Before we start this article on Chao Chao Gyoza, a fantastically fun little Gyoza restaurant, let me begin with an interesting sports analogy… Back in 2012, the Oklahoma City Thunders were one of the most intriguing basketball teams in the NBA, with two future superstars in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, as well as the league’s best sixth man James Harden. All three were under-23, hyper athletic and fun to watch. While everyone knew Westbrook and Durant were transcendent talents, Harden was often an afterthought, averaging the least amount of points, rebounds and assists of the three. Nevertheless, this was a team many experts and analysts expected to win multiple titles in the future. Then a year later, the Thunders shocked everyone by trading away James Harden for fifty cents on the dollar. Unleashed and running his own team, Harden has since been considered one of the best players in the league, and is touted to win the MVP this year, averaging a stellar 29-8-11. Before you close this tab (and yes this is a food blog), the point I am trying to make is this: sometimes an overshadowed food item can shine just as bright as its more celebrated counterparts if given the focus and attention. This is the case with Gyoza, the Japanese version of a simple, pan fried dumpling.
In Hong Kong, gyoza are often an afterthought to other, more celebrated Japanese dishes. One can usually find Gyoza in Hong Kong in small izakaya bars, or as a side dish served in many ramen restaurants. But after visting Chao Chao Gyoza in Wanchai (Yes, I know it is a messed up name), I am convinced that the humble dumpling can stand just as tall as its more internationally renowned counterparts.
Chao Chao Gyoza has over 20 outlets in Japan, but its Hong Kong outlet on Amoy street is the chain’s first overseas venture (I believe there is a second one in Hung Hom). The restaurant itself is simple, with wooden interiors and wooden chairs. In the centre is a large open kitchen, where every single order of gyoza is fried a la minute. You simply make your order and wait for your food while the overhead speakers serenade you with squeaky Japanese pop songs – A simple, elegantly efficient process. The menu however, is anything but. While there are menu items that seem slightly Frankenstein-like – Chocolate Gyoza anyone? – most of the menu reads well and would be a dumpling lover’s wet dream.
My meal began with the signature Chao Chao Gyoza (HK$40). Juicy pork and cabbage fillings were wrapped in a pinky sized casing before being fried in a specially made griddle pan. Halfway through the cooking process, the chef pours in a mix of flour and stock into the pan with the gyoza, which creates a paper thin, crispy layer at the bottom. Dumplings are usually stodgy, hearty and heavy foods, this was light and refined. It is simple food done exceedingly well.
Shiso is the lighter, more effeminate cousin of basil, and works well with everything from tomatoes to strong tasting ingredients like Mentaiko. Here, Chao Chao Gyoza paired the herb with a hearty pork filling and a tangy umeshu (pickled plum) dipping sauce. The entire thing worked to a T, with freshness of the shiso and the sourness of the umeshu cutting the richness of the pork.
Chive and pork gyoza were solid, but not spectacular. The gyoza wrappings were coloured with chive juice, and the chives and pork filling was tasty. In terms of oomph however, it lacked the intensity and the innovativeness of the previous two.
My final order was the Red Pepper Gyoza (HK$29), marked with a ‘very hot’ warning on the menu. Like always, I ignored the warning label, and like always, I came to regret my decision. There is a saying for uber spicy foods: you taste it on the way in, and on the way out. This was one of these experiences, where I know I will be in excruciating pain next morning. Still, I soldiered on. Other than the level of spice and the thought of my soul exiting my body, what I remembered most was that the intense chilli heat did not overpower the delicate flavour of the filling inside, which was quite an achievement. Do order this if you enjoy extremely spicy foods, or if you are trying to impress a friend. Do not order this if you have a special occasion or work the next day.
Chao Chao Gyoza shows that the humble dumpling can just be as exciting and as delicious as anything on the planet as long as there is a certain level of care and innovativeness. Prices are also very reasonable, as my entire meal came to be just slightly over HK$100. After sampling the more ‘conservative’ menu items, I am ready to try funkier dishes like the ‘shake shake’ gyoza and the okonomiyaki gyoza. As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, I’ll be back.
Chao Chao Gyoza, 31 Amoy Street, Wanchai