I ate here four times so you don’t have to
I try not to read other reviewer’s opinions of a restaurant until after I’ve finished writing my own review, so as to not skew my own views. I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the social media chatter and user generated ‘reviews’ of Holborn’s Cha Chaan Teng though, especially when they turned out to be face-slappingly hilarious. Some lauded the ‘Hong Kong street food’, while others pilloried it for being unrepresentative of traditional Chinese cuisine. Cha Chaan Teng isn’t meant to be either – it’s based on the eponymous post-war Hong Kong diners serving up oddly localised versions of Western dishes.
Bringing a version of a cha chaan teng to London is thus inherently, weirdly self-referential. A rough equivalent would be opening a version of a British-Chinese takeaway, with its anglicised dishes unrecognisable to the locals, in Hong Kong. A quick straw poll on cha chaan tengs among some of the Hong Kongers I know produced a split, polarised response – either wistful rose-tinted nostalgia or wincing embarrassment.
The Holborn Cha Chaan Teng is a world away from the cheap and sometimes cheerful originals with a glossy, moodily-lit decor and a menu that plays fast and loose with an already fuzzily defined, very post-modern style of food. Service was warm, friendly and efficient – I experienced none of the overly-familiar chumminess that so annoyed some other reviewers.
First things first
Prawn toast is the salty, stodgy deep-fried carb monstrosity that’s illustrative of everything wrong with popularised Chinese takeaway food in Britain. Cha Chaan Teng’s post-modern meta-referential version goes a long way to redeeming it. The deep-fried toast here was soft, fluffy and dangerously, heart-stoppingly buttery. It was topped with lobster and prawn chunks, served at room temperature, which tasted of little but provided a firm bouncy texture.
I was last in Hong Kong a lifetime ago, just before the handover. I remember briefly visiting a faded old cha chaan teng and one of the indelible memories of that visit was the revolting macaroni soup a friend insisted on feeding me. The one and only macaroni soup that I tried at Cha Chaan Teng did little to reverse this repulsion. The soup was overpoweringly dark and salty, as if someone had accidentally tipped a catering pack of Maggi sauce into the pot. The thick-skinned wontons had a pork and prawn filling that was stodgy and bland. It’s unjustifiable that the kitchen chose to bulk out the soup with a compost heap of cheap filler vegetables and overpowering pickled ginger when the macaroni and crispy fried spam, the two most enjoyable parts of this soup, are hardly expensive ingredients.
Duck à l’orange is a haunting cultural travesty that deserves to remain consigned to Britain’s past, along with the National Front and Wizbit. Cha Chaan Teng evokes that classic culinary misstep with a dry, bland and not very crispy duck leg doused in a very sweet orange syrup with a distinct undertone of maple. The one redeeming feature of this sickly dish, which also stopped it from being a total 70s throwback, was the battered, deep-fried French toast – a cha chaan teng classic. The richly buttery ‘toast’ here was very soft with a squidgy, silky texture that came somewhere in between silken tofu and taro cake. That texture won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I’d happily eat a whole plate of the stuff.
Another French toast dish that will divide opinion is the peanut butter French toast with condensed milk. Although relegated to the bar menu, it can be ordered for dessert. Huge double-thick slabs of bread sandwiching viscous, nutty and gummy peanut butter, all deep-fried to a crispy finish and served with condensed milk as a dipping sauce shouldn’t be enjoyable. But it very much was – a crisp, soft, nutty, sugary sweet punch in the mouth. It’s so bad for you, it’s good.
Going back for seconds
Cha Chaan Teng couldn’t help but jump on the gua bao bandwagon. The buns used in the bao here were very small though which, along with the tottering fillings, made it difficult to appreciate the quality of the buns. A filling of fried squid came in a golden, crisp and oil-free batter, which is just as well given the meagre squid inside. The minor tartness from the beetroot and the mild heat from the wasabi mayo couldn’t save this bao from being ultimately forgettable.
I wasn’t expecting much from the filled tiger rolls, but the bread was remarkably crisp and then delightfully soft. The crunch of the crust complimented the crisp batter of the deep fried spam slice and the rich yolk for the fried quail egg. In the end though, the focus of this little sandwich wasn’t the mild heat of the sriracha, the pickle, the spam or the egg – without the top quality bread, it wouldn’t have been anywhere as enjoyable.
Although there was far too much of the sweet carrot in the black bean beef short rib lo mein, there was hardly a shortage of everything else in this noodle dish. The hearty serving of beef was surprisingly good – tender and moreish with less of a tangy black bean taste and more tartness courtesy of the preserved cabbage specks. The stodgy, uninspiring wheat noodles were a let down though.
The resemblance of the hedgehog cinnamon doughnut bun to its mammalian namesake wasn’t as pronounced as versions of this dessert available elsewhere. The pastry was almost churros-like in its crispiness, lack of greasiness and in the heavy dusting of cinnamon, although it was much heavier and denser than its Mexican counterpart. It was still enjoyable even though the egg filling wasn’t as rich and runny as I would’ve preferred. Viscously creamy condensed milk served on the side as a dipping sauce partially made up for this.
The gua bao were just as titchy as they were the first time around. The sweet and sour chicken was tame, easily overwhelmed by the excess amount of sweet carrots. Unimpressive.
Disappointingly, the quality of the bread used for the filled tiger roll was nowhere near as good as it was before. Far less crisp and fluffy, verging on staleness, it was up to the umami and mildly garlicky chunk of pork to save the day. It was surprisingly good, which is just as well – the vegetable toppings and tepid sriracha sauce was just as unimpressive as the bread.
The sweet and sour pork was far less offensive than I had feared. While still recognisable as the anglicised classic that it has become – complete with chunks of pineapple, bell peppers and onion – the sauce was thankfully a reddish brown rather than radioactive orange. It was more tangy and lightly sour compared to its mouth pursingly sweet takeaway counterparts, while the batter-free meat ranged from stodgy to modestly pork. The promised five-spice crackling was more like an especially bland, slightly softer-than-usual version of pork scratchings. It’s meat in sauce that’s not a total waste of an animal. I can live with that. Mostly.
Pandan cake is highly popular throughout south east Asia, although I’ve never developed an affinity for it. The mild, vaguely sweet coconutty-esque flavour of the pandan-tinged outer cake layer of this ice cream roll was blasted away by the ice cream at the centre. Its uncomfortable coldness, packed ice-like crunch and the intermittent artificial sharpness of its alleged raspberry flavour makes it more of a weapon to be used in a snowball fight rather than a dessert. This is easily one of the worst desserts I’ve had all year.
Go fourth and multiply
Even though Cha Chaan Teng’s bao were clearly second rate (especially when compared to the best of the competition), I kept ordering them on the off-chance they might get better. Every now and again, my faith is rewarded. Well, sort of. Although still dwarven in size, the meat in the beef short rib bao was surprisingly different from the rib meat used in the lo mein. A firm bite with a tender follow through, it was more umami and less tart than the lo mein beef.
Veg-filled pancakes had a very peculiar texture and mouthfeel – an odd, slightly chewy thickness somewhere in between Korean jeon-style pancakes and pan-fried Chinese guotie-style dumpling skins. I liked them, although they were best taken with the vinegary soy sauce as the spring onion and kale filling wasn’t up to much.
The lobster claws and tiger prawns is Cha Chaan Teng’s most expensive dish at a steep £44. You get four tiger prawns and four lobster claws – the meat was easily extracted without much fuss or mess. The tiger prawns were the best bit – firm, bouncy flesh while the heads were full of suckable inky cranial goodness. The lobster claws were more problematic – a tad too soft, as if they had been overcooked. The ‘bisque’ the seafood was served in was more of a thickened sweet chilli sauce. I barely shed a tear once I ran out of bao-style buns to mop it up. If nothing else, this dish illustrates just how good Burger and Lobster’s supply chain and economies of scale are – it can serve up a whole lobster for half the price of this dish which gives you two sets of borderline mushy claws.
The panna cotta turned out to be a pleasant surprise after the disaster that was the pandan cake arctic roll. Firm jelly-like panna cotta was more milky than coconut or vanilla flavoured and was reminiscent of various tofu-based desserts. The mango puree was surprisingly fragrant, but the stodgy almond topping was a poor finish to an otherwise fine dessert.
A special mention has to go to Cha Chaan Teng’s uninspired selection of soft drinks. Old school cha chaan tengs had a pleasingly broad selection of non-alcoholic hot and iced drinks including Milo, Ovaltine, milky tea, milky coffee and even a mixture of tea and coffee. The menu here had just one iced tea, which did admittedly have a mild tannic tang alongside its gentle zestiness. Despite going easy on the milk, the hot milk tea was light on tannic strength and character. Some proper Chinese teas, the usual soft drinks as well as the top-notch Soda Folk-branded root beer are also available, but if I wanted root beer or proper tea then I wouldn’t be drinking it here.
Hong Kong’s original cha chaan tengs are so tied to their time and place that any attempt to transplant them is almost doomed to failure as the cultural context for its existence and thus appreciation are lost. Especially if an executive chef is insistent on adding his own meta-referntial postmodern spin on it.
A lot of the dishes at Cha Chaan Teng are too uneven or just plain dross. This restaurant really would work better as a concession at a Westfield shopping centre with a slimmed down and reworked menu – and I mean that in the nicest possible way. It’s worth going to Cha Chaan Teng just once, and only once, to have the lobster and prawn toast as well as the peanut butter French toast. But I’d do it soon as, like the dismal Wabi that once occupied the same subterranean premises, the sparsely patroned Cha Chaan Teng is unlikely to last long.
What to order: Lobster and prawn toast; Peanut butter French toast; Panna cotta
What to skip: Macaroni soup; Pandan raspberry ripple Arctic roll
Name: Cha Chaan Teng
Address: 36-38 Kingsway, Holborn, London WC2B 5BX
Phone: 0203 876 4001
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 11.30-23.00 and Sunday 11.30-22.00.
Reservations: not really necessary (plus the reservations webpage wants your friggin’ date of birth)
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £35 approx. (much more if you inadvisedly order the tiger prawns and lobster claws)