Anything goes with Hong Kong cafe fusion
Hong Kong–style cafés have come a long way from their humble beginnings to a unique restaurant genre in their own right. They’re found in places from Shanghai to London, Sydney to Singapore, and they continue to reinvent themselves over generations throughout the Chinese diaspora.
As a tot in Hong Kong in the late ’50s, I remember highly specialized street stalls turning out thick, crustless buttered toast—optionally slathered with condensed milk.
Alongside were glasses of viscous, super-strong “red” Ceylon tea, brewed in cotton “stocking” filters and whitened with evaporated milk. Back then, this British-inspired breakfast combo was the hip alternative to the old-fashioned duo of Chinese doughnuts and soymilk.
By the ’60s, some cafés had moved indoors and morphed into hard-seat diners. Menus expanded with Chinese interpretations of western dishes, resulting in offerings with a murky culinary pedigree.
Baked pork chops in tomato sauce over egg fried rice, and spaghetti in seafood cream sauce are but two of the staples that have endured. Elbow macaroni curiously appeared with strips of ham in broth. A popular sandwich mated fried Spam or so-called “luncheon meat” with a fried egg.
For beverages, shaved-ice drinks were all the rage, presented in parfait glasses for a touch of tropical flair. They were concocted from diverse ingredients such as straight-out-of-the-can fruit cocktail, and sweet red-bean soup drizzled with evaporated milk.
Around here, Hong Kong cafés remain true to their common-folk roots. Their ubiquitous prix fixe menus usually provide exceptional value. Available during mealtimes and for afternoon tea, they offer soup, a choice of main, sometimes dessert, and always the characteristic Hong Kong–style tea or coffee, hyper-strong and whitened with evaporated milk. For a small surcharge, the latter can be iced.
To ease into the Hong Kong café experience, start with a breakfast combo at Boss Bakery & Restaurant in Chinatown (532 Main Street). For a fiver you get two eggs, ham, and toast or a bun with a cuppa. The people watching is free: elderly men with newspapers convening for their daily breeze-shooting session; gussied-up tai-tais sashaying in for a wee pastry before hitting Holt Renfrew”¦ It’s all part of the deal.
Apropos of multicultural Vancouver, apart from a core repertoire of original fusion dishes as briefly described above, Hong Kong café menus can vary a great deal according to the owner’s and chef’s tastes.
Mui Garden (various locations, www.muigarden.com/ )—one of my family’s long-time favourites—specializes in Malaysian curries ($8.50), Hainanese chicken rice ($7.50), and satays (six skewers for $8.50). Angel Café (5995 Fraser Street), my current neighbourhood hangout, has a menu that runs eight pages with headings like Sizzling Hot Plate, Hot Pot Specials, and Asian Delights.
The Curry Chicken Gold Block ($6.95) is an impressive, “ya-gotta-see-this” hollowed-out sandwich loaf filled with a mild, creamy Madras-curry stew. Also tasty are the Chicken Chop (translation: boneless thigh) with fries and roasted veggies, and a mini wok of sliced pork toro (pork neck) served with instant ramen in XO sauce. Yep, instant ramen, prepared straight from the package.
I Café (2525 Heather Street), which has a lovely water feature at the entrance and a partial view of downtown and the mountains, hums along with a sort of quiet elegance. Prices are a smidgen higher than average, but the quality is also up. Try minute steak with black pepper sauce on spaghetti, or rice noodles in fish-ball soup.
Fierce competition in Richmond has spawned a new generation of cafés that compete on ambiance. California Hong Kong Café in Lansdowne Mall (322–5300 No. 3 Road, Richmond) looks more like a nightclub, with its sleek black interior, tall booths, and shiny chrome, complete with a baby grand on a dais in the middle of the room.
Last time we peeked, the piano had been replaced by a lounge act. Seats are comfortable, portions substantial, reviews through the grapevine remain mixed.
We did not harbour great expectations as we searched for Gogo Tea Café (2170–8788 Mckim Way, Cosmo Plaza, Richmond), but we were intrigued by the Web site’s teaser of “service that involves wearing bunny ears”.
The hand-me-down décor was worrisome at first—white leatherette booths are clearly not a good idea for a restaurant. But although we did get served by svelte waitresses, the odd one wearing a miniskirted, French-maid-type uniform, the Sunday afternoon family crowd put a stop to any naughty imaginings. The popcorn chicken nuggets scented with fresh basil, however, were an unbeatable full-meal deal with a generous side of steamed gai lan and rice ($7.25). Note to self: pay a visit to this joint again on a Saturday night.