All other dishes are posers.
Cart noodle vendors used to be a common sight in Hong Kong.
The dish—which gets its name from the small wooden carts pushed by vendors—experienced a golden age in the 1950s, when almost every street corner had a cart noodle vendor.
Diners could customize their bowls with their choice of noodles and toppings, which were scooped into a container and topped up with hot broth. It was considered a fast and cheap meal.
These days, you won’t be able to find noodles sold from carts anymore. A government crackdown on street food curbed the industry, but the dish remains popular in Hong Kong, where it can be found in small restaurants and diners.
It’s the only uniquely Hong Kong dish
Emily Wu, who runs Man Kee Cart Noodles with her husband, says the dish is quintessentially Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong has a kaleidoscope of cuisines, but most are imported from other regions or countries,” she says, noting that other local icons such as fish balls and wonton noodles come from Guangdong Province in mainland China. “None of the dishes really belong to Hong Kong, except for cart noodles.”
Wu recalls growing up with noodle vendors in her neighborhood. Her friends would debate over which cart sold the best noodles.
“My friends would rave about their nominees, while I would brag about mine,” she says. “They would bring me to savor their favorites, but I didn’t like them, and vice versa.”
Inspired by her childhood, her shop offers over 60 toppings, including braised chicken wings, spicy squid, shiitake mushrooms, and sweet and sour gluten.
Many shops started as carts run by new immigrants to Hong Kong.
Dennis Lau is the third generation of his family to own Wing Nin, which was founded by his grandfather.
According to Lau, his grandfather swam from mainland China to Hong Kong in 1962 to escape poverty. When he landed, he ran errands for shops and delivered groceries by bike.
Eventually, he saved up enough money to open his own grocery store in 1982, but the advent of supermarkets took away much of his business, so he turned to cart noodles as a way to supplement his income.
After Lau’s grandfather retired in the 1990s, his parents took over the business and opened a cart noodle shop in Yuen Long.
The secret is in the soup
Shops that specialize in cart noodles invest time and effort into perfecting their recipes, says Andy Li, who runs Yat Sing, an 11-year-old cart noodle restaurant, with his parents.
The soup is especially important. Most cart noodle places use a meat broth as the base, but at Yat Sing, they prepare a clear radish soup.
“We want to accentuate a light and mellow taste,” Li says. “A common expectation about cart noodles is that the noodles are doused in a rich, heavy and brown stock—greasy, salty, stodgy—that makes you drink lots of water after the meal. We want to break that impression.”
It’s also about community
Li, who went to college in the United Kingdom, came back to Hong Kong in 2018 to help his parents manage the business. He says he appreciates the “human touch” of working in a small neighborhood restaurant.
It’s common to see Li’s father joke with customers who have become close friends and exchange greetings with passersby from the neighborhood, even if they’re not stopping in for a meal.
Many regular customers don’t even need to order, Li says, because he and his parents already know what they want, a testament to how this humble dish has kept the city running for decades.
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.