Bowls are generous, flavorful and fresh.
Hong Kong Station is pinched into the unassuming 1400 block of Regent Street, the strip of small buildings across from Camp Randall that houses a tattoo parlor, a biryani joint, a key shop and now a noodle bowl sensation.
In case you want to stop reading and go there immediately, this is what you need to know: Filling bowls of legit cart-style noodles start at $4 any time of day.
Based on the pushcart vendors who once peddled their wares on the bustling streets of Hong Kong for the hungry and budget-strapped masses, the tiny restaurant offers a choice of 10 noodle varieties: egg noodles, thick Cantonese-style noodles, Shanghai noodles, instant noodles, ramen, udon and silk noodles (made with mung bean), as well as three kinds of rice noodles. And if you're not entirely up on your noodle nomenclature, there are samples covered in clear wrap at the counter. Point if you need to.
There are three broth choices available to accompany this noodlemania: "pork bone," "beef bone" and "pungent and spicy." Note that bones are used to make the broth, and are not in the soup when it arrives. To add variety, there are 21 possible additions to the bowls for $1 each, items such as curdled pig's blood and intestine, but also more mundane accessories like bok choy and chicken wings.
The broths are slightly funky, authentic versions that are not trying to be tuned to Midwestern tastes. Beware that the most offbeat is "pungent and spicy," all oil and hot chili peppers. But the bowls are generous, flavorful and fresh. Additions are of decent quality, a few notable highlights being mushrooms, shrimp wontons and pork belly.
This alternate happy noodle universe has been remodeled since it was an outpost of Vientiane Palace, recently shuttered. The walls have been painted and covered with Americana like posters of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis, beer ads, and other '50s and '60s memorabilia. The resulting vibe is at once perfectly odd, decrepit and hip -- not unlike something out of a Murakami novel or the set of an early Wayne Wang film. It's typical to see young, smartly dressed Asian couples -- she in a Hello Kitty skirt and he with a matching kitten shirt -- busily slurping noodles to the constant beat of Chinese pop music.
Whole barbecue ducks and sides of crisped, tender honey barbecue pork hang above the counter on hooks; both are available for $6.50 per pound. Either can be ordered for on-site dining, but seem to be mostly purchased for takeout. The duck is fine, a hassle-saving and inexpensive shortcut to cooking the oily birds yourself -- ideal for adding to your own soups or stir-fries. The pork is nearly transcendent, slightly crisped and caramelized on the outside, yet tender on the interior, chopped into bite-sized, toothy strips and hunks. If you order it to go, prepare to forgo decorum and eat most of the box on the curb.
There is a surprisingly robust menu of classic Chinese dishes for a noodle shop, which range from appetizers such as meat on a stick to stir-fries and clay pots. Taro eggrolls arrive wonderfully golden-crisp (if not especially out of the ordinary flavor- or texture-wise), as do the cheese crab rangoons. More adventurous diners will be pleased by the barbecue duck kidneys and livers on a stick, although likely more as a novelty than as a staple.
The menu boasts a few vegetarian dishes, a star being Tofu with Eight Treasures, a stir-fry with loads of veggies.
The waitstaff tries to steer western diners away from items on the menu with bones in them, explaining that most find them awkward to eat. But do not be deterred from ordering the salt and pepper spare ribs -- one of the better versions of this dish anywhere, composed of spicy, gorgeously crisped pork on small bones that sometimes are mostly shards. It's work to eat, but there's plenty of utterly addictive meat.
Conversely, the classic chicken with Chinese sausage and black mushroom, which you will also likely be warned not to order, arrives as a version better suited to those who are really missing it. The chicken back pieces are difficult to nibble, and the thin broth-like sauce is redolent of offal. It's delicious comfort food, but not for everyone.
Playing to the shop's strong suit is the excellent Singapore Chow Mei Fun, a heap of thin rice noodles flavored with curry, chock full of peppers, bean sprouts and shrimp, and studded with the honey barbecue pork.
Service can be slightly awkward or even gruff here, and it can be slow. But persistence is rewarded, and diners are remembered when they return. The phone number does not have voicemail and is usually answered only when the shop is operating -- although often not between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m., when it appears the staff take a lunch break themselves. Accept it as part of the charm.
Hong Kong Station is exactly the kind of surprisingly authentic slurp shop serving low-priced fare that Madison has been lacking. If it's true that a city's food scene should be judged not by its high-end restaurants for the well-to-do but by the quality of its inexpensive options for average working folks, then the addition of this non-fussy noodle mecca marks a very important milestone indeed.