Hong Kong-style cafés boast vast menus that reflect the steeped cultures of the region. Here’s what you should order

To understand the breakfast menu at a cha chang tang, often called a Hong Kong-style diner, is to understand the region’s layered history.

Hong Kong’s role as a port city and former British colony has resulted in a cuisine that is a mishmash of (among others) British, Portuguese, Japanese, Malaysian, Cantonese and Singaporean flavours. It’s why the menu offers steak and eggs alongside satay beef with vermicelli, accompanied by a tall glass of ying yang, a milk tea mixed with coffee; and my personal favourite, macaroni soup with ham.

It’s a no-fuss dish of elbow macaroni in a clear broth with diced luncheon meat. The soup is such a breakfast staple in Hong Kong that it is served both at luxury hotels and at McDonald’s. It’s not fusion cooking per se, but a culinary record of how cuisines naturally evolve and change over the centuries.

The GTA saw a boom in cha chang tang openings in the late ’80s to early ’90s, when a wave of immigrants from Hong Kong settled into neighbourhoods like Scarborough and North York (my family included), and then later in Markham and Richmond Hill.

For those downtown, Chinatown’s Gold Stone Restaurant serves some Hong Kong diner dishes while the recently opened Oh Snack! is carrying the torch for the next generation. One of the older spots, Big Ming’s Restaurant in Unionville at New Kennedy Square, has a lineup every morning before the doors even open at 7 a.m. Like any good diner, it’s a place shared through word-of-mouth and is a reliable spot for nearby residents to pop in for a meal under $10.

“People like it because it’s fast and it’s homestyle,” said owner Ming Ngai, in Cantonese. Fast being the key when she’s asked to describe the cha chang tang experience in one word. Like its western greasy spoon cousin, the cha chang tang caters to office workers short on time in the morning or ducking out for an afternoon snack. It’s the kind of place where diners often order without looking at the menu and are out the door in 30 minutes. The restaurant is now open for limited indoor dining, but most customers continue to stick with takeout (there’s a small table outside for those who want to indulge immediately).

Ngai took over the space off Highway 7 and Kennedy Road about 14 years ago. She was working as a server there when her former boss decided to sell the diner. Ngai runs the front of the restaurant while her husband works in the kitchen (he starts cooking at 5 a.m. to prepare the congee and oatmeal for breakfast, and then the soups that accompany the lunch combos). Their daughter, Kenna Ho, who has a day job in human resources, took on the role of social media manager and Uber Eats wrangler to help her parents reach new customers when the pandemic hit.

Ho uses the restaurant’s Instagram account to explain and highlight the seemingly scattered menus of Hong Kong cooking. For example, the afternoon tea menu (a tradition leftover from its colonial past) will feature club sandwiches, won ton noodles and fried chicken wings served with a fruit salad drizzled with mayonnaise (people either love or hate the Hong Kong fruit salad, there’s no in-between). Milk tea is always a must.

“I explain how the teas are made, how the pork chops are always on fried rice, those little details of what makes Hong Kong cooking unique,” says Ho. “I discover restaurants I want to try through social media, so maybe someone else will find us through the same way.”

Ngai says those unfamiliar with the menus of the cha chang tang usually opt for the fried noodles or spring rolls, but she says she will always try to direct them to the more traditional cha chang tang staples like baked casseroles (it’s always a meat like a fish cutlet, pork chop or chicken leg on top of fried rice or spaghetti and smothered with a cheesy cream, curry or tomato sauce and baked for a slight smoky char). She also recommends the sizzling beef and black pepper sauce platters for something uniquely Hong Kong. “People really missed the sizzling platters when we closed for indoor dining because that doesn’t translate well to takeout,” Ngai says.

Another dish that can puzzle those unfamiliar with the cuisine: borscht (it’s an unspoken rule that every cha chang tang must have this). Unlike the Russian version, this iteration doesn’t contain beets and is instead a thin, sweet and slightly tart tomato and beef-based soup with cabbage. It was popularized in Shanghai during the 1900s when Russian immigrants lacked access to beets and instead created a soup that catered to local tastes.

Still, it’s the neighbourhood regulars who make up the bulk of the business. A steady mix of hungry contractors between shifts, parents grabbing an efficient lunch while kids are in daycare, retirees leisurely reading the newspaper over their morning milk tea and toast. As is the case with a lot of diner food, many of the dishes like egg sandwiches or toast slathered with sweetened condensed milk can easily be made at home. But it’s the familiarity of the space (whether it’s people choosing to dine in or drop in for takeout) that has diners returning, especially after more than a year of isolation.

“It’s the feeling of being at home without having to do the dishes,” Ngai said. “We have staff here that has been here since we opened and we know the customers. It’s like a second home.”

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