There’s a bit of nostalgia at the new pop-up Four Kings, where the team puts out a menu of Cantonese food favorites seen through a fine dining lens. Chefs Franky Ho and Mike Long, as well as their respective partners Millie Boonkokua and Lucy Li, are the minds behind Four Kings, which is popping up on Wednesdays at San Francisco bar Buddy through the month of June. Ho, Long, and Boonkokua all worked at Michelin-starred Mister Jiu’s, and while there imagined what their dream restaurant space would look like. “We found that we’re very much aligned in what we want to do,” Long says. “We talked about Hong Kong street food, like dai pai dongs and the kind of food that we grew up eating that’s not necessarily available in the same way that we remember having it. That was the discussion that led us to think about maybe partnering up and doing something together after Mister Jiu’s.”
They officially launched Four Kings in January — named after the Four Heavenly Kings of Cantopop in the 1990s — and serve “Canto nostalgia,” as the @fourkings__ Instagram puts it. To be clear, Four Kings isn’t a fine dining restaurant experience, despite the team working at restaurants such as Champa Garden (Ho), as well as Bestia and Son of a Gun (Long); instead, Li likens it more to “an izakaya-type restaurant, but for Chinese food, which we hadn’t really seen commonly in the food space — so we felt that it was a very exciting endeavor to pursue.”
Dishes draw inspiration from Hong Kong cafes or the small bites of Japanese izakayas. Pointing to the Four Kings’ pork chop tomato rice at a previous pop-up held at Louie’s, Long says they took the “fan favorite” pork chop rice from cha chaan tengs but gave it more of a Japanese oyakodon treatment. The rice is cooked in lard, mixed with peas and brunoised carrots, then topped with a tomato sauce and scrambled egg. The pork katsu portion of the dish, meanwhile, is brined for two days before it’s breaded and fried, then a pile of mozzarella is layered on top before being torched to order for each customer.
Ho previously cooked in China, and brings his knowledge of Chinese food to the forefront with both him and Long drawing on the flavors they experienced in Hong Kong and the Canton region. A fried squab dish takes a week of prep, Ho says, and is seasoned with five spice and deep fried to order to give it “shattering crunch.” A recent customer told the team the dish took them back to their childhood, which is exactly the type of feeling they were looking to evoke. Other dishes are just favorites they’ve honed over the years, such as a mapo spaghetti dish that was a family meal favorite from Ho. An escargot appetizer is topped with in-house-made XO butter, while a black bean clam dish is made with meatier mussels and finished off with green garlic butter, for a different take. It’s not strictly traditional, and it’s not the tweezered food of the fine dining world, but everything is grounded in techniques that lift each dish.
The Four Kings team eventually hopes to open their own restaurant and is currently looking for a space that highlights their personalities and style of food. “I think it’s more than just a food experience,” Long says. “We’re looking for spaces that allow us to have that kind of dynamic together, paired with the food that we’re serving, which is tied to the Cantonese Hong Kong food that we grew up with. It draws a fun, relaxed environment where people can hopefully try something that they haven’t had before.”