In the boom years of the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong people demanded increasingly sophisticated dining options to match their swelling pocketbooks, and what they got was the cha chaan teng.
Cha chaan tengs are to Hong Kongers what diners are to Americans (aptly noted in this 2008 NYT article – not sure if these places still exist, but the summary is still valid). They are nostalgic, no-frills establishments serving comfort food harkening back to the days of British rule. But you won’t find tea and crumpets at cha chaan tengs; like everything else in Hong Kong, a distinct culture and taste pervades the cuisine. They serve a variety of dishes, with the most popular being crispy buns with condensed milk, thick french toast slathered in kaya (coconut egg jam) and butter, instant noodles with a variety of MSG-filled toppings, pork chop buns, beef egg macaroni soup, and egg sandwiches.
One item available at every cha chaan teng is milk tea, the quintessential drink of Hong Kong. It is said the best milk tea is the silk stocking variety, brewed in a silk stocking. Made with several varieties of black tea and evaporated milk, this rich velvety beverage is not for the faint of heart or the lactose intolerant for that matter… and you can even drink it cold, like I sometimes do!
Here are some cha chaan tengs that I have tried:
I have never walked past this cha chaan teng without ten people queuing outside. It is that popular! This little establishment in Wan Chai has cool, retro black and white tiling, Cantopop albums hanging on the wall and a huge spread of the singers’ signatures displayed proudly for all to see. It has a nonsense menu, very clearly laying out all that we love and adore in cha chaan tengs – thick, buttery toast, scrambled or fried eggs with ham and macaroni soup. The sets are simple and cheap as chips at $25 for a breakfast set of macaroni and ham, fried eggs, toast and coffee or tea. The scrambled eggs are smooth and creamy, the toast fat and glistening with buttery goodness and the milk tea sweet and strong to start the day. Shop B1, G/F, Kwong Sang Hong Bldg, 6 Heard St, Wan Chai
I don’t know why it is called Swiss Cafe – there’s no roesti on the menu. There’s one outlet in Central, but I have been to the one in Wan Chai and at lunchtime it is so crowded that we had to order takeaway. I tried chicken in sweet corn sauce, but it had too much MSG for my taste. My colleagues had tried the breakfast (macaroni noodles, ham, soup and toast with butter) and they liked it. Shop B, 1/F, Ming Fung Buliding, 128-150 Wanchai Road, Wan Chai
Tsui Wah Restaurant
Tsui Wah is open 24/7 and there are outlets all around town. Not everyone likes it, but I have always enjoyed the meals I had there. I have tried various fish ball noodle soups, shrimp wontons in soup, malaysian curry and BBQ pork with egg. There are many outlets to choose from, but I have been visiting the one in Wellington Street most of the time. G/F, 84-86 Des Voeux Road Central, Central
And here are some cha chaan teng restaurants recommended by Time Out Hong Kong, which I might try one day:
Australia Dairy Company
Judging solely by the queues outside no matter the day or time, there’s little contest over Australia Dairy Company being the most crowded cha chaan teng in Hong Kong. You don’t need to look at the menu when you come here, you’ll find everyone else eating the same couple of dishes, and you should too; they are famous for making the best scrambled eggs and steamed milk pudding in town. 47 Parkes St, Jordan
Forget your Atkin’s diet, head down to Happy Valley for Cheong Kee’s ultra-thick toast. It is their most loved item on the menu, the toast is crispy on the outside, and as soft and fluffy as a cloud on the inside. Choose from sweet condensed milk, butter and sugar, jam and peanut butter to top it off. Shop 1, 2/F, Wong Nai Chung Complex, Happy Valley
Cheung Lee Restaurant
Kick it old-school with a visit to Cheung Lee, an old and traditional ‘bing sut’. This time-honoured café looks like it hasn’t been redecorated in decades, with its tiled walls and antique cashier machine. All the typical eats are here, but you’ll find most guests chowing down the egg and beef satay toasted sandwiches. 120 Electric Rd, Tin Hau
They don’t just serve the same old Horlicks and Ovaltines here, they serve these staple drinks as icy milkshakes. No cha chaan teng would ever dream of not having eggs on the menu, and this one is no exception with their extraordinarily thick scrambled egg sandwiches; getting your mouth round one will be a hot mess. If eggs aren’t your thing, try the freshly deep-fried wonton served with sweet chili sauce. 40B San Chuen St, Tsuen Wan