HONG KONG — Lines begin to form before lunchtime and continue well into the night, with customers outside craning their necks to see the day’s selection through the window.
It’s not a newly anointed Michelin bistro or the latest Instagram-friendly, photogenic confection that has taken Hong Kong, a famously epicurean city, by storm.
It is a humble takeaway box of white rice and two pre-cooked main dishes of the diner’s choice. The price: around $4.
Staple restaurants offering these simple meals have become an unexpected food fad in Hong Kong, sparking an explosion of vendors, the fascination of food bloggers and even a 77,000-member Facebook fan group.
The food itself hardly seems worth any attention. The offerings are the standards of Cantonese cuisine, with options like tomato and egg sauté, sweet and sour pork, or beef and turnip stew. They are ordered cafeteria style, pointing or shouting the order to an expectant worker with a ladle.. Even the name given to these establishments is as simple as their menus: “two dishes and rice”.
But that simplicity is the point.
In a city hit by two years of political turmoil, economic recession, and seemingly endless pandemic controls (the ban on dining after 6 p.m. was lifted late last month), two-course, rice places have become a lifeline. .
For struggling restaurant owners, this business model is a rare source of increased demand. For diners, the meal is a cheap and convenient staple, both dishes offering the comforting flavors and variety that define Chinese home cooking.
There are now at least 353 businesses selling two plates and rice across the city, according to a collaborative map. There is no census of how many existed before, but food scholars and Hong Kong diners agree there were far fewer before the pandemic.
“You can be sure that when you go to this type of restaurant, you’ll find something that won’t go wrong,” said Kitty Ho, a nurse who has lunch with her boyfriend, Jack Fung, an IT worker, in the blue-collar neighborhood of North Point.
Ms. Ho and Mr. Fung, both in their 20s, said they had started eating the lunch boxes several times a week in recent months, especially after Ms. Ho, who follows many food-related pages in social networks, found the Facebook fan group. .
The venue they had chosen that day, Kai Kee, was a classic of the genre in its unapologetic lack of atmosphere. Its walls were lime green, matching the plastic chopsticks and upholstered chairs. (While many two-course and rice shops are grab-and-go only, some offer spartan seating areas.)
Cardboard boxes, each containing 500 Styrofoam containers, were stacked in the middle of the floor. No music playing; the only soundtrack was the shouts of workers running between the kitchen, which belched clouds of steam into the dining room, and the front, where food was served.
The day’s two dozen or so dishes were displayed, buffet style, in a series of L-shaped stainless steel pans. Two dishes cost HK$32, or $4, cash only; each additional dish was $1 extra. All the options (spicy eggplant, pig ears, sauteed cauliflower) were brightly colored and clearly visible from the street through large windows to attract passers-by.
Two plates and rice is not new in Hong Kong. But it had long been overlooked or dismissed as the realm of the bankrupt student or working class. Both in format and quality, it is reminiscent of Panda Express in the United States. In Hong Kong, some jokingly referred to him as “shallow rice”, to reflect low expectations of him.
“It was seen as food for commoners, low-income people,” said Siu Yan Ho, a professor who studies the city’s food culture at Hong Kong Baptist University.
Then the pandemic came. Unemployment jumped. Hong Kong’s world-famous restaurant scene was left limping. The most recent ban on dining in restaurants at night lasted almost four months and, although it has been lifted, people are still not allowed to gather in groups of more than four.
Many Hong Kongers don’t cook either, in a city where groceries are expensive and small apartments may not have kitchens.
Therefore, the types and numbers of people who can appreciate a hearty and cheap meal have greatly expanded. And Hong Kong food businessmen have responded.
Chefs at cha chaan tengs, Hong Kong’s traditional sit-down restaurants, have quit to open two-course and rice shops. A popular local hot dog chain started its own offshoot of two courses and rice. Seafood banquet halls put out a few trays of evening meals as grab-and-go options when the dine-in ban went into effect. So did coffee shops, best known for their latte art.
“We get office workers, students, seniors, cleaning workers,” Kai Kee owner Wong Chi-wai said, adding that he typically sells 1,000 meals a day at each of his six locations.
To set yourself apart from all the competition, some stores offer steamed whole fish or lobster for a few extra dollars. Others throw free soup. A place in the Yau Ma Tei neighborhood includes truffle chicken, red rice and quinoa to appeal to younger customers.
Still, even the most devoted patrons are under no illusions that this is fine dining.
“I don’t have too many requirements,” said Kelvin Tam, another Kai Kee customer, who had chosen curried fish dumplings and a beef and leek stir-fry. “As long as it doesn’t taste too bad and it’s edible, it’s fine.”
Despite his lukewarm praise, Mr. Tam, a 60-year-old real estate employee in a shirt and tie, said he was a regular, noting that the ingredients were fresher than other places he had tried.
Tips like these for other diners abound on the Facebook fan group site. Every day, dozens of people post photos of their lunch box, along with notes: The pork chops at a store in the Prince Edward neighborhood were cold today, or the staff at this one in Tai Kok Tsui are especially friendly.
Some reviewers bear the stamp of true connoisseurs. “The meatballs were pretty good. The ratio of lean meat, meal, and water chestnuts was about 5:4:1, and I didn’t detect any fat,” one member wrote.
The passion of the Facebook group underscored the new importance of these foods during the pandemic, said Selina Ching Chan, a professor at Shue Yan University in Hong Kong who has studied the city’s food culture. Diners were expressing appreciation for something that had become “a public good,” she said.
And the conversations on the site were more inclusive than those that usually take place around Hong Kong’s glittering food scene, he added. “It is very different from Michelin stars, gourmet experts, who stand out for distinction, outstanding stores. Here we greet different things”.
Like all food trends, this one is likely to end. You may already be on your sunset days: the day the ban on dining at 6 p.m. Many members wrote how excited they were to sit in dim sum parlors with friends again.
Still, many said there would always be an appetite for boxes of rice, both among converts and those who had long depended on them.
That includes Lo Siu-ying, 64. Looking at the day’s selection at Kai Kee, Ms. Lo, dressed in a pair of rubber work boots, said that she had been eating there for years. It was the easiest option for her and her husband, who left home at 8 am to work as building cleaners and returned after midnight.
However, he would be glad, he said, when others become less dependent on him. His work had become more exhausting during the pandemic, because the amount of trash he had to take out had doubled.
“Everyone is buying takeout,” he said. “There are so many boxes.”