In the middle of a neon-lit block in Hong Kong sits a tiny but cheerful café. Cracked yellow-and-white striped tiles line the walls of the dining room where customers squeeze into small booths and around tables for soup, egg sandwiches and steamed milk pudding. A dozen men in white shirts and jeans dart about the restaurant, handing off food and barking questions in English and Cantonese, “Yes? Ready to order?” All while a couple of cooks work furiously away in the steamy stainless steel kitchen.
This is Australia Dairy Company, a cha chaan teng, or tea restaurant as it’s known in Cantonese, which has been serving Western and Hong Kong comfort food for decades. It’s one of many cafes of its ilk thriving in Hong Kong. Cha chaan teng became popular after World War II. The Japanese had surrendered the land to the British, and Western food — from buttered toast with marmalade to Ovaltine malted milk — had become an inextricable part of the local diet. The majority of Hong Kong’s inhabitants were, as they are now, of Chinese descent. So the bo lo baau (pineapple bun) and the char siu (barbecue pork) remained on the menu.
Lucky for us, cha chaan teng don’t seem to be disappearing any time soon, even as monster restaurant chains like Maxim’s and Café de Coral gain a foothold in Hong Kong. At Cross Cafe, in the hilly neighborhood of Sai Ying Pun, take a stool at a long counter in the dining room to try Swiss chicken wings with noodles, an egg and ham pineapple bun, and French toast with red bean paste or Nutella. The black truffle scrambled eggs and the full English breakfast of toast, eggs, grilled chicken, baked beans, sausages, bacon and roasted tomato also do not disappoint.
If you’re burning the midnight oil, track down a Tsui Wah Restaurant. The chain of 26 cha chaan teng in Hong Kong, Macau and mainland China opened its first branch in 1967. The Lan Kwai Fong location is open 24 hours. Its mirrored walls and fake wooden tabletops had the feel of the bar I had just left. But the lights were brighter here and I was drinking a hot cup of milky tea instead of Taiwanese whisky. We ordered a toasted bun with butter and condensed milk, a bitter melon omelette with ketchup and a tasty plate of Hainanese chicken rice. Hangover averted.
Each cha chaan teng I tried in Hong Kong was also quick and affordable — key meal components for the freelance journalist. At Australia Dairy Company, the mother and daughter who shared my table wordlessly slurped down soup while a traveler with a big backpack got scrambled eggs and crustless buttered toast on a kitschy gilded plate.
I ordered from the English menu when prompted: chicken soup with a fried egg, macaroni, sliced ham and char siu. I also asked for a cup of yuanyang, a highly caffeinated light brown drink which is equal parts tea and coffee. My food arrived in just five minutes. I first mixed the saffron-colored egg yolk into the soup, then made quick work of the sweet smoky pieces of barbecue pork and the slivered deli ham — surprisingly good! The soft macaroni came next, making way for my favorite part of the meal: the chicken broth. Clear, salty and very hot, each bite left me feeling more fortified than the one before. When my big bowl of soup was finished, I signaled for the bill, paid the nice woman at the door $58 Hong Kong dollars, the equivalent of roughly $7 US, then stepped back into the humid neon-lit afternoon, another satisfied customer.
Live in Los Angeles? Visit a Hong Kong-style cafe right here in the San Gabriel Valley.
ALL PHOTOS BY STAN LEE, FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH STUDIOS AND 2016 JAMES BEARD FOUNDATION VISUAL STORYTELLING AWARD WINNER