Brand new Cantopop in L Place, owned by Robert Spina and Todd Darling, the owners of the popular Posto Pubblico, is a modern take on a typical Hong Kongese cha chaan teng or Chinese tea diner. It offers all the traditional dishes you would find in a backstreet cha chaan teng such as rice with char siu and fried egg, fried noodles, luncheon meat sandwiches and yin yang tea (black tea and coffee in the same cup), but here, executive chef Margaret Xu (the chef and owner of Yin Yang private kitchen, which is also on my list) insists on using natural and fresh ingredients locally sourced from Homegrown Foods, without a trace of MSG.
Inside Cantopop, however, it is anything but traditional. The walls are covered in pop art announcing words such as ‘yummy’ and ‘cool’ and several Chinese characters I wish I knew how to read. The kitchen is open so you can watch what goes on from the canteen-style benches or the smaller tables. The whole place oozes a fun, lively atmosphere, which left me smiling from the minute I walked in.
Obviously they don’t take bookings so if you arrive in the mad lunchtime rush, be prepared to wait for a table. We arrived a little after 1pm, so were able to get a table straightaway, although it was still very busy until 2pm when it was as if they hit a switch and the whole placed suddenly emptied.
As is standard in cha chaan tengs, we were each given a cup of weak Chinese tea as soon as we were seated. This is often served not to be drunk, but rather, to clean the utensils. I don’t think there is any danger of dirty utensils in Cantopop so it was indeed intended for drinking. I did, however, have to send my first cup back as it was luke warm.
After umm-ing and ahh-ing over the extensive menu for quite some time, we decided to get a few dishes and share them in true Canto-style (sharing is caring afterall). We settled for one Canto Kway Teow from the set lunch menu (includes a drink for $62). This was not exactly what we had expected. We had seen a dish ordered by a lady on the table behind us and, convinced that was the Kway Teow, we ordered it. As it turned out it was definitely not the same dish. Ours arrived within literally two minutes of placing the order, which was worrying to begin with. It also looked slightly anaemic compared to the dish behind us. Nevertheless it didn’t taste as bad as it looked. It had a subtle curried taste, which did need to be enhanced with a pinch of salt (perhaps MSG is sometimes necessary afterall!) and although it was clearly not freshly made as it arrived far too quickly, it tasted fresh enough. We also ordered Yin yang fried rice, which was a bowl of plain fried rice interestingly topped with two different sauces separated by some spring onions: a rich creamy prawn and mushroom sauce and a tomato-based chicken and vegetable sauce. Neither of them were spectacular (again probably through lack of flavour) but I did prefer the creamy sauce. Our favourite main course was the Shanghai black pepper pork udon – a very simple dish which could easily be made at home, but this by no means suggests that it was not a great dish. The pork was tender, the kale was fresh and the udon tasted home-made.
After our carb-overload we were feeling somewhat full, although we didn’t have that uncomfortable feeling that is often associated with foods rich in MSG. This of course meant that there was a definite dessert space waiting to be filled. Not wanting to be over-indulgent however, we chose a ginger crème brulée to share between the three of us. And what a beautiful crème brulée it was! It made that all-important crack when knocked with a spoon and was so perfectly creamy underneath. The hint of ginger was a welcome twist, giving it a little Asian spice.
The service, although obviously not five-star, was better than your average cha chaan teng. Dishes are served with a smile and placed carefully on the table, rather than almost thrown in front of you as you frequently see in a backstreet diner. Total bill came to $80 a head, so, although you’re paying more than in a regular cha chaan teng, you know that you’re paying for fresh, organic, quality food, including meat pertaining to animals which more than likely had a happy, healthy existence.
139 Queen’s Road Central
Tel: +852 2857 2608
Date visited: Monday 30th May 2011