Eating Fried Balloons

The first thing we saw in front of Shiqi Lao were two cooks frying what appeared to be big balloons of dough. They repeatedly turned the giant puffs in their woks so that they would be evenly fried and crispy. In front of the cooks were finished fried puffs, waiting to be brought to expectant diners.

The fried puffs are one of the many local dishes served at Shiqi Lao, which specializes in food from Zhongshan's surrounding villages. The restaurant's rather gaudy exterior, with a 10-foot cartoon pigeon, disguises the fact that it is a foodie haven. Hong Kongers flood the dining room on weekends, taking a 3-hour bus ride just for great inexpensive eating. My family and friends in Zhongshan know to go on weekdays, when they can eat with slightly smaller crowds.

As eyesore-ish the outside was, I was impressed by what the restaurant did with the interior. From the tin panels on the ceiling, I guessed the space used to be a factory or warehouse. Overhead lights were woven like elaborate wicker baskets. You could choose between regular tables or booths in boat-like structures.

We walked through the live seafood tanks and filmed a bit, including when a fish flopped out of a pail, in an ill-fated attempt to escape its fate. (See video.)

The fried balloon that came to our table was still warm, fresh from the wok. Some sticky rice, puffed up like popcorn, weighs down the bottom from the inside so the ball doesn't roll off the plate. We poked through with chopsticks, then ripped it down the middle. Then we pulled it apart like naan and savored every sweetened, fried bite.

Zhongshan's most famous dish is roast squab (pigeon.) Most restaurants here have it on the menu, but Shiqi Lao's was the juiciest I've tasted, with the skin being perfectly crisp, not too dry. Other dishes included seafood fried rice, tofu with minced pork, and stir-fried noodles with veggies. The pineapple buns, which got their names from the top's resemblance to the fruit but usually doesn't contain any, were actually filled with fresh pineapple. (Jacob: "They remind me of the mushrooms in Super Mario Brothers.") For dessert, we had white bun-shaped puffs called Snowballs, which had the texture of Peeps and were filled with sweetened red bean paste. They were pretty sugary compared with most Chinese pastries, and I could manage only one after a delicious but mostly fried meal.

As we were leaving I noticed there were almost double the number of people as when we first arrived. Gotta love a place that is still packed at 2:30 in the afternoon.

Shiqi Lao
66 Shiqi Kanghuo Road
Phone: 0760-8707708