Hong Kong culture is fragile. Long a barren rock, it endured a century and a half of British colonial rule before submitting to become a Chinese Special Administrative Region in 1997. It’s difficult to say what truly defines our melting-pot. Could it be our defiant people? Our diverse scenery, stretching from beaches to mountains? Or simply our food, a peasant-centered cuisine built on radical influences?
Hong Kong’s local diner, the humble cha chaan teng (literally ‘tea restaurant’), is easily our most distinctive offering. Starting in the 1950s as an affordable western-infused alternative for working-class locals, the cha chaan teng was an early adopter of the now overdone “fusion” trend, with its staples reflecting an east-west flavour profile: egg-and-ham sandwiches, tomato-soaked spaghetti “Bolognese,” buttery pineapple buns and syrupy French toast.
Entrepreneurial restaurateurs who grew up eating in these institutions are now looking to them for inspiration.
But theirs aren’t simply standard dishes artfully plated and slapped with a higher price-tag. No, the new breed of modern cha chaan tengs are redefining the diner’s flavors and forms in a myriad of ways.
“To us, it’s a continuous idea. We’re not simply copying, and we’re not creating something completely new,” says James Ling, general manager at Second Draft in Tai Hang, a trendy district of car-repair-shops-turned-coffee-and-sushi-bars tucked away behind Causeway Bay.
“We’re continuing the cha chaan teng tradition, through better ingredients, contemporary décor, as well as elements that people are connected to these days. We’re adding to an already existent culture, and for us, it’s an ongoing development for Hong Kong cuisine.”
Second Draft is a gastropub collaboration between two recent, respected Hong Kong ventures: drinks are from The Ale Project, a craft beer bar in Mong Kok, and the food is from May Chow of Little Bao fame.
The beer seems to take center-stage, but it’s the word-of-mouth on bygone-inspired dishes – thick-cut French toast covered in foie gras butter; Mapo burrata based on the famed tofu dish; Sichuan pepper fries – that’s really drawing the crowds.
The restaurant also places heavy emphasis on its contemporary-classic décor: its wooden benches are inspired by old-fashioned trams, while its walls are alternatively tiled in dull green colours or spray-painted with government-style graffiti reminders (“No Smoking”; “Please Look After Your Belongings.”
“Cha chaan teng décor was originally based on whatever was cheap, but over time it developed into its own specific style,” says Ling. “There’s a certain feel to an old-school diner, and that’s what we wanted to replicate to an extent. It might be cheap, but it’s comforting.”
New-wave restaurants such as Second Draft are infusing past glories with new twists, but others are hoping to uplift and upscale the otherwise working-class cuisine. Kasa in Wan Chai has a definite aesthetic based on cha chaan tengs, with simple metal-and-wood tables and chairs, alongside wall-drawings of urban landscapes. But its cuisine is pushing blue-collar boundaries.
“The current trend seems to be nouveau throwback; rustic flavors coupled with modern presentation,” says Adrian Lo, Kasa’s founder. “As the local palette becomes more sophisticated, their expectations for local food are raised as well. The modern cha chaan teng trend is beginning to assimilate into local culture, and is becoming a local staple.”
Some of Kasa’s more inspired and upmarket dishes include the breakfast burger, which is your standard pineapple bun stuffed with Japanese barbecued pork and topped with a fried egg, and the duck yolk custard lava cake, based on the classic custard bun.
“Generally speaking, local cuisine in each city or country is always the most accessible in terms of price, as it is the staple of the population’s diet,” says Lo. “We wanted to elevate rustic, family-style Hong Kong dishes, without jeopardizing the integrity of the culture, in terms of flavour and price.”
Keeping our almost crumbling cuisine culture in-check is something of a passion for these restaurateurs, and nowhere is that dedication better displayed at Ate26. Located in the backstreets of Tai Hang, the restaurant embodies the classic cha chaan teng aesthetic better than most, by infusing its cuisine with true east-west blend.
“We’ve been creating new dishes by using classic and traditional local food as our key elements,” says Connie Lam, founder of Ate26. “Our purpose is twisting them into innovative east-meets-west dishes, surprising local guests while introduce foreigners to classic Hong Kong food.”
Compared to Second Draft or Kasa, Ate26’s dishes feel a little less local, but there’s no denying their character: deep-fried luncheon meat with mozzarella, stuffed egg rolls in green tea and charcoal, and a Guangdong-style sticky-rice chicken burger.
The restaurant is also channelling that trailblazing attitude in its décor, with a bright, bubbly western aesthetic that no doubt cha chaan teng owners of the past would’ve embraced. It might not fit into the trend’s retro vibe, but you have to give them credit for channelling that mind-set.
“Modern cha chaan tengs are not only trendy; it’s a new culture that represents Hong Kong and where its people want to eat,” says Lam. “More and more modern restaurants are using precious local elements in their cuisine and interiors. It eventually leads to a new wave, where we change traditional cha chaan tang dishes into an entirely new kind of cuisine.”