Tucked away on the corner lot of Diho Square, sandwiched between an experienced sushi restaurant and a vegetarian buffet, is Houston’s only Cha-Chaan-Teng.
Established in the spring of 2006, Hong Kong’s Cafe is one of the last bastions of Hong Kong cuisine in the city and serves dishes of British-Chinese fusion cuisine. Loosely translated, cha-chaan-teng means “tea restaurant” and is as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as guests are in America.
These humble restaurants are a sign of the island’s unique culinary landscape, known for quick, affordable meals. But here in Asiatown, Hong Kong’s Cafe is more than a restaurant; It is an institution that embodies Houston’s consolation for part of the Chinese diaspora.
Less than 2,000 Houstonians are from Hong Kong, according to a 2015 census of Clutch City’s foreign-born population. The recent pro-democracy protests of 2019 have sparked mass emigration from Hong Kong to other countries as many flee from the increasingly authoritarian hand of the Chinese government. All over the world, parts of the Hong Kong community protested along with those in their mother country. The protests’ controversy even reached Houston, according to a now-deleted tweet from former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.
Hong Kong’s Cafe is located in the corner lot of Diho Square.
For these immigrants, memories of their homeland are very much sought after, as many are committed to preserving facets of their identity. Even before the recent protests, Hong Kong residents chafed under the label of being Chinese. Culturally, Hong Kong differs from China through its links to British colonialism, democratic practices and language. They speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, and have served as a link between East and West for centuries.
These awards make a huge difference to Hong Kong people and even extend to their cuisine. Hong Kong’s cuisine is shaped by a long history of British colonialism, South Chinese tradition and sheer necessity. After the First Opium War, the port was awarded to the British Crown, which ruled from 1841 to 1997. To accommodate their colonizers, locals began pouring milk into their tea and turning foreign ingredients into traditional favorites. Fusion cuisine was born.
A cultural by-product of colonial history, the cha-chaan-teng serves Hong Kong-style dishes not found anywhere in China. Hong Kong’s Cafe has standard Chinese dishes – fried rice, chow mein, and fake shark fin soup if that’s what you’re into – but the real masterpieces don’t sound Chinese at all.
Unlikely partners: Hong Kong-style French toast paired with a chicken wing.
Deep fried French toast, pancakes, baked pork chops in tomato sauce, and spaghetti Bolognese are some of the best sellers at this cafe. In a strange way, Hong Kong’s Cafe is a diner. There’s coffee, toast, eggs, and a hot dog if you really want it, but there’s also a distinctly Chinese twist to it. For the owner Winnie Wong, this unique mixture is summed up in a cup of Hong Kong milk tea.
“In Chinese restaurants,” she emphasizes, “the tea is usually a Chinese tea like pu’er, but here it is milk tea.”
Hong Kong-style milk tea is a highly caffeinated, concentrated blend of Chinese and Western teas mixed with condensed milk – and stiff competition for a cup of coffee. The café offers a variety of traditional goods, including vegetarian chicken and zhong, a steamed rice dumpling filled with five-seasoned pork, and a salted egg wrapped in banana leaves.
“Those were the things we used to eat in Hong Kong,” remarks Wong, a testament to the restaurant’s authenticity.
Fusion in one cup: Hong Kong-style milk tea is a perfect blend of tea and rich milk.
For long-term guests, the coexistence of these kitchens is a matter of course. Kerry Yung, a Hong Kong Houston woman, has been visiting the cafe for nearly 15 years.
“I come here when I miss Hong Kong,” she says, “these types of food, like milk tea and French toast, are only available in Hong Kong.”
The restaurant even carries on one of Hong Kong’s most important food traditions – afternoon tea. Hong Kong-style afternoon tea, served from 3pm to 6pm, is a hearty snack meant to accompany guests until dinner. The tea menu, in true fusion style, varies from simple congee to a fried chicken schnitzel. The breakfast menu is also unusual for early risers. The main staple food is elbow macaroni, which is served in broth, paired with fried lunchtime meat and eggs. Aside from the food, there is something else that holds customers together.
The ultimate comfort meal, an oven-baked spaghetti bolognese with a bubbly cheese crust.
“I think it’s a shared interest,” says Kinny Yau, another long-time customer. While Yau is enjoying her afternoon tea, she giggles at the number of times she happened to run into old friends, other Hong Kong Houstons, here. “The people who come here get along, they know what to expect,” she says, “that’s pleasant for us, it’s familiar.”
It is relatively rare for the Hong Kong diaspora to find a Cha-Chaan-Teng outside the island. As the region is exposed to changes in the political systems, these spaces become even more important because they represent a displaced culture. In recent years it has become an act of defiance to identify as a Hong Kong resident.
But to eat like one – to see the difference to Chinese food – is an act of edification.
Instant noodles with spam and fried eggs are a Cha-Chaan-Teng breakfast staple.
By exploring the depths and nuances of Chinese cuisine in Houston, we take responsibility for discovering what nourishes us. Western cuisine is often categorized specifically (e.g. French, Italian, Greek) so why don’t we pay the same respect to Chinese food?
Referring to restaurants like Hong Kong’s Cafe as Chinese restaurants is not as accurate as we used to think. Although it is consistently viewed as Chinese, its existence is the direct result of Western colonization and influence. It doesn’t exactly fit under a single label, but thrives between two worlds.
The Chinese label has become all-encompassing, but by recognizing the unique cuisines and cultures of Houston’s Asiatown, we do more than just eat, we respect the individual cultures that feed us.