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#852Basics: How to dine at a Hong Kong cha chaan teng

By Jenny Leung 12 June 2019 | Last Updated 20 May 2020

Header image courtesy of Paul Wong (via Shutterstock)

As far as cheap, delicious food goes, a cha chaan teng (茶餐廳; Hong Kong-style tea restaurant) is the place to be. Not only do these no-frills eateries serve up some of the best food you will find in the whole city, but they also play an important role in Hong Kong’s fascinating history and culture. As much as we love these local diners, deciding what to eat from the menu—especially ones without English translations—can be quite overwhelming. Luckily, you’ve got us. From staple items that you need to try and where to get them to useful Cantonese lingo you need to know, here is your ultimate guide to eating at a local cha chaan teng.

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What you need to try

Photo credit: Thanida Siritan (via Shutterstock)

Hong Kong-style milk tea (奶茶)

Combining the mellow-yet-fragrant aroma of Chinese black tea with the velvety-smooth texture of evaporated milk, Hong Kong-style milk tea is everyone’s go-to. Apart from the simple naai cha (港式奶茶; Hong Kong-style milk tea), there are also many variations of milk tea that you can order. For example, cha zau (茶走) is when the sugar is replaced with condensed milk, and yuenyeung (鴛鴦) is a unique beverage that combines both tea and coffee.

There is much debate as to where the best milk tea in town is, but Waso Café (where you can get bottled naai cha for on-the-go sipping), Yue Hing (a classic vendor that also serves breakfast foods), and Bing Kee (a popular dai pai dong hidden away in Tai Hang) are all worth checking out. If you’re looking for a modern, cold version of naai cha, you can find it at Lo Fung Café, where they top your drink off with milk tea ice cubes to keep it chilled and undiluted.

Photo credit: @chungphoto (via Shutterstock)

Corned beef sandwich (牛治)

We know corned beef sandwiches (牛治; ngau4 zi6) don’t sound like the most exciting thing on the menu, but since every cha chaan teng does them differently, you’ll never know what to expect—in the best way. Some places serve them with oversized scrambled eggs, some do them toasted, and don’t even get us started on ones with cheese! No matter what you choose, a corned beef sandwich makes for the perfect breakfast to start your day. The most famous ones in town are from Sun Hang Yuen (Kin Kee) in Sham Shui Po, but Australia Dairy Company in Jordan and Tsuen Wan’s Gala Café are worth hitting up, too.

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Photo credit: Paul Wong (via Shutterstock)

Hong Kong-style French toast (西多士)

If you think you’ve had French toasts before, think again. Hong Kong-style French toasts (西多士; sai1 do1 si6) are made up of two slices of bread, usually with a layer of peanut butter or condensed milk in-between. It is then dipped in egg, fried to golden perfection, with a knob of butter and a heavy drizzle of maple syrup slathered on top. Depending on where you go, there are many cha chaan teng eateries around town that offer Hong Kong-style French toasts with different fillings.

For something simple yet tasty, Shui Kee Coffee in Sheung Wan fries each piece of bread individually to give them an extra bit of crunch, and if you’re looking for something different, Chau Kee is famous for its molten French toasts with a choice of three different gooey fillings: custard, black sesame, and taro.

Photo credit: @jreika (via Shutterstock)

Egg and spam instant noodles (餐蛋麵)

Yeah, we know you can pretty much make this at home yourself, but there’s something distinctively nostalgic about eating instant noodles in a cha chaan teng that makes it all the more delicious. Egg and spam instant noodles (餐蛋麵; caan1 daan2 min6) are basically what it says it is: instant noodles, with few slices of Spam and (usually) a sunny-side-up egg. If you would like other toppings, you can add extra ingredients for a few more dollars. Crowd favourites include satay beef, spiced pork cubes, and ham. Most places also offer lo ding (撈丁), which is basically the same thing, but a dry version without the savoury broth. Head to Sun Kee Cheese Noodles or Lan Fong Yuen, both a popular destination famous for their lo ding.

Photo credit: Chris So (via Shutterstock)

Pineapple bun with butter (菠蘿油)

Clearly, pineapple buns need no further introduction, and sure, spreading some butter in a bun is not something too significant, but with pineapple buns with butter (菠蘿油; bo1 lo4 jau4), it’s a whole different story. With a thick slab of butter wedged inside the bun, pineapple buns with butter are usually served lukewarm. This is so that when you bite into it, the butter, along with the bun, will instantly melt in your mouth.

We definitely recommend heading to Waso Café, where apart from the butter, you can also add scrambled eggs, tomato, marinated chicken, and a pork chop to turn it into an extra flavourful affair for your palette. Cheung Hing Coffee Shop in Happy Valley is another go-to for some freshly baked, golden brown pineapple buns around the clock. Another great option is Kam Wah Café, where the pineapple buns are the size of your palm, packed full of flavour both in the crispy top and fluffy interior. 

Keep scrolling for the rest of the list 👇

Useful phrases to learn

Cantonese phraseMeaning
小冰 / 走冰; siu2 bing/ zau2 bing1less / no ice
小甜 / 走甜; siu2 tim4 / zau2 tim4less / no sugar
烘底; hong3 dai2toasted
飛砂走奶; fei1 saa1 zau2 naai5no sugar, no milk
加色 / 走色; gasik1 / zau2 sik1add / no soy sauce to rice
走青; zau2 cing1no herbs on top (usually scallion or coriander)
加底 / 扣底; gadai2 / kau3 dai2extra / less white rice
飛邊; fei1 bin1no crusts on bread
行街; hang4 gaai1takeaway
搭枱; daap3 toi4sharing tables

You’re all good to go, but remember…

Don’t expect five-star service: If you like to eat at a restaurant where the waiters can attend to your every need, then perhaps a cha chaan teng is not the right place for you. Working in such a fast-paced environment can be stressful, so don’t be surprised if your waiter doesn’t greet you with a smile.

Gobble, gobble: Sometimes it’s nice to sit back and chat with your friends after a meal, but if you do that at a cha chaan teng during rush hour, you’re going to get cold, stabbing stares from waiters or other hungry diners waiting in line.

Prepare to share: Most cha chaan teng eateries are not that spacious, and if it’s lunch or dinner time, these diners are bound to be packed. So prepare to budge up, make space, and welcome another lovely stranger to your table.

Tissues at the ready: Not every cha chaan teng offers table napkins for the taking, and may even charge for a packet of tissue, so it’s best to bring your own.

Pay up: When you’re done with your meal, don’t raise your hand and ask for the bill. There should already be a receipt at your desk, so just walk up to the cashier with it and pay.

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Jenny Leung

Senior editor

Born in Hong Kong and raised in the UK, Jenny grew up with the best of both worlds. She loves just about anything to do with music and doesn’t shy away from belting out a tune or two when it comes to karaoke. If she’s not out and about exploring the city and practising her photography skills, she’s probably tucked up in bed with a book or glued to her laptop doing her online shopping.