Header image courtesy of Sorbis (via Shutterstock)
Hong Kong’s reputation as a food paradise means that it’s always innovating. New restaurants, outlandish dishes, and niche fusion cuisine are concocted at such an incredible pace that it’s hard to keep up with our ever-evolving food scene. Unfortunately, this also means that old brands eventually fade away into obscurity unless they can keep up with the young’uns. Here’s a look into some of Hong Kong’s most well-known food chains that have lived out their glory days and are now slowly vanishing.
We all have our favourite hidden ramen spots in the city, but not long ago we didn’t even have a choice. Hong Kong’s Japanese food scene was not always as robust as it is today, back when Ajisen Ramen had a monopoly on more authentic Japanese ramen. The gigantic chain had hundreds of shops around Asia and North America as well, and its China division was even listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 2007. Independent ramen shops and small chains eventually wiggled their way in, diluting Ajisen’s customer base. Nevertheless, its legacy lives on via its iconic mascot Chii-chan, seen on ramen packs in Asian supermarkets worldwide.
Founded in 1960, it’s hard to believe that this Hong Kong classic is already more than half a decade old. What many people also don’t know is that the dessert chain first started out as a herbal tea business in Yuen Long. It wasn’t until the 1980s that Hui Lau Shan branched out, selling classic Chinese desserts such as mango sago and sides such as the pan-fried turnip cake. This was also around the time their obsession with mango kicked off, curating a mango-based menu featuring items such as the famed glutinous rice balls with mango filling. Students would grab bevvies at Hui Lau Shan together after school when there were no such things as bubble tea shops. To give another idea of the brand’s popularity, there were once 12 shops just in Tsim Sha Tsui alone! Even so, new chains are born and people’s tastes change: After closing an astonishing 90 or so shops, only a handful Hui Lau Shans remain today.
If you’ve ever been to Mong Kok, you’ve probably walked under Satay King’s flashy neon signs—look for the three Chinese characters of 沙嗲王, a hippie, and a palm tree. The restaurant is flamboyant on the inside, too—stumble upon palm trees, caravans, and pirate statues scattered around in some of their now-closed branches. Surely the menu will offer some clarity, right? Wrong—Satay King does not sell skewers as its name may hint, offering hodgepodge dishes ranging from Vietnamese rice paper rolls to pizza to local diner fare instead. Many would admit that though the food is not outstanding, they still love the place in all its eccentricity.
Founder Andrew Lee’s vision was singular: He wanted to make fancy steakhouses accessible to Hongkongers without a trade-off in quality. And so he established this affordable steakhouse chain in 1999, leveraging on his background in the wholesale frozen meat industry. Steak Expert became an instant hit and the chain opened branches in over 30 spots across the city, employing hundreds of staff. Old-timers may recall that in its heyday, Steak Expert even had a giant neon sign one side of Nathan Road, marking its branch in Chinese (扒王之王). Unfortunately, the chain’s overly-rapid expansion—mixed in with a dose of poor management—bit back at them, and they had to close one shop after another in the 2010s. If you still want to sample this unique Hong Kong steakhouse now, you would have to travel to its last remaining branch in Sha Tin.
Steak Expert, Shop C1, G/F, Sha Tin Fun City, 7 Lek Yuen Street, Sha Tin | (+852) 2601 3711
Before bubble tea shops sprang up everywhere in Hong Kong, there was Saint's Alp Teahouse. That’s right, you had to sit down and drink your bubble tea instead of sipping on the go! A Hong Kong company founded in 1994, Saint’s Alp brands itself as the first teahouse to introduce Taiwanese bubble tea to the city. Aside from their frothy bubble tea and other brightly-coloured Taiwanese drinks, they also serve Taiwanese snacks and sides for you to nibble on. Its niche was soon taken over by all the new cafés and bubble tea shops in Hong Kong; Saint’s Alp couldn’t innovate fast enough and was forced to close down over 50 shops since.
Remember the days when McDonald’s had more than one competitor? Fellow American fast-food chain Burger King first stepped foot into Hong Kong in the 1980s but pulled out a decade later due to poor business. The chain then made a comeback in 2003 by opening a shop at the airport, followed by dozens of branches in the city. But its glory days did not last: Allegations of sourcing expired ingredients and unrelated abrupt closures plagued the chain, and only one branch remains in Hong Kong on The Peak today.
Burger King, Shop 1, Level 1, The Peak Tower, 128 Peak Road, The Peak | (+852) 2849 2275
Despite its Japanese-sounding name, Aji Ichiban is actually a home-grown Hong Kong brand. The snack chain specialises in more traditional East Asian fare, such as preserved fruit, dried cuttlefish, ginseng candy, and more, providing schoolchildren with the perfect destination for one-stop snack shopping. Tourists loved the place: Entire tour groups would buy bags of their snacks, where the transparent packaging helped customers see the goods for themselves. Though Aji Ichiban still has over 20 stores around the city nowadays, it faces fierce competition from newer snack chains whose trendy imports appeal more to the younger generation.