By the time I arrive for a mid-afternoon interview at HK B.B.Q. Master (145-4651 No. 3 Road), the tantalizing items in the window are already substantially depleted. The renowned barbecue shop is so popular that those-in-the-know get there early in the day to avoid disappointment.
I’m here to chat with owner and BBQ Master Eric Leung who quickly introduces me to his brother, Robbin, who takes care of the business administration, and his son, Anson, who is gradually learning the craft from his dad. “I do everything!” Anson jokes. They’re a hard working family, deeply passionate and exacting about the food they produce.
Countless winner of Best B.B.Q. Shop in the Chinese Restaurant Awards, HK B.B.Q. Master has deservedly garnered a reputation for the best quality Chinese barbecue meat in town. I remember the first time I visited. My uncle, who had moved to the Lower Mainland from Hong Kong, was raving about a place he had discovered on the ground floor of the Superstore complex in Richmond. I was dubious. The place was small and non-descript, but once I tasted the meat, I was irrevocably sold.
Leung’s path to barbecue expertise is one characterized by sacrifice and considerable toil. Born in Hong Kong to an impoverished family, Leung was forced to grow up quickly. At fourteen, he found a job at a Cantonese restaurant where he worked tirelessly, doing all the dirty work the other workers assigned him. After slaving a minimum of eleven hours a day, Leung would collapse into bed at the restaurant. In any given month, he was granted only two days off. He says, fortunately, working conditions have improved since then.
“I didn’t know how to enjoy or not enjoy cooking. At that time, it was about survival,” recalls Leung. Although cooks couldn’t be bothered to teach him explicitly, Leung managed to pick up some techniques during the day-to-day rhythms of the kitchen.
After five years there, he moved on to a barbecue meat shop, away from “all the angry guys in the kitchen.” Leung liked barbecue because he got the chance to interact with customers as he took their orders and chopped their meat. During the next twenty years, Leung worked at a variety of different barbecue restaurants and shops in Hong Kong, honing the skills he would eventually apply to his own business.
In 1992, on a whim, Leung moved to Canada. “I was still young. I just wanted to try a new place. I just came,” he explains. He quickly found that barbecue jobs were hard to come by here, eventually settling on a position at a shop in Coquitlam. When his boss there decided to move back to Hong Kong and sell his shop in 2001, Leung knew it was time to try his own barbecue venture. He saw an ad in a newspaper for the Superstore location and decided to launch HK B.B.Q. Master.
For the first few years, when he was building the business, Leung continued his workhorse lifestyle with fifteen hour shifts, six days a week. He explains that in Hong Kong, there are two types of barbecue meat: the kind found in markets and shops sold by the pound, and the kind served in restaurants, using higher quality ingredients and cooking techniques sold by the dish. With his experience with both kinds, Leung’s aim was to offer customers the best of both worlds by crafting excellent products at affordable prices.
He explains that Chinese barbecue takes immense skill and endurance for it to be done right. “It’s about fire and knives,” he says. Basically, cooks have to get used to extremely hot working conditions, as well as wielding extremely sharp knives. He explains that it takes a barbecue professional to be able to gauge temperature, monitor and adjust the heat, and determine how long to leave the meat in the oven, depending on the type of meat and its size.
The shop offers the following items for take-out, as well as sit-in dining: roast pork, barbecued pork, barbecued duck, barbecued spareribs, barbecued liver, poached free range chicken, soy sauce chicken, and pi pa (butterflied and roasted) duck.
With each product, Leung prides himself on using top-notch meat, sourced from the Lower Mainland and Alberta. “Just give me the fresh one. I don’t mind if the price is a little higher,” he says. With marinades, he aims for balance and avoids the use of artificial dyes and overpowering spices that often mask an inferior product. “I try to get the natural taste of the meat,” he says.
He also says that, unlike some establishments, HK B.B.Q. Master slowly cooks the meat to make it extremely tender and less oily. This process requires that cooks pay close attention to the meat in the ovens, and results in lower yield, since more fat gets melted away. Both of these factors increase the cost of production, but Leung feels that the end products make it worthwhile.
The roast pork, for example, is revelatory: crispy skin giving way to tender, perfectly salted meat.
The duck, meanwhile, is a gorgeous amber colour, with the meat juicy and full of natural flavour.
And the succulent barbecued pork showcases the sweetness of the marinade without it being overpowering.
After decades of hard work, Leung is finally scaling back his active involvement in the shop. He mentors the cooks who each specialize in a type of meat, as well as his son Anson who left a career in architecture five months ago in order to help in the family business. Asked whether he’ll ever open another location of HK B.B.Q. Master, Leung laughs and shakes his head. “I’ll let my son do it,” he says.
Recipe for Oven-Roasted Chicken Wings
- 10-12 chicken wings
- 1 1/2 tsp sand ginger powder
- 1 tsp garlic powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- 1 tsp rice wine
- Clean chicken wings and dry them with a paper towel (or allow them to dry).
- Stir all the other ingredients together and marinade the chicken wings in the mixture for at least one hour.
- Bake in the oven for 25-30 minutes at 220C (428F).