct notes of chlorinated tap water. Sadly, the signature seaweed with green bean was just not our thing. In the end, we’d have to recommend the noodles.
Hygiene: A. No complaints. Much of the food has been cooking all day, and the kitchen looks clean.
Atmosphere: A-. Dining on a slope will certainly keep you on your toes. On the plus side, the space is not cramped. Most of the patrons seem to be young couples on quiet dates.
Service: A-. A little brisk. Food arrived promptly.
Overall mark: A-