The Intricacies of Hong Kong Cuisine in Houston’s Asian Quarter



Tucked away in the corner of Diho Square, sandwiched between a seasoned sushi restaurant and a vegetarian buffet, is Houston’s only cha-chaan-teng.

Hong Kong’s Cafe, established in the spring of 2006, is one of the last bastions of Hong Kong cuisine in the city, serving dishes of British-Chinese fusion cuisine. Freely translated, cha-chaan-teng means “tea restaurant” and is as ubiquitous in Hong Kong as diners are in America.

These humble restaurants are a sign of the island’s unique culinary landscape, known for its quick and affordable meals. But here in Asiatown, Hong Kong’s Cafe is more than a restaurant; it is an institution that embodies the comfort of part of the Chinese diaspora in Houston.

According to a 2015 census of Clutch City’s foreign-born population, less than 2,000 Houstonians come from Hong Kong. The recent pro-democracy protests in 2019 led to a massive exodus of Hong Kong people to other countries, as many shun the increasingly authoritarian hand of the Chinese government. All over the world, pockets of the Hong Kong community have demonstrated alongside those of their homeland. The controversies of the protests have even reached Houston, evident in a now deleted tweet posted by former Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey.

Hong Kong Cafe, located on the corner of Diho Square.

Erica Cheng

For these immigrants, reminders of home are highly sought after, as many lobby to retain facets of their identity. Even before the recent protests, Hong Kong people resented the label of being Chinese. Culturally, Hong Kong differs from China because of its ties 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 accolades make all the difference for Hong Kongers, even extending to their cuisine. Hong Kong cuisine has been colored by a long history of British colonialism, southern Chinese tradition, and sheer necessity. In the aftermath of the First Opium War, the port of the port was assigned to the British Crown, who ruled from 1841 to 1997. To welcome their colonizers, locals began to pour milk into their tea and adapt from foreign ingredients to traditional favorites, and thus, fusion cuisine was born.

Cha-chaan-teng has become a cultural by-product of colonial history and serves Hong Kong-style meals not found anywhere in China. At Hong Kong’s Cafe you’ll find standard Chinese staples – fried rice, chow mein, and imitation shark fin soup, if you’re into that sort of thing – but the real resistance coins don’t ring a bell at all. Chinese.

Unlikely partners: Hong Kong-style <a class=French toast with a chicken wing.”/>

Unlikely partners: Hong Kong-style French toast with a chicken wing.

Erica Cheng

Fried French toast, egg tarts, oven-baked pork chops topped with tomato sauce, and spaghetti bolognese are some of the best sellers at this cafe. Strangely, the Hong Kong’s Cafe is a dinner. There’s coffee, toast, eggs, and a hot dog if you really want it, but there’s a quintessential Chinese twist too. For the owner, Winnie Wong, this unique blend is summed up in a cup of Hong Kong milk tea.

“In Chinese restaurants,†she emphasizes, “tea is generally 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 evaporated milk – and fierce competition for a cup of coffee. The cafe offers an assortment of traditional products including vegetarian chicken and zhong, a steamed rice dumpling filled with five-spice pork and a salted egg, wrapped in banana leaves.

“It was the kind of thing we ate in Hong Kong,†Wong notes, a testament to the restaurant’s authenticity.

Fusion in a Cup: Hong Kong style milk tea is a perfect blend of tea and rich milk.

Fusion in a Cup: Hong Kong style milk tea is a perfect blend of tea and rich milk.

Erica Cheng

For regulars, the coexistence of these kitchens is natural. Kerry Yung, a fellow Hong Kong-Houstonian, has frequented the cafe for almost 15 years.

“I come here when I miss Hong Kong,” she said, “this style of food, like milk tea and French toast, is only found in Hong Kong.”

The restaurant even carries on one of Hong Kong’s most important culinary traditions: afternoon tea. Hong Kong Afternoon Tea, served from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., is a hearty snack meant to accompany diners through to dinner. The tea menu, in true fusion, ranges from regular congee to a fried chicken cutlet. For early risers, the breakfast menu is just as abnormal. The staple food is elbow macaroni served in broth, accompanied by fried meat and eggs. Beyond food, there is something else that binds customers.

The ultimate <a class=comfort food, baked spaghetti bolognese with a sparkling cheese crust.”/>

The ultimate comfort food, baked spaghetti bolognese with a sparkling cheese crust.

Erica Cheng

“I think that’s the common interest,†says Kinny Yau, another longtime client. As Yau enjoys her afternoon tea, she laughs at the number of times she’s met old friends here, other Hong Kong-Houstonians, completely by accident. “People who come here understand each other, they know what to expect,†she notes, “it’s comfortable for us, it’s familiar.

For the Hong Kong diaspora, finding a cha-chaan-teng outside the island is relatively rare. As the region is subjected to changing political systems, these spaces become even more important as they represent a culture that is repressed. In recent years, identifying as Hong Kongers has become an act of defiance.

But to eat as such – to recognize the differences from Chinese food – is an act of edification.

Instant noodles with spam and fried eggs are a cha-chaan-teng breakfast staple.

Instant noodles with spam and fried eggs are a cha-chaan-teng breakfast staple.

Erica Cheng

As we explore the depths and nuances of Chinese cuisine in Houston, we take responsibility for learning what nourishes us. Western cuisine is often categorized specifically (e.g. French, Italian, Greek), so why don’t we give Chinese cuisine the same respect?

Labeling restaurants like Hong Kong’s Cafe as Chinese is not as precise as it once was thought. Although it is constantly considered Chinese, its existence is a direct result of Western colonization and influence. It doesn’t fit perfectly under one label, but thrives between two worlds.

Chinese etiquette has become universal, but by recognizing the unique cuisines and cultures that exist in Asiatown Houston, we do more than eat, we respect the individual cultures that nourish us.


Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.