West End: 7400 Lakeshore Drive
The Hong Kong is remembered more fondly by more people than any other extinct Chinese restaurant, and for the usual reason: atmospherically, it was unforgettable. Occupying the spot where Brisbi’s is now, its big dining room windows looked out onto the New Basin Canal, the inlet from the lake leading to the New Orleans marina. What could be nicer than a booth next to one of those windows, in a romantically dim dining room, with paper lanterns and dragons all around, and eating an exotic dinner while watching the boats sail by?
Well, I’ll tell you what. All that atmosphere plus good food would have been better. Much better.
The Hong Kong was one of the first New Orleans Chinese restaurants to open outside the French Quarter. That’s where the first efflorescence of Chinese food was, from the 1930s into the 1970s, with concentrations on Bourbon and Decatur Streets. When the Metairie suburbs began to develop in the 1950s, a few Chinese places followed–notably the new House of Lee and the relocated (from the CBD) Canton.
The Hong Kong had a French Quarter connection, but it wasn’t Chinese. The McConnell family owned it, along with the Embers Steak House and a touristy joint called Archie McConnell’s King of Corn. (As in on the cob. The only things missing were the clowns.)
First-generation Asian restaurateurs practice a particular thrift. They made sure that their customers won’t reject their food for reasons of being too bold. This was particularly true of the Metairie Chinese places, which served a style of Cantonese cooking that avoided high spice levels and unusual cuts of meat and poultry. Thus was born a bland, inoffensive style of cooking. Fried rice and egg rolls were the big favorites, and most customers didn’t go much farther than that.
This is what the Hong Kong was serving by the time I got there in 1974. Fortunately for me, by then I was familiar with Gin’s and Fun’s, two French Quarter places good enough to cut loose and create some excitement. The mild cooking of the Hong Kong never compared.
In case you don’t know what I’m talking about here, go to any Chinese restaurant and order chop suey, egg drop soup, chow mein and egg foo yung. Tell them you don’t want anything spicy. What comes out will greatly resemble the Hong Kong dining experience, which didn’t change very much as the decades oozed past.
This opinion comes from a person who has his own mellow memories of the Hong Kong. My first serious girlfriend loved the Hong Kong, as well as the nearby Port Hole, which had approximately the same atmosphere. Every chance we had, we stuffed our hormone-heated bodies in a booth next to a window, ordered fruity rum drinks, and sucked face.
I bring up this unsavory scene because I’ve heard many similar stories from Hong Kong fans, many of whom went there for the first time on their prom nights. It was that kind of place. And it was very cheap. I remember entrees in the $3-5 range. (Catch: the steamed rice was extra, but only about a quarter.)
The Hong Kong was wiped out by Katrina, as the water rose fifteen feet and filled the place with floating debris. The place never came back, although in 2008 Michael Buckley–a coffee importer who was a regular caller on my radio show–told me that he was on the verge of buying the Hong Kong. He said it would reopen soon, but with better food. Unfortunately, Buckley died not long after he told me this. And the next thing that happened was demolition.