What’s a Cha Chan Teng?
Hong Kong is renown for having trendy neighborhoods, grand shopping malls, and plenty of Michelin starred restaurants, 74 to be exact. It’s a foodie paradise consisting of modern Hong Kong cuisine, French fine dining, and high end Southeast Asian fare. Despite all the impressive dining options, there’s one eatery that everyone should visit when in Hong Kong- enter the Cha Chaan Teng.
Definitely not a fine-dining spot, the cha chaan teng is a classic Hong Kong-style diner/cafe that’s been around way before Michelin star restaurants ever came to be in HK. These types of cafes popped up in the 1950’s and 60’s serving local specialties along with Hong Kong versions of Western favorites. The name cha chaan teng really means “Hong Kong style tea-house”. The cafe is a Hong Kong classic that’s a must when visiting the great harbor city.
Mostly all of the cha chaan tengs will have specials posted outside their shops. The specials usually consist of a HK style milk tea (black tea + condensed milk) and a local pastry. This special sets you back about 2-3 USD at most. Others specials run between $4-$5 dollars and may include eggs, toast, ham, noodle dishes or sandwiches. Each café menu varies but mostly serve similar food. These cafes will save you a couple of bucks and allow you to eat like a genuine Hong Konger.
While the low cost of the diners are definitely a draw, the food is also quite good. I stayed at a local hostel and one of the employees recommended I try the famous pineapple bun and the hot milk tea. The bun, which does not have any pineapple in it, is sweet and buttery. You can easily eat a couple of them. Another classic is the standard 2 eggs, toast, and a macaroni and ham soup. Sounds weird but it was tasty and salty (in a good way). Breakfast sandwiches and ramen soups are also café staples. One morning I had a braised pork ramen- it was so delicious that I still dream about that dish to this day.
How To Order
I was advised to decide quickly when ordering at the cafes and not be offended if the server is curt, short, or sassy- that’s just the way it is. Mostly everything will be probably be in Cantonese but thankfully there are pictures you can point at when putting in your order. These cafes are not meant for slow, take- your- time breakfasts. At cha chaan tengs, everything moves quickly and all seats are utilized. On all three occasions I went, random people occupied the empty seats in my booth or table in order to get a quick bite.
Where To Go
Some of the best cafes are in the Mong Kok area, an are with lots of shopping and outdoor markets . One of my absolute favorite cafes is Kam Wah’s Café & Bakery, where the pineapple buns are heavenly and plentiful. You have the option of taking one to go or having a seat inside. If Kam Wah’s café is too busy, Capitol Café is nearby and a short train ride away is Star Café.
While there are many fine dining restaurants in HK, visiting a cha chaan teng café is a great way to experience local life and a chance to eat like a local.