Q: Forty-six years ago I went to the South Pacific Polynesian Restaurant in downtown Chicago with some girlfriends. They had the best Hong Kong steak with grill marks and a nice gravy with vegetables. A few years later returning with my fiance, the restaurant was gone. Is there a way we can get the recipe?
--Su Garrou, Addison, Ill.
A: There is no "official" South Pacific Restaurant recipe for Hong Kong steak, according to Wayne Sit Jr., son of the owner, Wayne C. Sit, who died in 2006 at the age of 88. Fortunately, the dish is very easy to make, especially since so many supermarkets carry fresh Asian vegetables these days.
"Hong Kong Steak is basically a nice T-bone steak on a bed of stir fried Chinese vegetables,'' wrote Sit, a Skokie resident, in an email. "It was pretty popular."
The steak would be seasoned with salt and pepper and cooked on a hot grill for the char marks, he recalled in a telephone interview. The vegetables included sliced water chestnuts, pea pods, baby bok choy and oyster sauce was used for seasoning, he says.
Elaine Sit, Wayne's sister, remembers Hong Kong steak as a "wonderful piece of meat" that she didn't get to try too often as she was family and not a paying customer. She recalls the steak being a porterhouse (which is similar to a T-bone) and that it was "the full Monty and close to an inch thick,'' she recalled.
Monica Eng, my former Tribune colleague, is cousin to the Sits, a food reporter at WBEZ-FM and co-host of station's weekly podcast, "Chewing the Fat." The dish was "was probably a rarity in China and Hong Kong. But it was the height of Chicago Chinese food of a certain era,'' wrote Eng, whose late grandfather was the famed Chicago restaurateur, Harry Eng.
I've got to tell you, Su Garrou, that your question and memory of South Pacific restaurant, really delighted the Sits.
"My happiest times were in the restaurant business,'' Elaine Sit recalls.
The South Pacific Restaurant and Guam Outpost lounge were located in The Loop at 28-30 W. Randolph St., which is home to the Oriental Theatre. The elder Wayne Sit opened the restaurant in 1954, shortly after he arrived in Chicago (where he worked first for Harry Eng at the famed Hoe Sai Gai restaurant). The Guam Outpost was on street level, the restaurant was a floor below.
"Cantonese and Chinese dishes have always been good," wrote Kay Loring, the Tribune columnist and restaurant critic, in an Oct. 31, 1969, column on the restaurant's newly remodeled interior. "But deterrents for many have been the garish block in which the restaurant is located, and the somewhat bleak and dreary dining room of barn-like proportion."
"It's still a garish block," she added, "and the dining room with its hard tile floor is still far from opulent. But it's cheerful now and more comfortable with the old soot-blackened bamboo painted warm vermilion; artificial tropical trees growing amusingly from structural pillars, and beaded curtains all around."
Loring enjoyed a "late dinner" of "tasty lobster Cantonese, Hong Kong steak with crisp Chinese vegetables, fried rice, pressed duck" and tea. Starters included "especially good Cantonese fried shrimp."
South Pacific closed in early 1981, Eileen Sit says.
I didn't find a recipe for Hong Kong Steak attributed to the South Pacific in the Tribune archives. There was this recipe from the "Wife's Night Out" column by Johnrae Earl published Oct. 27, 1977. It is roughly similar to descriptions of the Hong Kong steak served at South Pacific as recalled by the Sits, by Eng, and by another cousin, Rich Go, whose father, Tom, was the late Mr. Sit's nephew and one of the restaurant managers.
Give the recipe from Earl's column a try. I haven't made it, yet, but I think the recipe is a little too skimpy on vegetables. Who ever heard of 2 tablespoons of sliced mushrooms or bamboo shoots? Eyeball and improvise accordingly. Elaine Sit suggests straw mushrooms and recommends using fresh vegetables. While the recipe doesn't specifically say it, I suspect it may have been written with canned vegetables in mind. Fresh or canned, use what's best and what's available to you.
Hong Kong steak
Makes: Two servings
A recipe from Johnrae Earl's "Wife's Night Out" column, published in the Chicago Tribune on Oct. 27, 1977. He credits as its source the Dragon Castle Restaurant in Whiting, Ind. Serve the steak with rice, Earl instructs.
2 1/2 teaspoons oil
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
2 teaspoons sake or dry sherry wine
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons each: sliced mushrooms, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots.
2 ounces each: Chinese pea pods, Chinese cabbage (bok choy), sliced
1 strip steak (12 ounces)
Combine in mixing bowl 1/2 teaspoon of the oil, oyster sauce, sake, soy sauce, cornstarch, sugar and 2 tablespoons water. Blend well; set aside. Heat remaining oil in wok or large skillet to smoking point. Put all vegetables into wok and cook and stir 2 minutes. Add seasoning mixture and cook and stir until gravy is lightly thickened and clear. Keep warm but do not cook further. Meanwhile, broil steak to medium rare and cut into 1/2-inch slices. Put vegetables on a hot serving platter, top with steak slices and serve immediately.
Do you have a question about food or drink? E-mail Bill Daley at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Snail mail inquiries should be sent to: Bill Daley, Chicago Tribune, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago 60611. Twitter @billdaley.