A Cantonese diner (Char Chaan Teng) returns to the heart of Sydney! Let’s all unite together and not let this one flitter away like the others before it!
When I first noticed Hong Kong Kitchen listed on the Newly Opened Restaurant collection on Zomato, I literally clapped my hands and whooped in delight! As from my knowledge at least, there hasn’t been a Hong Kong style diner in Chinatown for quite some time! And now that one had newly opened up right around the corner from us! Even better!
Sydney-siders know all about Shanghainese food, as ordering and eating dumplings is second nature to most by now; Sydney-siders also know all about Sichuan food, as who hasn’t had their tongue and lips go completely numb on Sichuan peppers; Sydney-siders also know all about hot-pot, as they’re popping-up all over the place and who hasn’t chased around the final floating fish-ball in a now super-concentrated soup base; Sydney-siders also know all about yum-cha, as who hasn’t over-ordered on steamed dim sums and watched those bamboo steamers pile-up on your Lazy Susan; and even if they haven’t tried it, Sydney-siders know all about the Chinese BBQ shops, as who hasn’t at least walked past those stores with the hanging glazed meat and head-intact BBQ ducks! But do all Sydney-siders know about the Char Chaan Teng? The Hong Kong style diner which serves Canto-Western dishes? A style of cuisine unique to Hong Kong, and only familiar to its ex-pat Hongkie population (and their offspring) spread out around the world.
Okay, this question ‘Do Sydney-siders know all about the Char Chaan Teng?’ is posed to the non-Hongkie. If the term Hongkie already baffles……..Perfect! As this question is targeted at you. And if your answer is ‘Nup’, please consider these following questions. If I told you that there is a Chinese restaurant which serves up pasta, and steak & chips (for around $15), would you try it? If I told you that you can get a two course Western style meal, with a western style soup of the day; and a main of baked pork-chop and spaghetti, served with a pasta sauce which contains more soya sauce than tomatoes? And all of these meals are prepared by Chinese cooks, would you pay good money to try it? If your answer is ‘Hell-no’, then this post is for you! As you might think you’ve tried all the different Chinese cuisines 2 billion people can come-up with, but you haven’t tried them all until you’ve tried the Hong Kong Char Chaan Teng! Come-on, follow me, let me demystify all of this for you.
Where to start…… Maybe at the format? The signature of a Hong Kong style diner is their offering of Set Menus, which are only available at set times. There is a lunch Set Menu, an afternoon tea Set Menu, and a dinner Set Menu (some might even have a breakfast Set Menu – but Hong Kong Kitchen does not). And there is no such thing as ‘all day afternoon tea’ (although personally I think the afternoon tea Set Menu is the most unique and appealing), and they’re pretty strict with keeping to their schedule. Be warned, they will rarely serve you food out of its allotted time-slot, and Hong Kong Kitchen also follows this format. And I think understanding this rigidness is important, so you can plan ahead, and avoid being disappointed. As no amount of charm will help you score an afternoon tea meal, at lunch-time. Remember Seinfeld? And the Soup-Nazi and Elaine’s attempts to befriend him/charm him? Yeah, remember that……..rigid; charm not going to work.
Here are the time-brackets and a brief summary of what they serve. **Note: You can order off the a la carte menu at any time (however, you get the most value for money with the Set Menus).
Between 11.30am – 2.30pm, this is the only time you can order the Lunch set of the day ($15.80, which consists of a soup (either a Borscht or a cream soup) with bread roll, a Canto-western main (either Chicken or Pork, served on rice or spaghetti, with your choice of sauce), and a Hong Kong style milk tea (Góngsīk náaihchà). **Note: If you’re unfamiliar with the Hong Kong Milk Tea, I’d best describe it to be like a Thai Milk Tea, quite sweet as it contains condensed milk.
Between 2.30pm – 5.00pm is Afternoon tea time (ranging from $6.00 to $11.80), this is where things get interesting as you start to get A Chaan, B Chaan, C Chaan etc. **Note: Chaan translates to Meal in English. Afternoon tea is a social time, so in Hong Kong a group of people might go out and have afternoon tea together, but of course everyone has varying levels of appetite at that time of day. Depending on your hunger level, you can elect to have a lighter meal (for a lesser amount of money), or you can choose a Chaan further along the Alphabet if you’re more hungry by 4pm (but then you’re probably ruining your appetite for dinner). An example of an A Chaan is a single piece of toast (hence only $6); B Chaan is one fried chicken wing or a single warm Pineapple bun with a slither of butter placed within its fluffy embrace. Yummo! And as we reach the other end of the spectrum, C Chaan will get you a Pineapple bun with breakfast meat within its fluffy fold, D Chaan is even more filling with options like instant noodles with breakfast meat and there is even an E Chaan! (all Chaans come with the Hong Kong Milk Tea).
And after 5.00pm, the Dinner set of the day is on the table ($17.80, which is similar to the Lunch set of the day but a little bit more expensive. I’m assuming you’re getting more food for your buck?
**Note: And to further confuse things, above I’ve only outlined the arrangement for the weekend, what is on offer changes on weekdays. *Slaps hand on forehead*.
But on this day, Australia Day (I know, it’s not very Aussie of us), we tried out this new Hong Kong Chaar Chaan Teng, during their lunch bracket.
The store is pretty narrow at the front which widens out towards the back to accommodate larger groups; the décor is pretty simple, while they have this nostalgia-evoking black & white wallpaper of Hong Kong city-scape scenes from the yester-year which my Olds might like. The tables are set quite closely together, so much so that throughout the meal it was inflating my ego as people were continually bumping up against my shoulders; for once I felt like my exercise regime was paying off and my shoulders were getting uber broad………But realistically, it’s just really squishy in there.
It’s probably advisable to pre-study their menu beforehand if you’re unfamiliar with the Char Chaan Teng concept, as it takes some time to process what you’re allowed to order at the given time, and what combination you’d like to have. But when you’ve made-up your mind, depending on which waitress you get, you might have to be a little bit more patient and do the good old ‘turn the menu around to them and just point to what you want’ to avoid any confusion. Granted! It was our fault as well, as we pretended not to speak Cantonese as we didn’t want to expose how poor our grasp of Canto actually is; so instead we exposed how poor our poor waitress’ English is, sorry about that (there was one other waitress who had perfect English, who seemed to specifically serve customers who look like they couldn’t speak Chinese).
For me, my most memorable meal when I was a teenager in Hong Kong, was a Tomato Baked Pork chop on rice, so to judge how good Hong Kong Kitchen stacks-up, I naturally ordered that off the a la carte menu ($15.80). While my wife went with the Lunch of the Day, electing the Borscht soup, Chicken on Rice with Portuguese sauce, and for an extra $1, an iced Hong Kong Milk Tea (plus the extra $1= $16.80).
Within moments (literally moments, so much so that we forgot to take our customary interior restaurant shot when we wait for food), her soup arrived which also included a Chaan Bao (Chinese sweet bun, similar to what you get from a Chinese bakery), and when we were preparing for the food shot, her iced milk tea arrived as well. This was all within 3 minutes of placing our orders.
And the soup was really tasty, when I first tried it I thought to myself that it must contain flavour enhancers like MSG. But after coming home we haven’t felt super thirsty, which is the usual telltale sign that your food contained enhancers. So the soup was probably just stewing in a pot for a real long-time. The Chaan Bao was perfect, warm enough to melt the butter, and just large enough that it wasn’t going to ruin your appetite for the main. And the milk tea was strong and sweet, what you’d expect from a Hong Kong milk tea (it was worth the $1 extra, as it came in a large milkshake glass).
While my wife was trying her best to power through her soup, her main also arrived – a large plate of chicken and rice (3 large pieces of chicken thigh meat). And soon after my baked pork chop also arrived.
My wife’s chicken was served with the skin (that could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your preference), and was tasty in the Portuguese sauce (a creamy, non-spicy curry). While my dish contained so much pork! There was at least 350g of meat there, it was thick sliced but cooked perfectly! The meat was super tender, it was battered before being baked- so there were parts which were crispy, where the tomato/soya sauce gravy hadn’t absorbed into it yet. And with the melty cheese on top, and all the saucy rice; it was so good! Best baked pork chop rice I’ve had in a very long time! Perhaps since 1999 when I had that meal at Harbour Terminal in Hong Kong with my mum!
And by the end, we were so stuffed. My wife was able to finish the soup, but left a third of her main. I had to work hard to finish my meal and take it for the team and finish the milk tea (pretty buzzy afterwards). So the quantity of food you’re getting for your money? That was not an issue here.
The only knocks on the experience was perhaps the stickiness of the table? It was quite sticky as my facial tissue stuck to the table as soon as you put it down, like a post-it-note. Haaha. And each time you place down your complementary cup of water (which had a squeeze of lemon in it), you’d struggle to pry it free from the table again. At first I thought a practical joke was being played on me. Haaha. Methinks the stickiness of the table is due to the turn-over rate, as soon as one table leaves, another group arrives (and throughout our meal, our front section was full). And the plates of food are heaped with so much food, I too was guilty of contributing to the stickiness of the table when I pushed off a huge piece of saucy pork off my plate onto the table. At first, it was one piece of pork chop for me, one piece of pork chop for the table! Haaha. And my wife didn’t like the idea of the communal cutlery containers, which was one shared in-between two tables. You had to reach across the gap-in-between the tables to grab your own knife and fork; excusing yourself to perfect strangers on another table when doing so. And the cringe factor was magnified when you pull out 2 knives when you wanted a knife and fork, as the cutlery were placed up-side-down, so you couldn’t tell what you were pulling out.
But aside from these small things (which is a result of how well they’re doing and the cost of rent in Sydney), the meal was a really positive experience!
Our end verdict? 4.5 Stars from 5! 2.5 Stars from 3 for food (afterwards my wife asked why can’t the food be more gourmet, but if it was gourmet, it wouldn’t be a Char Chaan Teng anymore!); 0.5 from 0.5 for Service (although English isn’t their first language, but they were still very polite and tried hard to be of good service); 0.5 from 0.5 for Atmosphere (as they had Chinese pop playing softly and it was busy so there was much hub-bub); and 1 from 1 for Value for money (although it was a bit more expensive, but they were giving you a whole heap of food for your money).
In conclusion, it’s so good to see the re-emergence of a Hong Kong style diner, for a few years the trend was that a Char Chaan Teng would close down, to be replaced by another hot-pot restaurant. So it’s fantastic to see a quintessential Canto restaurant return back to the CBD, which adds to the diversity in Chinatown. The only way we can ensure Hong Kong Kitchen’s ongoing success, is to get out there and support them! So looping back to the intro, if you’ve never tried Canto-western food before, you’ll have to try! Put that onto your bucket-list for 2019! Then you’ve really tried all the facets and flavours of Chinese cuisine! And if you’re a Hongkie, come out and try HK Kitchen for yourself, don’t just take my word for how good it is! It will definitely remind you of good old Hong Kong.
Hong Kong Kitchen- Saturday 26 January (4.5 Stars).
PH: (02) 8021 7176
4/345B Sussex Street, Sydney
Mon-Thurs 11.30am – 9.30pm
Fri- 11.30am – 10pm
Sat-Sun 11.30am – 9.30pm