Dim sum is arguably the most celebrated and ubiquitous culinary import from Hong Kong to the United States and Canada. For most people, it’s easy to understand why – it’s affordable, nearly all items are delicious, and they come in small plates allowing you to try a variety. Its large footprint and fairly universal acclaim across the Pacific might make you think it’s the thing Hong Kongers eat all day, everyday. But while dim sum is certainly popular, I can tell you what is even more ever present in Hong Kong: Cha Chaan Tengs (茶餐廳) more commonly known in the US as Hong Kong (style) cafes.
Cha Chaan Tengs (茶餐廳)
I grew up eating at cha chaan tengs, but since there were none in San Diego those meals would only be during our monthly drives up to the San Gabriel Valley. Like many in Hong Kong, we would generally go there to eat for a late dinner or where no one in the family could make up their mind on what type of food we wanted to eat for dinner. But given that there weren’t that many cha chaan tengs in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s and early 2000s, especially compared to restaurants that served dim sum and seafood, I thought they were mildly popular but not super common in Hong Kong. That assumption was immediately proven wrong on my trip. On some blocks there wouldn’t just be one cha chaan teng, but maybe five or even six of these restaurants ranging from small mom and pops to large chains.
The popularity of cha chaan tengs come from their early roots in the 1960s and 1970s. With the industrialization of Hong Kong and the influence of British culture, many working families want to eat more western food and drink, especially British tea, at an affordable price. What grew out of this trend were two important culinary developments:
- Hong Kong style milk tea (奶茶) – a milk tea made with a strong blend of black tea with evaporated milk and sugar or condensed milk (to imitate the afternoon tea of upper class British). A really popular version is the yin yeung (鴛鴦) where drip coffee and the brewed tea is mixed and then added with the evaporated or condensed milk.
- Soy sauce western food (豉油西餐) – Chinese style western food like a pork chop with a Chinese style mushroom sauce and spaghetti noodles, soy sauce marinated roasted chicken, and Chinese style Russian borscht typically made with more tomato with little to no beets.
Since the 1960s and 1970s the menus have expanded even further to include wonton noodle soup, sandwiches, instant ramen in tomato broth, and thick toast with spreads like peanut butter. In many cha chaan tengs the menu isn’t just on a paper booklet handed to you, but also on a paper under the glass table top and scribbled on paper taped to the walls. And while this is really just a brief description of what a cha chaan teng is and what it serves, the gist is that these restaurants are enormously popular as a sense of nostagia for young and middle aged people in Hong Kong as well as a place to go if you’re hungry and need to eat a late lunch, late dinner, or post nightlife sustenance.
It’s like if a large city in the United States had streets upon streets filled with diners (in addition to other restaurants) where the diners served everything from burgers to kung pao chicken, and many people came there to eat a late afternoon snack or late evening meal. Given all of that, it starts to make sense how I ate more meals at cha chaan tengs than I ate dim sum in Hong Kong. Below are my thoughts on each of them:
Goldfinch Restaurant (金雀餐廳)
G/F, 13-15 Lan Fong Rd
Dripped in a lot of 1960s nostalgia, Goldfinch is mostly known as the setting for two Wong Kar-Wai films, In the Mood for Love and 2046. However, it also has a part in my family’s history as it is where my mom’s side ate a number of meals and loved their Russian soup. It’s pretty fitting that my first visit to a cha chaan teng like restaurant is a family patronized place famous for its nostalgic soy sauce western food and decor. I ordered one of their famous set meals, the black pepper steak, which came with the following:
- Russian Soup – While I know my family loves this soup and it’s something they fell in love with, I got to say that it’s only okay. The flavor of the tomato, cabbage, and other vegetables are on the milder side and I prefer the spicier, heartier version of the family recipe I’m used to. It’s definitely decent though a touch bit disappointing given the hype.
- Black Pepper Steak – I don’t have a photo, but the dish was served on a black skillet in a shape of a cow. Regardless of the presentation, the steak was seasoned well and cooked to the nice medium-rare that I wanted with a decent blend of steamed vegetables to balance all the meat. The french fries felt weird as a starch, but I have to remember this is Chinese interpretation of a western meal rather than a meal I would order and get at a Denver steakhouse, Ruth Chris, or even Black Angus.
But despite some of the issues I had with the food, I can definitely see why my family loved and still loves the place. Goldfinch is nostalgic and iconic and there are some places that you just go to time and time again from your childgood that might not be the best anymore, but means a lot to you. It’s why some older Chinese people in the US still go to restaurants that opened decades ago and aren’t remotely at the same quality of some of their newer competitors, but it was the first restaurant they ate at which felt like a reasonable taste of home.
Tsui Wah (翠華餐廳)
G/F-2/F, 15-19 Wellington Street
My next cha chaan teng experience was at Tsui Wah, a modern cha chaan teng chain with locations across Hong Kong and now into Mainland China. In my experience, and in talking to my currently Hong Kong based cousin, I feel it’s like a Hong Kong version of IHOP – an affordable, late night (if not 24 hour) chain serving decent food to a wide breadth of people. I went on a Monday night for a relatively late dinner and ordered the following.
- Milk Tea – Tsui Wah’s milk tea is made with tea leaves and evoporated milk. It’s not very sweet and the tea is fairly strong. I preferred it a little sweeter, though I probably should have just added sugar to mix with it to get the desired sweetness I wanted.
- Hainanese Chicken Rice – One of their signature items, the rich dish comes with decently poached chicken, flavorful rice, several dipping sauces, rather bland pickled cabbage, and “home made” soup. The chicken was nice and moist, though I was a little disappoined that the chicken came in boneless. Nonetheless, a solid Cantonese version of the dish and I did really love the pork soup that tasted very homey to me.
- Garlic poached pea shoots – I orginally ordered some chinese broccoli but once I saw on the table that they had pea shoots, which I love, for cheaper, I immediately switched my order. The vegetables were cooked with relatively little flavor and while I definitely like the basic flavor of pea shoots, I wish they were stir fried instead.
All in all, I can definitely see why it’s such a well established chain that a restaurant in San Mateo attempts to imitate their brand and flavor. I’ll definitely be back to one the next time I’m in Hong Kong, especially after a late night out.
Hong Kong Day (香港地)
Shop P102, P1/F The Peak Tower
Hong Kong Day is a smaller chain brand that’s part of the larger Maxim’s Group (which also has bakeries in many MTR stations and popular dim sum and seafood restaurants). It is not as well known as Tsui Wah and the menu is a bit smaller, but it’s very similar in terms of decor, food quality, and service. Since my other options eating at the Peak were rather limited to touristy Western restaurants or another meal at Tsui Wah, I decided to try Hong Kong Day out and ordered the following:
- Lettuce in Oyster Sauce – Unlike the Tim Ho Wan version of this dish where the sauce was more cooked in with the lettuce, at Hong Kong Day they literally threw blotches of oyster sauce on top of quickly poached lettuce. While I get that vegetables definitely are more a throwaway item on these menus, the lettuce here was both visually and orally unappetizing.
- Singapore Style Rice Noodles – Singapore style rice noodles at cha chaan tengs are basically a Cantonese, mild version of Singaporean mee siam. In this way, the Hong Kong Day version was nice in that it had perfectly cooked noodles, a reasonable but not overpowering amount of sauce, and relatively generous amounts of shrimp and meat but it was otherwise unremarkable.
- Milk Tea – I actually liked the milk tea more here but I think it’s because Hong Kong Day adds more sugar and I like a balance that is just a touch but not too much on the sweet side.
All in all, Hong Kong Day in spectacularly mediocre. The meal served its purpose as a quick and reasonably priced meal when visiting the touristy Peak but otherwise I’d stick to Tsui Wah.
Kam Wah (金華冰廳)
G/F, 47 Bute Street
Kam Wah is a very much old school mom and pop style cha chaan teng. In fact, from the name you can see that it keeps to more of the origins of a cha chaan teng called itself an “ice restaurant” (冰廳) which is a cross between an “ice room” (冰室), a term for a quick service cafe starting in the 1940s that served ice drinks and snacks/pastries that were the earlier cousins of cha chaan tengs, and a cha chaan teng. While their menu has expanded over the years to include various cha chaan teng dishes, they are mostly known for their milk tea and Cantonese pastries which is exactly what I ordered as a quick afternoon snack on a Tuesday.
- Milk Tea – This was probably my favorite milk tea of the whole trip. The tea was strong, but balanced out very well with the evaporated milk and enough sugar to make it sweet but not too sweet as I often find in US restaurants.
- Pineapple Bun – As I’ve stated before, pineapple buns aren’t really made of pineapples but are rather buns that have a sweet crust thaat look like a pineapple when baked. These are the buns that Kam Wah is famous for and I can see why. The bread is fresh, warm, and light but with good buttery flavor and the crust is sweet and flakey without easily flaking off the bread. A more decadent version called Bolo Yau is when the bun is sliced and a thick slice of butter is inserted to melt into the bun.
This late afternoon snack truly explained why my mom loved milk tea and pineapple buns, even though it was unlikely she actually ever went to Kam Wah. While I have been used to hours and almost day old pineapple buns that are stiff and blander in the US as of late (even at vaunted Cantonese bakeries like Kee Wah), these buns restored my love for these delicious buns.
City Cafe (香城茶室)
1/F, Hong Kong Museum of History
Chatham Road South
Tsim Sha Tsui
In an interesting twist, my last cha chaan teng on my trip was at the Hong Kong Museum of History. Yes, cha chaan tengs are so ubiquitous that the only option for a meal in the museum is their independently contracted cha chaan teng that’s situated on the floor in between their exhibits. So once I finished the ground floor exhibit on prehistoric and dynastic Hong Kong, I ate a late lunch and ordered their Curry Beef lunch set
- Curry Beef Rice – The curry was nice and they gave me a decent proportion of beef, potatoes, and currents. It was definitely a small step up from most cafeteria food, but I can’t say it would win any superlative awards. The rice was cooked decently.
- Milk Tea – The hot milk tea was decent and a little sweeter than the Tsui Wah version, though I’ll be honest in saying that I was almost “milk tea’d out” as it was near the end of the trip.
All in all, I would say it was pretty good for a museum, especially one that is older and hasn’t yet done an upscale transformation like several art museums in the US. I appreciate that it has a decent variety of options despite a relatively small menu that only spans one single sided piece of paper printed on both sides.
Cha Chaan Teng Thoughts
If you’ve read through my entire post, you will have seen a lot of comments about how the food was “alright” or “average” which might be taken as a slight. In this case, it isn’t really. The point and ubiquity of cha chaan tengs are to provide quick, decent, affordable meals for working families and people in Hong Kong. There’s no Michelin Star cha chaan teng as there are of restaurants serving dim sum because it’s not meant to be a high end, magical dining experience. Cha chaan tengs, I feel, perfectly encapsulate Hong Kong. Hong Kong is a place that is magical, but the people don’t have a lot of time and many people don’t have a lot of money. Thus cha chaan tengs allow the vast majority of Hong Kong to eat quick, to eat at any time of day with or without friends, to eat reasonably good food without breaking the bank. And if you gave me the option of 10 meals in a row at a cha chaan teng or 10 meals in a row of dim sum, I’m picking the cha chaan teng.