Cha Chaan Teng: A Take On Hong Kong's Cultural Gem
It's not as expensive as one might think to instantly immerse oneself in Hong Kong.
Every Sunday morning, my mother and I have a tradition of losing ourselves in the Asian metropolis, ten minutes from our home in Markham. Defying time and space is a matter of choosing from a list of familiar names: Happy Cafe, Fire Fly Seafood and Steak House, New City Restaurant, and Ming's Restaurant, just to name a small few. Visiting Hong Kong (at least with our palates) is easy, affordable, and fun thanks to the variety of quality cha chaan teng Markham has to offer.
So what are cha chaan teng, besides restaurants? Well, there are many ways to describe them. The interior decor is usually tacky. The English on the menus, when available, is quite entertainingly bad. The food is inexpensive and tasty, although not the healthiest stuff around. An eclectic mix of Hong Kong and Canto-Western cuisine, the restaurants are a definitive part of Hong Kong's culture. Thanks to Markham's Chinese population, they're now part of the GTA's, too.
An authentic cha chaan teng in Hong Kong has the same sort of charm as an esoteric crawlspace pizza joint snuggled somewhere deep in the belly of the metropolis, the kind with bona fide Italians with questionable affiliations gesturing passionately from behind grubby counters - the kind with, undeniably, the very best pizza. In a good cha chaan teng, however, the house specialty is always the Hong Kong-style milk tea, or nai cha. A unique (and for the more popular vendors, often secret) mix of several types of black tea and evaporated milk, this signature drink always comes free with the afternoon specials and is a quintessential part of the cha chaan teng experience. The name translates to "tea restaurant", after all.
Besides the tea, what makes cha chaan teng special are the sheer number of menu options, and the fact that everything is so darn cheap. Meal choices include absolutely inestimable variations of baked spaghetti, congee, sizzling meat plates, soup noodles, fried rice, sandwiches, and much, much more. Breakfasts complete with a hot drink can be ordered for as little as a toonie. "Happy Hour" or "Afternoon Tea" specials (usually served between 2:30PM and 5PM) offer especially large portions of food for unbelievably low prices. Dinners are not for small eaters, but small spenders - for eight dollars, one can order a near-overwhelming combo with soup, salad, a drink, a main course, and a dessert. Even with so much food to make and serve, the fast service is surprisingly consistent. At busy times of day, meals often arrive at the table in less than five minutes.
Of course, a dining experience this affordable and convenient is bound to have its setbacks - one shouldn't expect the food to taste very different between establishments, and health nuts might want to take their business elsewhere. Despite this, the predictability of the food and drink and the simple, distinctive atmosphere of cha chaan teng have made my weekly visits near and dear to my heart. Of the places my mother and I frequent, Fire Fly at Woodbine and Highway 7 has the most original food options (although kind of unusual, the Seafood and Steak House description does not disappoint).
New City and Ming's are both located at Kennedy and Highway 7's Peachtree Centre. The former is open earliest in the morning (7 AM) and the latter has the quickest service. Located in the same plaza as New City and Ming's, Happy Cafe has the friendliest servers, the best tea, and is my personal favourite. The menus also come in English, which is convenient for young Chinese-Canadians like myself who understand the spoken language, but struggle to read it.
The next time you make a trip up to Markham, consider stopping at a cha chaan teng to curb the late afternoon munchies. The experience will give that of Chinatown establishments a run for their money, and it really is something one can understand and enjoy whether in North America or a few continents to the east. For me, it doesn't matter if I'm short on time and cash - I know I'll still have enough for a little piece of Asia in my pocket.
Writing and photographs by guest contributor Jennifer Tse.
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