Few experiences encapsulate the syncretism and go-go spirit of Hong Kong like eating at a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳, literally “tea restaurant” in Cantonese Chinese). For many Hong Kongers, breakfast at a cha chaan teng is an indispensable start of the day: they’re great places to get sandwiches, noodle dishes, rice meals, and hot drinks in a hurry, and at (relatively) low prices to boot.
Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng have their roots in the postwar economic boom—a growing number of Hong Kong Chinese were developing an appetite for British-style afternoon tea, but preferred localized versions of the accompanying foods.
The cha chaan teng evolved to fill the demand, with a repertoire of dishes that fused British and southern Chinese elements to create an all-hours menu ideally suited for on-the-go Hong Kongers.
When you enter a cha chaan teng, time is of the essence: the curt service and quick preparation all ensure you’re in and out with minimum fuss. Save time by deciding your order beforehand, and choose from one of the dishes listed here.
Stocking Milk Tea
Cha chaan teng are literally named after their signature drink, tea. Every reputable cha chaan teng offers its own milk tea (奶茶, naai cha), usually based on a closely-guarded secret blend. Tea makers tend to mix different types of tea leaves, including (but not limited to) ceylon, pu-erh, Assam, and oolong.
The basic ingredients of milk tea are ground tea leaves and canned evaporated milk. First, a strong black tea is brewed and filtered through a strainer that resembles a silk stocking. The hot tea is poured hot into a cup, then combined with a copious serving of milk. The result is a sweet and silky-smooth drink that goes well with everything else on the menu.
Where to Try It: Lan Fong Yuen, 2 Gage Street, Central
Noodles with Luncheon Meat
Luncheon meat and noodles? That’s par for the course in Hong Kong, where these canned meats are a common comfort food. Fried slices of luncheon meat, cooked instant noodles, and a fried sunny-side-up egg are the components of the hearty (if salty) cha chaan teng standard called tsaan dan gung (餐蛋麵).
Instead of pricier Spam brand meats, cha chaan teng prefer to use China-made Ma Ling and Great Wall brand luncheon meats in their noodle dishes. Locals swear by the contrast of textures made by the egg, noodles and meat in the dish: an umami hit with a varied mouthfeel.
Where to Try It: Tsui Wah, #15D-19 Wellington Street, Central
Western toast is similar to, yet different from western-style French toast. Sai do si (西多士), the cha chaan teng’s version of the dish, uses a peanut-butter sandwich with crusts trimmed off.
The sandwich goes into an egg batter, then a deep fryer; the golden-brown result is topped with a slab of butter and condensed milk before serving. It’s sweet, dripping in fat, and a massive threat to your circulatory system—but it’s a great pick-me-up for the start of the day, or as a hangover helper late at night.
Where to Try It: Hoi On Cafe, 17 Connaught Rd W, Sheung Wan
There are no pineapples in pineapple bun, or bolo yau (菠蘿包): the name comes from the bumpy appearance of the outer crust, which reminded diners of the skin of pineapples. This crusty, sweet bun is freshly baked every day, and serve sliced in half with a slab of butter placed in between. Alternative fillings for bolo yau include red bean paste, custard cream, or even scrambled egg.
Bolo yau is much beloved by locals—in 2014, the Hong Kong government added the technique of making pineapple buns to its long list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage” items.
Where to Try It: Tai Tung Bakery, B02-03, B/F, Lee Tung Avenue, 200 Queen's Road East, Wan Chai
Baked Pork Chop Rice
For something more filling than buns, go big and order the classic cha chaan teng rice dish, gok ju pa fan (焗豬排飯) or baked pork chop with cheese and tomato sauce. It’s heavy, fatty, and absolutely delicious. A casserole of fried rice and pork chop is topped with tomato sauce and cheese, then baked to crispy, gooey doneness.
There are almost as many varieties of baked pork chop rice as there are cha chaan teng across Hong Kong. There are no quick ways of making this dish—the pork chops, fried rice and tomato sauce must be prepared separately—but the wait will be worth it.
Where to Try It: For Kee Restaurant, 200 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan
This hypercaffeinated variation on milk tea originated in Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng: yuanyang (鴛鴦) is a mixture of two parts milk tea and one part black coffee. Like milk tea, you can choose to have it hot (yit, 熱) or cold (dong, 凍); either way, the yuanyang is an awesome recharge for the tired tourist, or the sleepy salaryman needing to get their caffeine on in the morning.
Where to Try It: Lan Fong Yuen, 2 Gage Street, Central
Hong Kongers take wonton noodles (wonton min, 雲吞麵) seriously—more than one Michelin-starred restaurant in Hong Kong owes its laurels to a wonton noodle soup that everyone swears by. The wonton noodles in cha chaan teng are much simpler affairs, but no less satisfying to hungry patrons looking for a filling noodle meal.
These are quite simple: egg noodles are cooked, then drowned in broth and topped with wontons filled with pork and shrimp. It’s quickly made, and just as quickly eaten by chopstick-wielding patrons.
Where to Try It: Mak’s Noodle. 77 Wellington Street, Central
Beef Chow Fun
This Cantonese classic noodle dish (gon tsau ao hor, 乾炒牛河) uses flat rice noodles called hor fun, stir-fried in a wok at high heat with beef and bean sprouts. The deliciousness of the dish boils down to the quality of the marinated beef and hor fun noodles, and the judicious amount of soy sauce and lard used to prepare the dish.
The spiciness of the dish varies between cha chaan teng; you can control the heat by asking for a bottle of hot sauce to go with your plate of beef chow fun.
Where to Try It: Ho Hung Kee, 12/F Hysan Place, 500 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay
Red Bean Ice
When the summer months hit Hong Kong, cha chaan teng patrons start to order red bean ice (hong dau bing, 紅豆冰) in massive quantities. This dessert is an icy sweet treat that effectively beats the heat. Sweetened red adzuki beans are crushed, drowned in evaporated milk and syrup, then topped with crushed ice (and occasionally, a scoop of vanilla ice cream).
The crunch of the ice contrasts beautifully with the milk and adzuki bean’s respective body and mouthfeel. The chill of the dessert offers excellent relief against Hong Kong’s notorious heat and humidity.
Where to try it: Mido Cafe, G/F 63 Temple Street, Yau Ma Tei. Closed on Wednesdays
“All-Day” Set Meals
The “all-day sets” are what you order if you want a little of everything: macaroni soup with ham (fo teoi tung, 火腿通), scrambled egg, buttered toast, and a drink. This dish evolved from the English breakfast—local entrepreneurs put their own local spin on the dish, and voila, originated a favorite Hong Kong breakfast that can still be found in cha chaan teng everywhere.
Where to Try It: Australia Dairy Company, 47–49 Parkes Street, Jordan.
Hong Kong Leisure and Cultural Services Department. "First Intangible Cultural Heritage Inventory of Hong Kong." June 2014. 76.