Full Disclosure before we even start – my Aunt owns La Amigo, a HK Style Cafe in Richmond.
Hong Kong style cafes are baffling baffling baffling. Oddly bland versions of “Western” dishes like chicken a la king and baked casseroles – served with sides of frozen vegetables, tater tots, and over boiled pasta. And yet, these places are beloved, nay, they are REVERED by the Hong Kong Chinese – a group of people who are usually ridiculously picky and thoughtful about the food they eat. Many would say it was a culinary blind spot – and I would not be able to refute them.
But Hong Kong style cafes are really much more than about food. Though there is a heavy element of colonialism (aping the foods of the British elite who ran Hong Kong), they are also about aspiration and hope.
For people of my parents’ generation – these cafes represented Hong Kong moving forward and taking its place in the world. A city whose peoples were becoming global citizens. The food also reflected the diverse population of Hong Kong – a trading hub where religion, ethnicity, and background never stood in the way a good business deal.
The influences of Hong Kong style cafes even made their way to Vancouver. Restaurants like the Langara Cafe and The Cherikoff (where Landmark Hotpot currently resides) were the gateway for old school Chinese families’ first foray into western cuisine. They felt fancy and formal, especially compared to the Chinatown wonton houses I was used to. I remember being in high school and meeting up with some recently arrived Hong Kong classmates at The Cherikoff – and kids I barely knew picked up the tab for everyone, which felt like the absolute height of adult sophistication.
Without fail, most meals start with borscht – beef and cabbage in a tomato broth but never any beets. If you are having something really fancy, your soup may be topped with a some puff pastry.
Spectacularly misnamed Swiss Chicken Wings are a classic starter. Wings are poached slowly in a sugary soy sauce – which when originally served to an expat at Tai Ping Koon in Hong Kong, he exclaimed that they were ‘sweet!’. The Chinese chef misheard and thought the customer said they were “Swiss” and somehow he had stumbled upon an Alpine recipe. Ha!
African Chicken is famous at my Aunt’s restaurant – crispy skinned boneless chicken thighs served with a nutty coconut red curry sauce, a Hong Kong / Macanese take on piri piri Chicken. It’s pretty darned delicious (especially with tater tots), though I would defy anyone from Africa even remotely recognizing the dish.
Portuguese Chicken Curry, is another Macanese melange. Yellow curry made mild and creamy with coconut milk – then baked to crisp the chicken skin. Spooned over rice – it’s all about comfort.
Dessert? Okay – let’s skip the whole dessert thing, Even I have to admit that desserts are not a Chinese forte – and bland English desserts made blander for the Cantonese palate… well, no more needs to be said.
Obviously, I’ve got big soft spot for this food. Everything is prepared with genuine care, and the better Hong Kong cafes never cut corners on ingredients (though it may break your heart seeing prime grade beef turned into well done minute steaks).
It’s a bit of secret club to like this food, I would never bring someone and pretend that they were in for a culinary treat (even Chinese people from other parts of China are a bit confused by HK cafes).
But if it’s something you do like – well, you’re my kind of people.
Here are some of the places I go to the most – and again, full disclosure – La Amigo is owned by my Aunt.
La Amigo Restaurant
8291 Alexandra Rd, Richmond, BC
3338 Cambie St, Vancouver, BC
2525 Heather St, Vancouver, BC