Hong Kong's best bing sutt: Guide to old-school diners
In the beginning, there were three: the dai pai dong, the cha chaan teng and the bing sutt (冰室). Dai pai dongs were earthy, outdoor restaurants that served simple dishes at even simpler prices; cha chaan tengs were their indoor, upscale cousins.
Bing sutts fell somewhere in between, with small menus based around Hong Kong versions of Western comfort food, iced drinks, coffee and tea.
Over the years, the boundaries between this holy trinity of Hong Kong-style restaurants have blurred, but a handful of bing sutts are keeping the traditions alive.
Even more intriguingly, a wave of new ones has joined their ranks, capitalizing on the growing appetite for all things old and nostalgic.
Here's your guide to the ultimate bing sutts, old-timers and arrivistes alike.
Kwong Shing Café
As far as we're considered, Kwong Shing is the king of bing sutts, partly because it hasn't changed in 40 years and mostly because it's very good.
The highlights here, aside from the vintage decor and cranky waitresses, are the beef-and-macaroni noodle soup, the egg sandwiches and the shaved ice drinks.
The soup's broth is gingery and not too salty, the eggs are plump and fresh tasting and the ice is shaved by hand and served in towering cones with sweet evaporated milk and red bean or pineapple. Mix the ice around until it melts into the milk and turns into a decadent summer slush.
The location, about 10 minutes by foot from Sheung Shui MTR, isn't exactly convenient, but if you're heading to Shenzhen, it's definitely worth a detour.
10 San Shing Avenue, Shek Wu Hui, Sheung Shui, tel +852 2670 4501
Sun Wah Café
Cheung Sha Wan is well on the road to gentrification -- skinny new apartment towers seem to be popping up every other week -- but Sun Wah is a friendly reminder of times past.
Unlike most of the original bing sutts, the staff here are friendly and attentive, and the homey, homely decor makes this the kind of place where you could comfortably sit for a while with a book and a cup of milk tea.
Sun Wah does a good job with most of the standards: the BBQ pork noodle soup is sweet and pungent, the eggs are decent if not extraordinary, the milk tea and coffee are excellent, as are the other drinks, like watercress with honey.
The egg tarts are good enough to take home, and if you do, you'll get a lovely box with a kitschy 1970s brown-and-orange design.
334 Castle Peak Road, Cheung Sha Wan, Kowloon, tel +852 2387 3698
Kam Wah Café
Kam Wah is one of those places that has expanded its menu into cha chaan teng territory, with more elaborate rice and noodle dishes than you'd normally expect to find in a bing sutt.
Those aren't bad, especially for afternoon tea, but they aren't especially remarkable -- there's really nothing about the soups or pork chops here that are worth a special trip.
What really makes Kam Wah worth visiting, then, are its Hong Kong-style pastries. The always-fresh bolo bau are unparalleled: fluffy and bready on the bottom and satisfyingly crunchy on the top. Same goes for the egg tarts and especially the chicken pies, which are big, sweet and packed with big chunks of chicken meat.
If the café is packed and noisy, which is usually the case, you can buy the pastries from a takeaway counter on the street and munch on them at the small tree-shaded plaza a couple of blocks away.
47 Bute Street, Mongkok, Kowloon, tel +852 2392 6830
Kei Heung Café
By no means a traditional bing sutt, Kei Heung is a tiny, family-run café with friendly, efficient service, a loyal crowd of regulars and blissful silence: there's no music and no blaring TVs, just the soft murmur of conversation.
The menu is a map of inexpensive standards (there's nothing over HK$24) like French toast, macaroni soups, sandwiches and omelettes, all of which are made to order and satisfyingly created, though the eggs are sometimes rather greasy.
What really wins us over is the café's unusual specialty: stir-fried spaghetti, known here as wui, which is served with beef or a fried egg (or both), tomatoes, peas and a tangy, ketchup-y sauce.
It's comfort food at its greatest: unrefined, tasty and a reminder of those simple spaghetti meals that mom used to make when you were a kid.
26B Victory Avenue, Homantin, Kowloon, tel +852 2713 3209
Amazing: a new-generation bing sutt that isn't gimmicky, overpriced or overrated.
When the Khan brothers opened the Capital Café last year, they set out to create a solid, straightforward café and that's exactly what they've achieved.
The black and white tiles, booths, tables and chairs evoke traditional decor while giving a nod to modern sensibilities.
The menu is a very reasonably priced collection of well-executed bing sutt hits: ham and eggs, beef macaroni soup (including a halal option), bolo bau with butter. The breakfast and lunch sets -- each less than HK$30 -- are especially worthwhile, mainly because of the eggs, which are fluffy, un-greasy and a healthy, fresh-looking yellow.
It must be said, though, that a couple of places give this away as a bing sutt upstart: the staff, who are uniformly patient and friendly, and the walls, which are adorned by arty, cardboard-mounted photos of Wan Chai street scenes.
6 Heard Street, Wan Chai, tel +852 2666 7766
Café Match Box
As we stepped into this recently-opened Causeway Bay joint we were greeted by a 1970s Sam Hui song and decor that can only be described as bing sutt baroque: all of the traditional design features have been amped up to theme-restaurant levels.
But our hearts softened as we opened the menu and saw a list of old-style drinks and ices, including poached egg in hot water, an unexpectedly good treat we thought had vanished from Hong Kong restaurant menus (the last time we encountered it was in a cha chaan teng in Vancouver).
Unlike Capital Café, Match Box has taken some liberties with old bing sutt standbys, and for the most part, they work.
The chicken pie in green bean soup alone is worth a trip: the soup is soft and creamy, with an understated taste that works well against the sweetness of the pie; ketchup injected by waiters into the pie adds zest.
8 Cleveland Street, Causeway Bay, tel +852 2868 0363
Starbucks Bing Sutt Corner
You've got to give Starbucks credit -- it might be colonizing Hong Kong with its global brand of milky, sugary coffee drinks, but at least it knows enough history to pay homage to its Hong Kong predecessors.
The "Bing Sutt Corner" at the Duddell Street Starbucks, which opened last year, was designed by G.O.D. founder Douglas Young, and it bears all of the kitschy, over-the-top references to old Hong Kong that have become the hallmark of Young's work.
There's the tile floors, the wood booths, the old metal windows opening onto a (make-believe) landscape of big character signs and tenement buildings; there are even birdcages hanging from the ceiling, a reference to the nearly extinct tradition of bringing your bird to the café.
The usual Starbucks fare is given a bing sutt twist with a coffee egg tart (surprisingly delicious), coffee-flavoured bolo yau (not bad, but a little soggy) and, depending on the day, coffee Swiss rolls and coffee cocktail buns.
13 Duddell Street, Central, tel +852 2523 5685