News / Asia

In Hong Kong, Beef Over Sammy Kitchen's 3D Cow

Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)
Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)
— There are no chopsticks on the table at Sammy's Kitchen in Hong Kong. And that is not the only way this restaurant stands out in a neighborhood clustered with Cantonese fare.
 
Sammy's trademark is a large three-dimensional billboard of a cow. It juts out over Queen's Road West in the Sheung Wan district, a neighborhood where the odor of dried squid mingles with the aroma of herbs from nearby traditional medicine shops.
 
An elderly, heavily inebriated Caucasian man, sitting across the street on the stoop of the Chun Sing stationery store, gazes incredulously at the imposing bovine while taking swigs from his large bottle of Skol beer.
 
More sober passersby also do a double-take, and curiosity compels some - me included - to explore what the billboard represents.
 
It was then I learned the unusual sign actually is an endangered species.
 
‘Primordial fusion’ cuisine
 
Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)
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Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)
Sammy's Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong (Photo: Steve Herman / VOA)
Sammy's epitomizes Hong Kong's unpretentious side, a throwback to the era before the city became known for extravagant bistros with Michelin-starred chefs and pricey fusion cuisine.
 
Sammy's Kitchen is primordial fusion both in decor and menu, which may give some diners pause.
 
A reviewer rates Sammy's reasonably priced meals as “rather mediocre,” but praises the establishment for friendly and welcoming service. Frommer's Guidebook adds, "It's comforting to see a place that remains virtually unchanged over the decades in such a fast-changing environment.”
 
The restaurant's namesake, owner Sammy Yip, began cooking at the age of 12 and worked as a chef for the five-star Peninsula and Mandarin Oriental hotels.
 
He has adorned most of his tables with orange or violet-colored checkered tablecloths. That was an upscale touch when he opened the restaurant in 1970.
 
The corner booths are laminated tables, bare except for bottles of Del Monte ketchup, salt, pepper, sugar and recycled plastic containers of toothpicks.
 
Food for carnivores
 
One side of the establishment is decorated with faux brick. Tiny white lights have been strung across the top of the walls.
 
The voluminous bilingual menu runs the gamut - from beefsteak through pastas to fried rice - but mostly favors dishes that appeal to carnivores.
Many are smothered in Sammy's secret sauce, which has won a loyal following over the decades. Fans include high-ranking government officials.
 
This may be the only place in the former British colony where one can still find on a menu such hybrid trans-Atlantic fare as Roast American York Ham and Bacon.
 
I settle on the ox tongue curry rice and a cup of tea.
 
To my initial bemusement, the tea arrives piping hot in a small cola glass - so hot that I must grasp it with a paper napkin.
 
Sammy offers a refill poured from a small ceramic pot. His hands are steady but a small puddle of tea leaks on to the purple-stained tabletop.
 
Excellent ox tongue
 
Ten minutes later my meal arrives: ample slices of tongue, steaming rice and a mild sauce inspired by green Thai curry - masterfully made, not overwhelmed by coconut, turmeric or chilies.
 
When I finish, Sammy returns to my table and asks how I liked the dish, which I had primarily ordered as a novelty.
 
“Excellent,” I honestly reply.
 
“Thank you,” he responds enthusiastically, elongating the last word.
 
For a man who has been cooking for 70 years, Sammy Yip appears to have retained his enthusiasm for the culinary arts and what should accompany every restaurant meal – sincere hospitality.
 
Hong Kong authorities, however, have recently turned an inhospitable eye toward Sammy's landmark sign. The giant cow looming over Queen's Road West not only serves as a beacon for diners but also for residents, visitors and taxi drivers.
 
"帶我到母牛"
 
Anyone heading for the restaurant or anywhere close to it can simply tell a taxi driver: "帶我到母牛" - Take me to the cow!
 
Thirty-four years after the illuminated animal first moved into position, the Hong Kong Buildings Department ruled the signboard was an illegal structure protruding into public space and ordered the Yip family to remove it.
 
The Yips' appeals have been unsuccessful, as have customers' hopes the sign can be declared a vintage Hong Kong landmark.
 
“The cow will be removed. ... We must remove it,” says catering manager Iry Yip Fung-yee, Sammy's daughter. “We're just a small business,” she laments, explaining why the Yips are are not going to launch a potentially costly legal fight to save Hong Kong's most famous cow.

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steven L Herman is the Voice of America Asia correspondent.

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