Over on the Kowloon side, Tin Heung Lau is so popular among in-the-know locals that the staff at the Peninsula have to use their clout to get us a brief 45-minute appointment with the restaurant’s famed smoked fish. The menu alone is a joy to read and a testament to just how few foreign souls make it to these parts. There are a lot of animals in need of intervention here, the “chicken alcoholic” and his cousin the “alcoholic crab” (the kitchen has sadly run out of the intriguing “braised bear coupon”). The food is spectacular. The famous Longjing tea leaves from the Hangzhou region make the stir-fried freshwater shrimp taste sweet and earthy, but the star of the show is missing from the English side of the menu—the smoked yellow croaker, an unremarkable, bottom-dwelling creature that, in the hands of the Tin Heung Lau staff, emerges as the most tender, smokiest piece of fish I’ve tasted throughout all my happy smoked sturgeon–filled years.
Closing time approaches. Families sip their last teas. I look up to notice the cheap hangers and faux-wood partitions that pretty much are the décor. Next to us, a well-dressed Chinese-American man in his twenties prepares his parents for his upcoming dismissal from a hedge fund. We dip what’s left of our croaker into pepper sauce. Whatever this is, it’s real.