Cha chaan teng cheat sheet: What to order at the most popular eateries in Hong Kong

Cha chaan teng cheat sheet: What to order at the most popular eateries in Hong Kong

When the menus contain hundreds of items, whip this out and order
cha chaan teng
Overwhelmingly plentiful at a Hong Kong cha chaan teng.

Cha chaan tengs fuel Hong Kong. These local diners are where Hong Kongers sate their appetite for almost anything at almost any time.

They operate round-the-clock, serving distinctly indigenous comfort food with no-nonsense service and an atmosphere of bustling industriousness.

Cha chaan teng culture came of age in the 1950s when Hong Kong’s increasingly cosmopolitan and westernized middle classes began to broaden their palates.

The result is a melange of tastes that fuses the cuisines of the various transient populations of Hong Kong into a new pastiche cuisine: accidental fusion food. 

It lacks a singular definition and there are nearly no parameters. The menu at a typical cha chaan teng is seemingly endless in scope. Written on paper and taped to the walls, they extend wall-to-wall like a madman’s scrawl.

In addition to the language barrier that exists for non-Cantonese speakers, this is all enough to make neophytes shy away.

Here's a short guide that highlights several surefire cha chaan teng dishes. 

cha chaan tengTai Fat's golden milk tea is the perfect pick-me-up.

Delicious to a tea

Cha chaan teng literally means "tea restaurant" -- the drink has an important role at these establishments.

A light, weak tea is served to all customers as soon as they sit down. Some choose to use this to clean their utensils, but really it's for drinking.

The good stuff is the Hong Kong-style milk tea. This iconic drink made from a mixture of strong black teas with a lot of creamy milk should be an ocher-colored, velvet-smooth, mellow yet fragrant concoction.

A milk tea done right will distinguish a cha chaan teng from the crowd and garner legions of loyal customers.

Try one, hot or cold, sweetened or sugar-free, at Tai Fat Restaurant.

Also on CNNGo: Best milk teas in Hong Kong

Tai Fat Restaurant 大發餐廳開心菜館 HK$13 Shop 5, Beauty Court Shopping Centre, 4212-4213 Hung Shui Kiu section of Castle Peak Road, Yuen Long, New Territories; +852 2443 5533

cha chaan tengInstant noodles become instant gourmet at Lan Fong Yuen.

Instantly gratifying 

Instant noodles have figured into the cuisine of Hong Kong since the 1960s when the “Doll Noodle” brand hit its shores. Since then, cha chaan tengs have served up instant noodles in endless variations.

Our favorite way of eating instant noodles at a cha chaan teng is to order them with stir-fried meat. Hong Kong’s finest representative of this is the scallion and chicken cutlet version at Lan Fong Yuen, a landmark cha chaan teng located in the shadow of the Mid-Levels escalator.

The noodles, sticky and chewy, are drizzled with soy sauce and topped with chicken with a strong ginger and scallion sauce.

Yes, these are the same instant noodles that you’ve likely made at home, but so much better.

Come for lunch (they close at 6 p.m.) and be prepared to wait in line. 

Stir-fried instant noodles with scallion oil and sliced chicken cutlet 蔥油雞扒撈丁 HK$42 includes coffee or tea at Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園 2 Gage St., Central; +852 2544 3895

cha chaan teng"Oil and sand" toast at Cheung Kee -- or what we like to call "The Iraq."

Propose a toast

French toast is neither French nor toast per se, so the fact that the Hong Kong version forges new culinary ground is not necessarily blasphemous.

Hong Kong-style French toast is, however, a potential coronary on a plate. A common version amounts to what is essentially a syrup-slathered, deep-fried peanut butter sandwich.

Si Yik, a small, no-frills eatery adjoining Stanley Market, seems far from the tourist hordes that proliferate nearby. More of a dai pai dong (outdoor food stall) than a cha chaan teng per se, it happens to serve the best version of Hong Kong-style French toast in all of Hong Kong.

Kaya, a sweet coconut jam popular in Southeast Asian countries, is smeared between two slices of bread, and the whole thing is lightly fried, which preserves the fluffiness of the interior.

Or have a French toast stuffed with satay beef slices if you dare. Available at Lok Yuen in the culinary mecca, Kowloon City.

Also of note in the toast category is the “oil sand” thick toast at Cheong Kee, a cha chaan teng-style eatery located in the Wong Nai Chung Cooked Food Centre in Happy Valley.

Unbelievably thick slices of bread are perfectly toasted, yielding a crusty exterior and a soft, steaming interior. The golden surface is topped with a light coating of butter (“oil”) and a sprinkling of white sugar granules (“sand”), resulting in the perfect crunchy, savory-sweet concoction.

Kaya French toast 咖央西多士 HK$22 Si Yik 泗益 2 Stanley Market St., Stanley; +852 2813 0503; French toast stuffed with satay beef 沙爹牛肉西多士 Lok Yuen, Kowloon City Municipal Services Building, 100 Nga Tsin Wai Road, Kowloon City; “Oil sand” thick toast 油沙厚多士 $10 Cheong Kee 昌記 2/F, Wong Nai Chung Complex, 2 Yuk Sau St., Happy Valley; +852 2573 5910

cha chaan tengChoosing is for losers. Win it all in a set meal.

You're set

Walk into any cha chaan teng and the ubiquitous menu -- scrawled on all four walls, etched into the mirrors, perched in plastic holders on each table -- threatens to immediately overwhelm you with choices.

Do you order noodles? Rice? Toast? A sandwich? Do you wash it down with lemon tea? Milk tea? Ovaltine? Horlicks? Ribena?

To add to the pressure, the waitress hovers over you, tapping her pen impatiently. Sit tight: your savior comes in the form of the set meal. There are always a few choices, either grouped by letter or by type (fast set, nutritious set, special set, normal set), and they each usually feature a soup, a main course and a drink.

Sun Wah Café serves the Rolls-Royce of set meals, and you can enjoy it in the midst of a decor that feels positively old-school.

Special set includes satay beef Doll noodles, a ham omelet, and milk tea 特餐 HK$29 Sun Wah Café 新華茶餐廳 334 Castle Peak Road, Cheung Sha Wan; +852 2387 3698

cha chaan tengPineapple bun: baked goods heavyweight champion.

Poeticized buns

The Cantonese love to poeticize food names based on visual cues. Chicken feet are euphemized as "phoenix claws" and a noodle dish might well become “three rivers winding through the mist.”

Likewise, the pineapple bun takes its namesake from its vague resemblance to a pineapple. In essence, it’s a regular bun topped with a sweet, crusty pastry.

Cheung Heung Yuen, a venerable old cha chaan teng in Kennedy Town, serves a delicious and suitably understated version of the pineapple bun. Their freshly baked buns are continually whisked from the oven to the display case next to the entrance so that patrons can buy them on the go.

Eat them plain, skewered whole on a fork, or order them with a thick slice of butter, or an egg fried sunny-side-up.

Pineapple bun 菠蘿包 HK$2.50 Cheung Heung Yuen Restaurant 祥香園茶餐廳 107 Belcher's St., Kennedy Town; +852 2855 7911

cha chaan tengSlurrrrp.

Warholian noodle soup

Tomato soup abounds in Hong Kong. Most cha chaan tengs serve a local variation of borscht, a beet-less version that more closely resembles minestrone, as well as a straight-up tomato soup of the Campbell’s can variety.

The latter features stewed tomatoes and a choice of meat and noodle type.

At Star Café, fresh tomatoes are used rather than the canned variety, and accordingly, its version of tomato soup noodles, which occupy an entire section of the menu, practically becomes its own genre.

Forget the overly salted, acidic version; this is tomato bliss. The best bet is to get the tomato noodles with mixed egg and instant noodles. The egg is whisked in the boiling soup, giving it a wispy quality that accentuates the subtle sweetness of the tomato base.

The ambience at Star Café provides its own unique vibe; think 1960s bomb shelter chic.

Finding this place is a challenge. Enter Champagne Court “B” at 16 Kimberly Road (look for the Dadol Hotel sign) and take the first right. Star Café is down the set of dark stairs. Tomato soup noodles with mixed egg and instant noodles 番茄撈蛋撈丁 HK$27 Star Café 星座冰室 Shop 36, Basement , Champagne Court “B,” 16 Kimberley Road, Tsim Sha Tsui; +852 2721 2908

cha chaan tengUnhinge jaw. Insert into mouth.

Between two slices

The humble sandwich often occupies an entire column of the cha chaan teng menu. With a tip of the hat to the colonial legacy of high tea, Hong Kong sandwiches almost always consist of lightly toasted, crustless white bread slices flanking a wide variety of proteins, ranging from luncheon meat to egg to tuna.

While the sandwich is seemingly one of the more mundane things to be found on a cha chaan teng menu, there is often a disconnect between its run-of-the-mill name and what you actually get.

Consider, for instance, the beef and egg sandwich at the Gala Café, a 16-seat café in Tsuen Wan. While perusing the menu, it would be easy to gloss over this nondescript sandwich. That, however, would be a mistake.

This is one fine sandwich. If Subway concocted this sandwich, they’d launch a huge ad campaign and call it the Messiah Sandwich.

Perfectly scrambled eggs sit amidst fresh beef slices and a smattering of lettuce, all clenched between two slices of white bread.

Open (very) wide, have napkins at the ready, and prepare for the sandwich rapture.

Fresh beef and egg sandwich 新牛蛋治 HK$20 Gala Café 嘉樂冰廳 G/F, 40B San Chuen St., Tsuen Wan; +852 2493 7308

Freelance writer Jason Beerman has a predisposition for eating food that's served on a stick and sometimes wanders aimlessly for hours at a time.

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