Shanghai’s four best restaurants for homesick Hongkongers – think pineapple buns, Ovaltine and scrambled egg with shrimp
Step into these places and you’ll be transported back to a 1950s cha chaan teng, where you can tuck into claypot rice or barbecued meat and drink milk tea
I have to admit, some of my delight upon entering Cha’s was the result of finding a clean, well lit sanctuary from the torrential Shanghai summer rain. But that was just one small part of the transformation that took place after setting foot inside the Cantonese diner. Through an entrance so innocuous that I had to double back to find it, I left the bustling Shanghai street to find myself transported into what looked like a classic cha chaan teng in mid-century Hong Kong.
From the red italic Enjoy Coca Cola logo emblazoned on a vintage fridge set against a frame of Tiffany-style orange and green stained glass, to the red crates of Vitasoy stacked from floor to ceiling in the corner, Cha’s is the perfect hole in the wall for Hongkongers in Shanghai who are nostalgic for their home.
Cha’s features many classic cha chaan teng elements: square, glass covered tables, utilitarian tiled floors, cheap hong cha (red tea), and bright fluorescent lighting. The ceiling fans circle lazily and waiters stand at attention in white jackets, shapeless and saggy at the shoulders from being washed and starched too many times.
At the back of the restaurant, glass cabinets hold shelves of pineapple buns, egg custard pastries, and tins of Cadbury’s drinking chocolate, Ovaltine, and Black and White evaporated milk.
Great cafes make you feel comfortable – the food is simple, the ambience is casual, the waiters are efficient, and customers are there to fill up and go rather than to see and be seen. But the best places can invoke a feeling like home, of casual hospitality and timelessness.
This is in part because most diners around the world stopped evolving after the middle of the 20th century. The classic American diner, with black-and-white tile, chrome trimmings, and vinyl-covered stools hasn’t changed much since the 1950s.
Hong Kong’s own greasy spoons, or cha chaan teng, also haven’t changed much since their inception after the second world war, when expensive Western food started to become trendy in the city. Cha chaan teng blended Eastern comfort foods with Western toast, noodles, sandwiches, and drinks.
The food at Cha’s is simple and delicious. It arrived just minutes after being ordered. Their fried rice with Jinhua ham and scallops was light and fluffy, peppered with squash and ham that added bright, satisfying flashes of saltiness to the dish. Cha’s house-made curry, with beef brisket and tendon, was a solid rendition of the classic dish. The scrambled egg with shrimp was rich with fresh onion flavour, thin slices of green onion among the egg and the moist, succulent shrimp. Cha’s milk tea was decent: milky, light and smooth, though I prefer mine to have a bit more of a kick.
After paying and stepping back outside, the spell was immediately broken and I was back in Shanghai. However, the rain had let up a bit, and with a belly full of good food and a dry jacket, everything seemed a little bit rosier.
In Shanghai, several other similar options exist for Hongkongers.
V’s Café is a more modern update on the classic cha chaan teng, located on a top floor of a mall in the Changning district and furnished with leather upholstered booths, hanging lighting sculptures, and wall-length word collages that feature the words, if not the ambience, of the Hong Kong diner: “Milk tea, Central, Ice Lemon Tea, Rice with Shrimp and Scrambled Egg.”
It’s almost comic, though endearing in its own way, how the quotidian elements of the cha chaan teng have become wall art, lit up by dramatic spotlights in a restaurant overlooking a major shopping centre. The signs of late capitalism are present everywhere, even in Shanghai, where capitalism got off to a late start.
The food at V’s likewise aims for authenticity but only just comes close. The fish balls in soup were a bit squished, as if frozen and reheated, and could have been spongier. The barbecued platter of duck, char siu, pork belly, and chicken was respectable, the pork belly the star of the bunch with crisp skin and rich, smoky flavour. The fried beans at the bottom of the platter, however, could afford to be softer and chewier.
V’s pineapple bun was the best I’ve had in Shanghai, though, with its dense, crunchy top, fresh bread, and generous slab of melted butter.
Mr Pots is more of a Cantonese banquet-style restaurant than a classic diner, but the food is beloved by locals and Hong Kong transplants alike, and it does have a Coke fridge in the corner with a selection of the classic glass bottles on display. The barbecue dishes are a touch better than those at V’s, the char siu was succulent, drawing on that great combination of sweet, chewy, and smoky.
The shrimp dumpling, or har gau, was fresh with chewy skin, and the gai lan was superb – crunchy, fresh and flavourful.
Mr Pots is known for clay pot rice dishes, and on my visit, I ordered a classic version with Chinese sausage. It came out very well done, the rice browned to a crisp, so much so that it was almost like munching on plastic. But the eggplant with minced meat and salted fish was hot, moist and so wonderfully salty I ordered two bowls of rice to mix in with it.
The local, late night Hong Kong diner has become a symbol, an institution, and for better or for worse, it has been franchised most successfully by the Tsui Wah restaurant group throughout the world. In Shanghai alone there are 17 locations. I visited the one at 880 Dingxiang Road. For a cha chaan teng-inspired meal that is quick, reliable, and decent, Tsui Wah is a widely available and consistently decent option. Their Hainan chicken is tender and moist, and their fried rice with chicken and abalone is satisfying, albeit much too greasy. The Tsui Wah coffee milk tea is bitter, thick, and chalky – utterly refreshing, and in my opinion, the best of the bunch.
30 Sinan Road, Huangpu District, Shanghai, +86 21 6093 2062
1665 Hongqiao Road, Changning District, +86 21 6288 0077
802 Yanan Zhong Road, Jingan District, +86 21 6227 7869
880 Dingxiang Road, Pudong New Area, +86 21 6858 2902; tsuiwah.com/business/restaurant/branches