The mustard coloured facade of the building screams “I’m a below-average American diner”. Your neglected muse hollers “seriously mate, have some sense about you and avoid this joint like the Great Plague of 1738”. The friend I was dining with shrugged nonchalantly, a small gesture, but a dangerous gesture nonetheless. And so, like every poorly made horror film with a predictable plot, it was too late – my curiosity had been piqued and I was about to voyage into the unknown.
As you enter Café de Coral you are bombarded with popping images of spaghetti served with pork chops and hot dogs (half price if you order Monday – Thursday between 1400 and 1800).
I surveyed the landscape, the spitting image of an intrepid explorer on terra nullius, sans the weathered map and old school monocular. I quickly realised this place was in actual fact, very much settled with legions of committed patrons – terra not-at-all-nullius.
I attempted to peer over the horizon to ascertain how the hell this place worked. There was a counter, and somewhere in the distance, a kitchen area shrouded with steam emanating from the endless hotpots that lay before it. The signage around the restaurant implied this place was part of a chain, and I was bewildered at the thought of someone lending them money to open a second store.
The prices here were so low I momentarily forgot that pounds are not the local currency. In addition to the very full tables, the restaurant was teeming with people barging in front of you for a seat. I ordered at the cashier, took my receipt to the kitchen-ladies-beyond-the-hotpot-fog, and waited ten minutes before realising I needed to claim some turf. I did this while balancing 5 plates on my plastic slightly greased-stained tray. It dawned on me that it takes a gladiator to survive here and, if you want a decent shot getting out alive or fed, probably a Cantonese speaking gladiator.I didn’t have a seat and was flustered. The battle for each table was a malicious melee, the warriors starved hounds in desperate need of dumplings. We had ordered the “Double US Beef Hotpot X2” – one for me and my mate. It transpired this was intended to serve four – or a small peckish family that hadn’t eaten in a year.
I was stuck with two A2 sized cafeteria trays questioning my life decisions. My friend had popped out to buy some drinks and the adrenaline was pumping. Perhaps it was the fear of embarrassment of not being able to secure a table, or the fact I was tripping out on my body’s automatic fight or flight response (FOR SPARTA!!!).
After 8 minutes scouting the patrons and their varying stages of degustation, I found an elderly couple slurping the final contents of their soup. And curiously, as I was about to lay siege and take arms, I reflected on the fact that the word “slurp” was an onomatopoeia.
I had always been told that fortune favoured the bold, and here was my chance to prove it. I approached the couple and indicated I would happily take their tray away for them. As they stood up to leave, furrowing their brows at the ostensible fact I didn’t actually work here, I told the waitress (who was otherwise completely uninterested in my forays) to man/woman the fort while I returned with my trough of food. I had parked it in the bowls of Hot Pot Valley.
The journey took me 10 seconds, and with mediocre finesse I reclaimed my tray that had been conspicuously nestled between the chilli refuel station and dumpling sauce storage vat.
I returned only to find that the waitress had apparently given up safeguarding my fiefdom seven seconds in (just as my friend arrived with two beers). A horde of hungry barbarian patrons were at the gates.
Fearing the worst, and in full knowledge I hadn’t had time to ready my defences (think burning oil, tar pits, moats and shit), I did what any hunger-fearing man would do; with a sophisticated pirouette, I twisted around the ravenous masses and the waitress, before slam dunking the tray on the table. Victory was mine this day, and my god, how tasty it would be.
After loosening my tie, and adjusting my cufflinks (think Sean Connery in From Russia With Love, after a whole bunch of stuff has blown up in the background), I turned my focus to the task in front of me.
This was a lot of food. Dried salted fish, rice noodles, pork and chive dumplings, golden bag (filled with mushroom and noodles), black fungus, pork balls, lettuce, pumpkin, crab and about 300 grams of beef. We added condiments of soy sauce, crushed peanuts, extra hot chilli and dumpling sauce.
The hotpot was set up with a small stove for each of us, and the liquid was busy bubbling away.
“Not bad” were the words running through my mind as I tentatively sampled the salted fish after literally fishing it out of my pot. I had hated this place 20 seconds earlier, but felt a rather sudden change of heart.
It needs to be said that there is something alluring about boiling your own food. What to try first? What should I cook the longest? What flavours should I infuse? What sequence of eating is least likely to result in spillages all over my suit trousers? As it transpired, I failed abysmally with finding an answer to this last question (I will never forget the look of the dry cleaning lady the next morning when I casually mentioned “So there’s a small stain…” and pointed out the trail of destruction on the left leg)
It was time to escalate the hotpot – beef and dumplings. I had very low expectations for both. Meat in Hong Kong is expensive, and this was a very cheap meal.
One minute cooking the beef was plenty – it was thinly sliced. Again, very tasty. And then the dumpling (which I had assumed would lack flavour) was actually tasty.
These realisations continued for the next 30 minutes. I had been in denial for most of it, but by the end it had become perfectly clear – this was good and my initial naiveté vis-à-vis the quality of this place was clear.
I ate everything. Enough for a family, less some rice noodles.
I wanted to hate this place. I really did. But for a few pounds a serving, this is genuinely tasty. The decor is awful and you might be tempted to think you are in an Ikea kitchen (and not even one of the new ones with decent Swedish meatballs) – but this is good food, and will cost you less than a coffee in Hong Kong. Seriously.