By: Frances Du
In a world class city like Hong Kong there’s no shortage of gastronomy. Foodies constantly scour the streets for new dining hotspots leaving subpar restaurants in the dust. The city consumes more wine than any other country in Asia and boasts an impressive lineup of Michelin Star restaurants. So it surprised me when I received an email from a friend who suggested that the first place I should eat was a no-frills breakfast spot mysteriously known as Australian Dairy Company.
This popular cha chaan teng, or tea restaurant, is located in Kowloon, HK, along Parkes Street, close to Jordan MTR. Tucked away in the backstreets where the stores are smaller, dingier, and there are torn cardboard boxes and mashed fruit speckled along the street, we were skeptical despite ADC’s cult following of locals and food bloggers. But we realized exactly how popular this spot was when we arrived there at 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning and found ourselves staring at a long buzzing queue outside the eatery.
While in line, we called on the attention of a man in an orange shirt who appeared to be in his forties. He swiveled around keeping his arms crossed.
“When do people usually start lining up?” We asked in Cantonese.
The man shrugged slowly before answering. “Usually at seven, but every day is different. Unpredictable.”
“Is it worth the wait?”
We craned our necks trying to get a glimpse of the interior. Only the front of the store, the white exterior, and black lettering were visible. But we could hear the noise coming from within — the sound of silverware being used and placed aside and the casual conversations among patrons.
Luckily for us, the queue started to move just as it began to grow a touch warmer outside and signs of life “” passing taxi cabs and workers”” began to consume the roads.
This type of dining experience originated very early on during the years of British colonization. Initially, the eateries were exclusive dining spots for homesick Westerners longing for comfort food, but during the post war period, due to industrial growth, locals could afford to open their own cha chaan teng’s and cater to all social classes. Part of the restaurants’ appeal arose from the fact that locals were curious about “exotic Western cuisine.” But their popularity has remained mostly due to the fact that this new breed of cha chaang teng’s allowed local owners to make significant changes to the menu items. Western dishes were modified with local ingredients and became East-meets-West offerings.
And unlike dim sum, cha chaan teng is less focused on etiquette and custom, offering a more relaxed dining experience.
Or so I was told.
However, in my personal opinion the dining experience was far from relaxing!
We shuffled forward. One step. Two steps. Until we finally got a glimpse inside.
At first we thought something had just caught on fire. All of the waiters were racing in various directions at such an incredible speed I was surprised they didn’t end up body checking each other, yet the locals just sat there, unalarmed, taking no notice of them. The operation could only be described as carefully controlled chaos as orders were called, food was distributed, and tables were continuously rearranged to make room for just one more party.
A racing waiter wearing thick black glasses slowed down in front of us and held out four fingers, grabbing menus from behind the register. We nodded, but he had already started moving away and towards a table that had just been cleared, a ring of dark liquid glistened on the surface. We were seated close to the front entrance, now looking out at the long queue of people that stood waiting to get in, but still wondering if all of the fuss was worth it.
Suddenly another waiter appeared, pressing down on the tip of his pen.
“Order?” he said briskly.
We had just sat down! We told him we weren’t ready yet. He nodded and quickly hurried away.
The one page menu was yellow and laminated and the dishes were absurdly simple. Eggs. Eggs with ham. Egg sandwich. It reminded me of that scene in My Cousin Vinny when Lisa and Vinny are at the diner and the menu items are simply: BREAKFAST, LUNCH, DINNER.
The place was plain and stark, like a fluorescent-lit butcher shop. It lacked any decorations or award plaques to create ambience or some level of prestige that was not immediately visible to the naked eye, yet somehow it didn’t matter. Maybe it was the constant stream of satisfied locals or the gawky waiters wearing faded jeans and short-sleeved white dress shirts one size too big. There must’ve been ten, eleven or twelve of them. It was impossible to keep count because they were all moving so quickly “” jotting down meal orders, racing by with menus, slapping down cups of tea which somehow never, ever ended up spilling onto the slightly sticky tables.
A waiter motioned for us to move our chairs closer to the table as another waiter barreled by with a table over his head. He set it up next to ours while a third waiter brought over a few red stools for a family of four.
This fast-paced, get in-get-out service is a perfect reflection of Hong Kong culture. In a place where everything happens very, very quickly you just have to roll with the punches. And when the queue outside doesn’t cease to diminish, waiters seat new customers with other guests making it a communal dining experience. If this isn’t your cup of tea, it’s best to go with a full party of four. And there’s no need to wait around for a check. Customers pay at the register.
When the waiter arrived at our table again he suggested the special for all of us: eggs, toast, macaroni with ham and milk tea (26 HKD). Ten seconds later three waiters efficiently distributed food over our tiny table, stacking porcelain plates full of steaming hot, perfectly fluffy, farm-to-table scrambled eggs tucked between white bread with the edges cut off; bowls of macaroni soup with ham; and hot milk tea.
To say the food was mouthwateringly good wouldn’t even begin to do it justice. Simple fanfare, but perfectly cooked.
The following evening we stopped at ADC again for dessert, savoring steamed milk custard made with fresh Kowloon Dairy milk, but it didn’t quite compare to the dishes we enjoyed the previous morning. We discovered that both the fried and scrambled eggs were equally delicious options. The secret ingredient might just lie in the butter, or maybe it was the frantic pulse of the place that kept us shoveling food into our mouths. Either way, when it was all over, we found ourselves standing outside the restaurant wondering: What just happened?
Feature photo by flickr/huipiiing
Frances Du is a freelance writer and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario. She’s an English teacher by day and a city explorer by night, but her goal is to travel all over the world before settling down in NYC. She blogs about twenty-something culture, ideas, and concerns at franny glass strikes back. You can follow her on Twitter @frannyglass22