A cheap, delicious meal at a cha chaan teng is an imperative for anyone traveling in Hong Kong. These diners are a unique and enduring part of the city’s food culture. Here’s a guide to make most of your cha chaan teng experience, including recommended dishes and etiquette tips.
What is a cha chaan teng?
The name cha chaan teng literally means “tea restaurant.” It’s a type of casual joint that rose to popularity in the postwar era, bringing western-style dishes with a Chinese twist to the Hong Kong public on the cheap. Many eclectic cha chaan teng dishes—ranging from breakfast items to savory dishes, desserts, and drinks—are now considered staples of local cuisine.
What to order
Cha chaan teng menus can be quite large. If you’re overwhelmed by the range of choices and need guidance, here are some classics that you can’t go wrong with:
Milk tea. Hong Kong-style milky tea is sweeter and creamier than your average cup of black tea with milk, because it’s made with condensed milk. Locals guzzle this classic drink all year long—piping hot in the winter months, and with ice in the summer.
French toast. This is another unique dish under the guise of a banal-sounding name. Hong Kong-style French toast consists of thick slices of bread toasted until golden-brown, with a peanut-butter filling in the middle, syrup slathered on top, and a square of melting butter to top it all off.
“Doll” noodles (gong zai meen). These springy, frizzy noodles come in a bowl of savory broth. Top it with spam and a fried egg, and you’ve got a classic Hong Kong breakfast dish.
Scrambled egg over toast. Freshly scrambled eggs on top of a freshly buttered piece of crustless, white toast sounds simple, but it can be surprisingly satisfying when done just right.
Condensed milk buns. Known in Cantonese as zhu zai bao (“piggy buns”), this consists of two bread bun halves that have been toasted until they’re nice and crispy, and then drizzled with condensed milk. It won’t do your arteries any favors, but it tastes so, so good.
Some things to keep in mind…
As you enter the restaurant, hold up your fingers to let the staff know how many are in your group. During peak hours, you may end up sharing a table with others.
The staff at cha chaan tengs are usually dealing with a high volume of customers, and tend to have a no-nonsense, efficient attitude. It’s a good idea to decide what you want to eat fairly quickly.
The tables at cha chaan tengs are packed close together, especially in small, independent places, so it can get quite noisy. On top of that, the staff will frequently call out loudly to one another so they can stay on top of things without having to cross the room.
To pay for your meal, you should go to the counter by the door before you leave. Be sure to bring the slip of paper on your table that details what you ordered in a Chinese shorthand. Once you pay with cash, you’re all set.