I’ve noticed some curious things about Hong Kong after being here for one month, like the affinity for queuing, plethora of herbal tea and jelly shops, and constant shopping and eating. Most curious of all, though, is the cha chaan teng, a Hong Kong culinary institution adored by locals and foreigners alike.
Cha chaan tengs are to Hong Kongers what diners are to Americans (aptly noted in this excellent NYT article). 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–you guessed it!–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.
I headed to two of Hong Kong’s most famous cha chaan tengs: Lan Fong Yuen and Tsui Wah. Though both are classic cha chaan tengs, they could not be more different from one another, showcasing the diversity and evolution of this long-standing Hong Kong tradition.
Lan Fong Yuen is arguably one of the most famous cha chaan tengs in Hong Kong, garnering nearly 500 reviews on Open Rice. Tucked in a tiny shack underneath the Mid-Levels escalator, the no-frills interior belies some tasty, albeit greasy, cha chaan teng fare.
I ordered their famous iced milk tea (dong nai cha 冻奶茶), pork chop bun (zhu pa bao 豬排飽), and kaya french toast (jiayang xiduoshi 咖央西多士), which came to a total of $44 HKD ($5.65 USD). Lan Fong Yuen is most famous for its stocking milk tea, which I thought was good, but not life-changing. Perhaps I will order the hot version next time, as the tea quickly became diluted due to the melting ice. (Ironically, even the diluted version may have been too rich for me, as I felt sick after!)
The pork chop bun and french toast were tasty, but greasy. Thin pork chops marinated in soy sauce were nestled into a toasted hamburger bun, slathered with mayo. Slices of tomato balanced out the greasiness. The kaya french toast was covered in butter and artery-clogging kaya egg jam, but that may have added to its appeal. This is definitely a dish that I could get used to on a lazy, hung-over Sunday morning. (It was so good that I started eating it before I remembered to take a photo!)
For an authentic cha chaan teng experience, head to Lan Fong Yuen–but make sure it is before 6:00pm, as it closes early. (Also closed on Sundays.)
In contrast to the cramped quarters at Lan Fong Yuen, Tsui Wah offers a bigger, glitzier space–3 stories to be exact. With locations across Hong Kong and Kowloon open 7 days a week 24 hours a day, it is definitely one of the most convenient cha chaan tengs around. And while some locals will turn up their noses to Tsui Wah, I thought the food was consistently good.
I have eaten at Tsui Wah on two occasions. The first time, I ordered the Chiu Chow fish ball noodle soup and condensed milk bun (about HKD $44). I really enjoyed the fish ball noodles. The broth was soothing and satisfying, and surprisingly not fishy at all. The fish balls were pleasantly chewy and a nice interlude in between slurping up the rice noodles.
I’m not an expert on milk buns, so I can’t tell you if this was a particularly good one. What I can tell you is this was not bad–how could anyone go wrong with a crispy bun slathered in butter and sweet condensed milk? Though at first I thought I was too full to eat the whole thing, it somehow disappeared a few minutes later.
For my second meal at Tsui Wah, I ordered the Hainanese chicken and rice ($55 HKD, or $7 USD). Hainanese chicken is popular in Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand, in addition to its country of origin, China. It involves poaching a while chicken and cooking the rice in chicken broth.
Tsui Wah’s version was surprisingly good. I appreciated that they deboned the chicken, as most restaurants serve it with the bone-in. Both the chicken and rice were flavorful and not too oily, even more delicious when dipped in the accompanying sauces (one was a watered down sweet oyster sauce and the other was a slightly spicy peanut fish sauce). Broth and pickled vegetables came on the side, rounding out a hearty meal.
From old-school to ultra-modern, Hong Kong has tons of cha chaan tengs to choose from. If you’re in the SAR, make sure to try what is definitely one of Hong Kong’s most interesting and retro culinary traditions.
Lan Fong Yuen
2 Gage Street
Central, Hong Kong
(852) 2544 3895
G/F-2/F 15-19 Wellington St.
Central, Hong Kong
(852) 2525 6338