How Durham’s oldest dim sum dining room became a staple of the local food scene, plus some recommended dishes to ring in the Lunar New Year
By Hannah Lee | Photography by John Michael Simpson
Sunday is different at the faint pink house with the ruby red trim on Guess Road. On any other day, the cracked concrete and gravel parking lot out back has plenty of open spaces. Customers can come and go as they please. But on Sundays, the lot is full by noon – or earlier – with cars spilling down adjoining side streets and guests struggling to find space to stand indoors.
The commotion is all to get into Durham’s first and oldest dim sum dining room at Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant. The joint opened in 1989 in what appears to be a house, although owner Sanli Bang – who would know such things – says it was formerly a flower shop.
These days, customers know what to expect when Sanli slams open the restaurant’s double red doors and recites the next waitlist numbers: 29, 34, 31. Her presence is like a beacon of hope for the hungry, those huddled inside and outside of Hong Kong’s entryway. On any other day, she’ll tell you: “Don’t come Sunday, don’t come Sunday. Too busy.” It’s an all too familiar chant that, by the looks of it, many people forget – or intentionally ignore. Saturdays and Sundays are the days when carts zip and zoom among the restaurant’s red booths, topped with sticky rice, char siu bao and dumplings galore. Sanli, her siblings and their children shout to one another as they rush to serve the folks who fill every seat in the house.
Dim sum by no means entails an easy production process. Hours of prep go into individually cutting and hand wrapping each dumpling like “a dainty flower,” Sanli says. “It’s hard work, so many things to do. My husband, [Bruce Mak], usually comes into work in the morning, like 7 o’clock until 9:30 or 10 o’clock [at night]. On weekends, he comes back home at midnight.”
Most do not enter into the dim sum business on purpose; it typically chooses you, as was the case for Sanli. Her brother Hue Bang already worked at the restaurant as a cook when she immigrated here from Vietnam in 1995 to work at Hong Kong as a waitress. Four years later, the former owners passed the restaurant on to her and her five other siblings, and it has remained a family operation ever since. Still, even with years of experience, it’s not easy. “Some days we run out. Like today? Not enough,” Sanli says on a Monday in November. “We make a lot, and it’s still not enough.”
Given Hong Kong’s history and longstanding location, it’s become something of a staple in Durham’s ever-evolving Asian food scene. Longtime customers like Mary Sillapavichit, for example, have patronized the restaurant since it first opened – even before Sanli arrived. When Mary’s daughter, Natalie Leerapun, visits from Thailand, her stays are never complete without Hong Kong’s roast duck and pork fried rice.
“We call [Sanli] Sim, and she’s very nice,” Natalie says. “My mom really enjoys the food, and every time someone comes into the city to visit her, she brings her guests here, and everybody loves the place.”
Then there is a generation of clientele who have quite literally grown up eating Sanli’s family’s food: People who once arrived in strollers themselves and who now wheel their own children through the dining room’s red doors. It’s a credit to Sanli and her family – and their food, of course – that they’ve carved out this niche in a city notorious for many popular restaurant options. The process has worked so well for so long that, well, the Sunday ritual in the parking lot doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.
“We have customers who came here as a little baby or were in a car seat,” Sanli says. “And now they’re in college or already have a family. It makes me happy.”
5 Lucky Foods For the Lunar New Year
The Lunar New Year – popularly known as Chinese New Year – is celebrated throughout East Asia and is meant to be spent with family. The “reunion dinner” on New Year’s Eve is an important tradition, and putting an ample variety of food on the table is a must, too. Try these dishes to commemorate the special occasion, which starts on Jan. 31 and concludes on Feb. 15 with the Lantern Festival:
Chinese dumplings – probably the most classic and traditional lucky food eaten on Lunar New Year – are made to look like Chinese silver ingots: the gold and silver pieces used as money in ancient times. Legend has it that the more dumplings you eat during the New Year celebrations, the more money you can make in the New Year. Our top three dumpling recommendations at Hong Kong Chinese Restaurant are the shumai (pork), har gow (shrimp) and chive dumplings.
The new year would not be complete without variations of sweet rice dishes. The sweet glutinous rice cake, nian gao, is typically prepared and consumed on New Year’s Eve while sweet rice balls, tangyuan, are usually eaten on the 15th and final day of Chinese New Year celebrations. In Chinese, nian gao sounds like it means “higher year by year,” which Chinese people take to mean greater success in business and life in general. The pronunciation and round shape of tangyuan are associated with reunion and being together.
The literal translation of the dish’s name, chang shou mian, is “long-life noodles.” It is also a lucky food that is encouraged to eat on one’s birthday. An ancient Chinese belief states that long noodles are the secret to a long life, so they shouldn’t be cut as you eat them. We suggest trying any variation of ho fun.
A New Year’s Eve meal almost always includes a big fish served in various ways. “Fish [represents] making a lot of money every year – to not run out and have left over into the next year,” Sanli says. The words for “fish” and “surplus” sound the same (yu), and some Chinese people don’t finish their fish in the hopes that they will have surplus in other areas of their life as well in the following year.
Spring rolls (chun juan) take their name from the holiday for which they’re traditionally prepared: the Spring Festival, another name for Chinese New Year. The crisp, golden rolls are meant to symbolize bars of gold and also bring wealth and prosperity in the year to come.