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Photograph by Pete Shea
Street Smarts: Rudy and Carolyn Rudolph, owners of Charlie Hong Kong, have hit on a can't-miss formula.

Orient Express

Tiny Charlie Hong Kong transports you to the streets of Asia

By Denise Vivar

I tried to kill a man once. He lived to tell the tale and this is his allegation. The scene of the alleged crime: Charlie Hong Kong. He has since found it in his heart to forgive me, and although I appreciate the gravity of my act, I plead innocent. These days as I sit on the stool watching the world whiz by on Soquel Avenue, waiting for my order to come up, I sometimes muse about that time long ago. I'm drawn to this place, this vortex of energy and memory. With little effort you can imagine Charlie Hong Kong as a food stall on a street in Hong Kong or Chiang Mai. Never mind the Harley Davidson dealer across the street and the heat lamps hanging in the tented dining annex. For 12 hours every day you will usually find the place buzzing and alive with the constant flow of customers coming and going, order numbers being called out from the side window of the tiny kitchen and a frenzy of street traffic for background hum.

I fell in love with a couple dishes here some time ago—even before "the incident"—and have found myself always ordering the same thing with each visit. So in an effort to shake things up a bit I've tried a number of the other dishes and have discovered some new favorites, which I am happy to share.

With the plethora of rice and noodle bowls with exotic sauces and toppings, it has been easy to overlook the simple soup. I was pleased to find the pho ga Vietnamese noodle soup ($4.95) to be soul-satisfying and delicious. The broth is an aromatic blend of soy, sesame, ginger and star anise with a hint of sweetness. This is a fairly large bowl filled with rice noodles, organic Napa cabbage and chicken. Fresh bean sprouts, basil leaves, sliced green chile and limes are served on the side so you can complete the elixir to your liking.

My other new favorite is the Laughing Phoenix Red Curry ($5.75), a big bowl filled with organic yams, carrots, daikon radish, mushrooms and organic greens over jasmine rice. Fifty cents more will get you a substitution of brown rice. Even the name sounds delicious and I'm really taken by the tangy tomato coconut curry sauce in which the vegetables are simmered. Add fresh cilantro, bean sprouts and peanuts and this dish is just right.

All of the rice and noodle dishes can be topped with a serving of garlic tofu, green curry chicken, ginger beef, hoisin pork or teriyaki salmon. My personal favorites have been the green curry chicken ($2.35) and the hoisin pork ($2.50). To avoid the competition of flavors from the other sauces in the noodle and rice dishes I enjoy the chicken or pork over the simply steamed organic vegetable medley ($2.50) of red and green chard, Napa cabbage, broccoli, mustard greens and bok choy.

The green curry chicken is cooked in a mildly spicy coconut curry sauce and finished with mint and cilantro. It is tender and moist and has just enough heat to give it a little bite. The hoisin pork is braised and slow roasted to a falling-off-the chopstick tenderness with a not-too-sweet fresh ginger and hoisin sauce. Both the chicken and the pork make for a tasty topping over the vegetables.

My steadfast tradition is to finish each meal with the chocolate dream cookie ($.85). This cookie really is a dream—ever so slightly crispy on the outside, full of rich, chewy dark chocolate on the inside-—and ground nuts. The nuts were a surprise to me. Who knew? When you're not deathly allergic to a food it can sometimes go unnoticed in the mix. I remember insisting that there were no nuts in this treat before practically force-feeding a bite to my allergic sweetheart; and then the swelling, and the choking, and, oh well, all's well that ends well. He is still a loyal customer and even occasionally buys me a cookie.

Charlie Hong Kong

Address: 1141 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz

Phone: 831.426.5664

Hours: Open daily 11am-11pm

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