ALAN CALLED ME instead of texting, which meant something was up. He knows I hate the phone. He also left a voicemail, a nerve-wracking technique he knew would goad me into getting back in touch.
"Dude!" he yelled, when I returned his call. "You want to get some chicken feet? I just found a place!"
I understand the importance of chicken feet. That said, I also understand the importance of a charred, juicy cheeseburger with shoestring fries and a lager the color of Sammy Hagar's eyes.
"Sure," I answered, knowing I'd at least get some column inches out of it.
"HK Café, dude! They just got an English menu! It's totally packed when I go by at lunch! Dim sum, man!"
I hadn't heard of it, but the idea of a steaming, clanging dim-sum house has mythic appeal for me. I'm from the San Francisco area, and while I'm not a New Yorker whining provincially about pizza and bagels, I miss the way they do it down in the big Chinatowns. I said I'd meet him at 11:30 am.
The dining room at HK Café is the size of a gymnasium, with spaciously arranged tables for 20, tables for two, and everything in between. It is a well-orchestrated, happy frenzy at peak dim-sum hours, featuring a steady procession of carts laden with overwhelming varieties of the familiar and the exotic. The ambience is familial and alive. A benevolent nonagenarian stands in her mandarin collar near the live fish wells, surveying all with blank and unyielding wisdom. Her male contemporaries hold court at a nearby table, their shirts buttoned high under v-neck sweaters, their linen driving caps a uniform gray, their canes at their sides as they lunch on mysterious and beautifully plated creations.
From the first cart, we order the benchmark cha siu, the sweet pork bun, this one baked with a golden, glistening top. It is sweet and light, filled with a generous but controlled portion of minced meat, scallions, onion, and just enough smooth red Chinese barbecue sauce. The pork is free of gristle and fat, prepared with quality and not economy in mind, and the fluffy, ethereal bun is tender perfection. The glutinous tear and chew of the shells of the pot stickers and har gow (translucent shrimp dumplings) also evince a consistent expertise in house-made pastry.
On the same cart sit the inescapable chicken feet. The server tries to dissuade us—"You sure? Very, very spicy!"—but to no avail. She sheepishly giggles, sets the plate down, and marks our ticket.
The feet are horrible novelty claws of pale, boiled knuckles and nails—like something from a blind reptile that weeps and writhes under the mud while we sleep—and I can't help but imagine the pens of filth in which they stood before being blanched and steamed for the table. Alan digs in, and I, though mildly proficient with chopsticks, elect to pick one up by hand. They come in a light, gently spicy chili sauce, and are delicious. Alan sucks the sole toothpick of meat out of one of them and happily blurts, "Bucket list!" We do not finish the order, but we are satisfied.
There are many more carts—slick, filling congee, dozens of desserts, quivering trays of intestine, and dry sauteed string beans with blistered caramelization and crunch. There are plump little xiao long bao, the brain-teasing soup dumplings that have stained many a novice's placket. Fresh chow fun and shimmering kerchiefs of rice noodles in light washes of soy fill out the table, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. We had eight dishes and, with weekday pricing, the tab was only an astounding $22. (Weekend prices are slightly higher.)
Lunch and dinner entrées are a separate event, and though I was predisposed to adore them, such was not the case. Dishes like scallops with XO sauce, kung pao preparations, and salt-and-pepper soft-shell crab were safe plays for a mild palate, and did not achieve the legendary fragrance and flavors—or the wok hay—of which they are capable, despite impeccably fresh seafood and perfectly cooked vegetables. The Peking duck in particular, served beautifully in two courses—first with the traditional steamed buns, and then as a lop cheong-enriched hash with lettuce cups—was satisfying, but the skin was under-seasoned and under-crisped.
HK Café truly shines for fresh, lively dim sum, but main dishes do not achieve the same excitement. Chicken feet notwithstanding.
Expect lines for dim sum, which may be the best in the city. Seafood a specialty. Full bar.