I nearly chickened out when I saw the 50-person-plus line emanating from Australian Dairy Company, a grubby Hong Kong institution that’s been slinging greasy fare since 1970 (and doesn’t seem to have updated its decor anytime since). But mercifully the queue moved briskly, and within 20 minutes I could peek inside to see what all the hubbub was about: creamy scrambled egg sandwiches on thick slabs of fluffy white bread, runny macaroni-flecked soup garnished with strips of deli ham, and just-barely-browned toast drizzled with rich condensed milk.
If you’re confused — why are Hong Kongers clamoring for out-there interpretations of Western diner grub? — here’s the lowdown: Australian Dairy Company is among the best examples of cha chaan teng, or “tea restaurants,” a style of eatery specializing in Chinese-style Western food. The run-down interior, tables crammed with strangers sitting shoulder to shoulder, and harried service are all part of the charm, and you can find similar scenes in retro-styled eateries all over the city.
Cha chaan teng began cropping up in the 1950s and 60s, when an increasingly cosmopolitan middle class began craving Western flavors previously considered a luxury for the wealthy. What followed was a diner-ification of fancy Western fare, and the results weren’t exactly authentic: A blend of Western and Chinese flavors, cheap cha chaan teng dishes are the spiritual equivalent of American Chinese favorites like General Tso’s chicken or chop suey. In both cuisines, authenticity is completely beside the point — the emphasis is on food that’s hearty, satisfying, and most importantly, suited to local palates.
The elegant finger sandwiches served at British-style afternoon tea became gut-busting sammies stuffed with scrambled eggs or corned beef, which, like their inspiration, are served on crustless white bread. Western-style coffee inspired yuanyang, a potent mixture of coffee and velvety Hong Kong–style milk tea. Mido Cafe, which boasts an original 1950s interior often featured by local television shows and in music videos, slings this drink both hot and cold. Other classic cha chaan teng dishes include Hong Kong–style French toast, which at old-school haunt Cheong Kee is essentially a deep-fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Kum Wah’s pineapple bun, a traditional Hong Kong pastry resembling a pineapple, is served with a slab of oh-so-Western butter secreted within.
Of course, a huge part of cha chaan teng’s appeal is how ungodly cheap these foods are. Average prices tend to hover around $4 USD, which is perhaps why patrons put up with the restaurants’ famously brusque service. I personally got a taste of it at Australian Dairy Company when a waiter roughly chastised my Cantonese-speaking companion for speaking too softly as she placed her order. But if cha chaan teng waiters are short-tempered, perhaps it’s because the pace is so exhausting — food usually arrives in fewer than five minutes, and the average diner is in and out in less than 20. Staffers typically work long, grueling shifts since the restaurants can open as early as 6 a.m. and close as late as midnight. Some locations of Tsui Wah Restaurant, which first set up shop back in the 1960s, are even open 24 hours a day.
But the throngs of patrons queueing up at Australian Dairy Company belie the dire situation facing Hong Kong’s cha chaan teng. As city rents skyrocket, these once-ubiquitous spots are beginning to disappear. Making matters worse, huge chain restaurants are fast closing in on their territory. Take the mega-chain Fairwood, which serves an iteration of the classic cha chaan teng dish spaghetti Bolognese, essentially a cross between the Italian dish and dan dan noodles.
Supporting small mom-and-pop outfits certainly helps to keep the cha chaan teng tradition alive. But as ever more skyscrapers sprout from the evolving Hong Kong skyline and the city continues its full-throttle race toward modernity, one wonders if cha chaan teng will prove a casualty. There’s nothing to do, really, except order an extra helping of Hong Kong–style French toast while you still can.
Australian Dairy Company, 47 Parkes St., Jordan, Hong Kong, +852 2730 1356
Mido Cafe, 63 Temple St., Hong Kong, +852 2384 6402
Cheong Kee, Shop 1 & 5, 2/F, Wong Nai Chung Complex, 2 Yuk Sau St., Happy Valley, Hong Kong, +852 2573 5910
Kum Wah Cafe, 47 Bute St., Hong Kong, +852 2392 6830
Tsui Wah Restaurant, multiple locations in Hong Kong; tsuiwah.com
Fairwood, multiple locations in Hong Kong; fairwood.com.hk