Palo Alto Weekly

Eating Out - January 15, 2010

Comfort food, Hong Kong-style

Hong Kong Bistro brings the eclectic cha chaan teng experience to Mountain View

by Monica Hayde Schreiber

You're on Castro Street in downtown Mountain View and it's inching past 11 p.m. Most of the restaurants are closed, but you're craving a big plate of shrimp chow fun or a baked pork chop on rice. Or maybe it's a steaming bowl of borscht that's calling your name.

Down at the end of the street, you'll find the fluorescent lights and TVs are still on at the neighborly Hong Kong Bistro, the kitchen busily serving up steaming plates of Hong Kong-style comfort food.

With its photo-illustrated menu, more pictures of the food adorning the walls and its diner vibe, this two-year-old eatery might just be the culinary love child of dim sum and Denny's. Won ton soups, curries and fish porridge share the menu with peanut butter toast, tuna salad and baked seafood served over spaghetti. The specials board might tout such wildly dissimilar offerings as coffee spare ribs, macaroni soup, French-style ox tail or spicy Singaporean noodles.

And, yes, they really do serve borscht.

For transplants from Hong Kong, this is a seriously satisfying taste of home. For everyone else, Hong Kong Bistro is a funky cultural-culinary experience, the kind of place where half the fun is checking out what people around you are eating. To your left, a creamy seafood soup in a puff pastry; to your right, a huge slab of baked beef tongue.

In addition to being budget-friendly and amusingly eclectic, the fare is overall fresh, tasty and satisfying.

This is one of the few local restaurants that is firmly in the tradition of cha chaan teng, a type of "tea restaurant" or "cafe" common in Hong Kong and Macau that serves an incongruous mix of affordable Asian and Western-influenced dishes. A hallmark of these establishments is Hong Kong-style milk tea ($2.50), a blend of black tea and sweet evaporated milk. Take it hot or iced; its sweet, milky goodness will have you sinking immediately into the Asian comfort food zone.

Any of the chow fun dishes ($7-$8.50) will take you deeper into that happy place. We chose the shrimp version, and in about one-and-a-half minutes a huge plate of fat, steaming noodles, generously populated with shrimp and some crunchy bean sprouts, was upon our table. Delicious.

The BBQ pork and won ton noodle soup ($6.75) was enough for two people. The pork-and-shrimp won tons floating amid the broth and noodles were little pillows of meaty decadence. No doubt they were freshly made, as one of the servers was camped out in a nearby booth, in front of a huge pile of raw pork, making them by hand.

Another highlight of our first dinner was the large plate of tender greens in oyster sauce ($7). The Chinese bok choy was lightly stir-fried and gently dressed in a savory oyster sauce.

On another visit we started with the Indian-style pancakes ($5.50), a duo of roti-like breads with a curry dipping sauce. The curry was a bit pasty and lacked punch, but the overall effect of fried bread in sauce was still satisfying. The lackluster curry also dampened our enthusiasm for the salmon curry dish ($9.50). The fried salmon itself was tender and fresh, but the overabundant curry and underdone sweet potatoes that accompanied left us wishing we had ordered something else.

Curry fared better in the spicy, Singapore-style vermicelli ($7.50). A standard riff on the popular dish, it was stir-fried with onions, egg and bean sprouts. It was another generous plate that was easily shared among three people.

The baked pork chop ($7.50), served in a metal dish over rice or spaghetti, is one of the go-to items at a cha chaan teng, but Hong Kong Bistro's left me scratching my head. It was doused in a ketchupy red sauce that tasted vaguely canned. I couldn't understand the appeal.

Service during each of our visits was lightning-fast and friendly. At lunch, Hong Kong Bistro offers specials, or "sets," for $7.50, which include a drink, soup and an entree.

There isn't much to say about dessert as seven of the eight items had been scratched off the menu, leaving only mango pudding. Custard-like and slightly gelatinous, it was served in a bath of sweetened milk.

Hong Kong Bistro is owned by Ben and Annie Quan, who also own Fu Lam Mum, the massive Cantonese seafood establishment next door. More power to them — and to any locals looking for a fast, filling and wallet-friendly meal on Castro Street.

Hong Kong Bistro

147 Castro St., Mountain View

650-968-8938

Hours: Daily 11 a.m.-11:45 p.m.

Reservations: no

Credit cards: yes

Alcohol: yes

Highchairs: yes

Catering: no

Take-out: yes

Outdoor dining: no

Party facilities: no

Parking: city lots

Noise level: moderate

Bathroom cleanliness: excellent

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