ice chambers: hk's coolest eateries

maybe it’s just a part of the current hipster wave, maybe people get more nostalgic as the world modernises at a dizzying rate or maybe it’s simply the honest, wholesome good eats that are increasingly becoming a rarity in this culinary age of over-processed, genetically-modified food. whatever the reason, the revived popularity of hong kong’s traditional coffeeshops known as bing sutt adds to the city’s already exciting gourmet scene.

these bing sutt, meaning ice chambers, are so named as back in the sixties and up to the seventies most homes were not fitted with air-conditioners whereas these eateries were and so people would go there to enjoy the cool air.

there are a handful of these decades-old eateries still surviving and they have stuck to their guns, offering a menu that has remained unchanged over the years — plus a regular clientele that has stayed loyal. then there are the new establishments that pay homage to this heritage by recreating the same decor, ambience and traditional staples within new spaces.

follow our bing sutt trail to find your way to some of hk's best polo buns and milk tea:

lan fong yuen it was actually a cloth strainer that, after having countless cups of tea poured through it, turned a murky brown and at a glance, resembled nude pantyhose.customers began calling the beverage it produced si mat nai cha or pantyhose milk tea. now a ubiquitous offering in the city and hong kong-style restaurants outside the country, it was at this 50-year-old bing sutt that the creamy, velvety drink was invented and it is still one of its main crowd pullers. read more...

starbucks starbucks in any city is still starbucks, except when half the shop is dressed like a bing sutt like in this outlet on duddell street, where you’ll find the city’s last four remaining gas-powered street lamps lighting up a short flight of granite stairs that date back to the late 19th century. both are protected as declared monuments of hong kong. read more...

sing heung yuen technically, this street stall falls more neatly into the dai pai tong category but many bing sutt had their origins as such and this central institution offers all the same staples, and then some.sing heung yuen’s most famous dish is their tomato soup with macaroni, a simple dish of watery tomato soup with pasta. read more...

wah lok it’s all too easy to miss this old timer, hidden among a warren of traditional shops that flank a stone staircase and several stand-alone kiosks in the middle of the steps. from its facade to its interiors, nothing shouts for attention and it’s rarely mentioned in the city’s travel or food guides, which makes this one of the most authentic bing sutt around. read more...

pak lee cafe since 1964 walking into this relatively new and modern-looking outlet is sure to make one question the name, which references the founding date of the original pak lee in sai wan ho where the hon family still enjoys brisk business. read more...

 

there are a handful of these decades-old eateries still surviving and they have stuck to their guns, offering a menu that has remained unchanged over the years

kam kee cafe it started as a 20-seater bing sutt in shau kei wan over 40 years ago and would have continued serving its time-tested menu (which included the now hard-to-find “beef juice” or bovril in water) in the same location but rising rent forced it to close its doors in 2012. it would have been the one that got away if not for regular customer rick chui, who bought the business over and reinstated it in its current premise. read more...

 

cafe match box the scroll pasted on its glass doors say it all, in chinese: fully air conditioned. this was what first gave rise to the monikerbing sutt and while it’s an all-new incarnation, match box’s keen attention to detail has produced an ice chamber that could easily pass for a decades-old establishment. read more...

 

...some of hk’s best polo buns and milk tea

kam wah with two other bing sutt within walking distance in the vicinity, kam wah holds its own with a long-held reputation for its polo bun and milk tea. both live up to the hype that draws many tourists to venture here. the bun is fluffy and pillow-soft with a crispy top, a great balance of textures that will have you easily downing two in one sitting. read more...

 

man wah cafe & bakery on a street diagonally across kam wah is this 40-year-old bing sutt, which is not on your typical tourist radar and caters to a local clientele of working class folks from the commercial areas in its vicinity and neighbourhood regulars. the interiors are a haphazard, almost messy display of retro wallpaper, chinese new year buntings and laminated menus plastered across the walls. read more...

 

capital cafe this is a newly minted chain (there are currently three outlets) that aims to recreate the bing sutt experience while drawing inspiration from popular cha chan teng australia dairy co. capital is owned by a pair of brothers, one of whom works in the music industry and hence the name, a tribute to one of hong kong’s oldest record labels. read more...

 

'pantyhose' perk-me-up

it was actually a cloth strainer that, after having countless cups of tea poured through it, turned a murky brown and at a glance, resembled nude pantyhose. customers began calling the beverage it produced si met nai cha or pantyhose milk tea. now a ubiquitous offering in the city and hong kong-style restaurants outside the country, it was at this 50-year-old bing sutt that the creamy, velvety drink was invented and is still one of its main crowd pullers.

lan fong yuen started as a dai pai tong (street stall), which now stands as the facade of the tiny shoplot they later expanded into, next to a fresh fruits shop that’s part of a lively produce market. you can choose to sit on the low stools at the stall, like the old times, or squeeze into one of the small tables inside where a feature wall is plastered with photos of alan tam. like any bing sutt worth its nai cha, there’s the usual offerings of macaroni in soup with ham and mixed vegetables; egg and luncheon meat sandwiches; thick, buttery french toast. breakfast ends at 11am and then lunch service begins; they watch the clock closely but if you ask nicely, they might be willing to whip up a lunch dish ahead of time.

their pork chop bun is popular, but the salted beef sandwich really takes the cake: two thick slices of pan-fried tongue over cheese, snuggled in between a sesame bun. another good choice is the instant noodles with chicken chop – tender meat and beautifully caramelised skin – with a side of salted vegetables. service is quick, efficient and the good-natured staff loves to throw in a few english words when taking orders.

2 gage street, central opens 7am-6pm daily



streetside pleaser

technically, this street stall falls more neatly into the dai pai tong category but many bing sutt had their origins as such and this central institution offers all the same staples, and then some.

sing heung yuen’s most famous dish is their tomato soup with macaroni, a simple dish of watery tomato soup with pasta. what looks like more than 50 types of noodle dishes on the menu are in fact the many variants of several basic options, differed by toppings and protein choice.

the line often goes on till tea time

at lunch time, white-collar workers fill up the tables under the shade of a tarpaulin roof and the line often goes on till tea time, when their popular chui chui (‘crispy crispy’) buns drizzled with lemon honey are favoured in place of noodles. service is brisk and loud; this is not a place to linger or have a lengthy lunch conversation but is ideal for a quick no-nonsense meal to fuel up for the rest of the day.

2 mei lun street, central opens 8am-5.30pm, monday-saturday



golden years

kam kee started as a 20-seater bing sutt in shau kei wan over 40 years ago and would have continued serving its time-tested menu (which included the now hard-to-find ‘beef juice’ or bovril in water) in the same location but rising rent forced it to close its doors in 2012. it would have been the one that got away if not for regular customer rick chui, who bought the business over and reinstated it in its current premise. he went to lengths to recreate, as faithfully as possible, the menu, look and ambience that had made kam kee the neighbourhood favourite that it was: a white signboard with the bing sutt’s name in its namesake gold lettering; takeaways are packed in waxed brown paper with the cafe’s name stamped in red; inside, vintage pin-up posters and a chinese ink painting deck the walls.

besides the usual bing sutt must-haved, kam kee offers some hearty options for lunch and dinner. their spaghetti with chicken drumstick in a black pepper sauce is an excellent choice and you won’t be disappointed with the chan tan chi (luncheon meat and omelette sandwich). the bread is soft, the omelette is creamy and the thick slice of juicy pork is pan-fried to a lovely crisp – three simple components done well.

213 des voeux road, sai ying pun opens 7.30am-11pm daily


a star(bucks) is born

starbucks in any city is still starbucks, except when half the shop is dressed like a bing sutt as is this outlet that befits its historical locale. duddell street is where you’ll find the city’s last four remaining gas-powered street lamps lighting up a short flight of granite stairs that date back to the late 19th century. both are protected as declared monuments of hong kong.

for this outlet, starbucks collaborated with lifestyle brand goods of desire (god), which is famous for their whimsical designs inspired by vintage hong kong. there are all the hallmarks of a traditional bing sutt here: mosaic floors, booth seats, metal grilled windows and decorative birdcages. the menu is standard starbucks but with the addition of local favourites with a caffeine twist – coffee egg tarts and coffee-flavoured bolo yau (pineapple bun with butter).


13 duddell street, central opens 7am-9pm, monday-thursday; 7am-10pm, friday; 8am-10pm, saturday; 9am-18pm, sunday and public holiday


 

step up

nothing shouts for attention and it’s rarely mentioned in the city’s travel or food guides

it’s all too easy to miss wah lok, an old timer hidden among a warren of traditional shops that flank a stone staircase and several stand-alone kiosks in the middle of the steps. from its facade to its interiors, nothing shouts for attention and it’s rarely mentioned in the city’s travel or food guides, which makes this one of the most authentic bing sutt around. a handful of round tables and booth seats fill up the tight space that’s brightened up by orange printed tiles. orders are written in pencil on unlined paper with its masthead over the top and slipped under the glass table tops. their iced milk tea is the thing to try: silky and goes down like a dream on a hot summer afternoon, and gives lan heung yuen a good run for their ‘pantyhose’ money.

16 tung street off cat street, sheung wan



cinematic appeal

walking into this relatively new and modern-looking outlet of pak lee cafe since 1964 is sure to make one question the name, which references the founding date of the original pak lee in sai wan ho where the hon family still enjoys brisk business. this second outlet, owned by the founder’s son in partnership with a television director-producer, opened this july and serves the same comfort food that regulars have become accustomed to but there are plans to adapt some recipes to suit contemporary tastes.

the decor, however, is a definite throwback to its origins – complete with an ice box that’s filled with ice surrounded by vintage toys and knick knacks. the feature walls tell of another facet of pak lee’s history. decked out in old movie posters and colourful murals depicting popular characters, including a caricature of anita mui from the film rouge, they’re a nod to the cinema that used to stand next door to the original pak lee.

ug/f the pemberton, 22-26 bonham strand, sheung wan opens 7am-10pm daily


perfect match

the scroll pasted on the glass doors of cafe match box says it all, in chinese: fully air conditioned. this was what first gave rise to the moniker bing sutt and while it’s an all-new incarnation, match box’s keen attention to detail has produced an ice chamber that could easily pass for a decades-old establishment. walk in and you’re back in 1970s hong kong as you take in the retro knick-knacks, window grills with coloured panels, aged mirrors bearing auspicious chinese sayings, fancy old-fashioned lamps, a mosaic-tiled feature wall and wait staff in the typical white shirt uniforms.

the menu is an interesting mix of the truly authentic – poached egg in water, for example, an old local favourite that’s no longer as ubiquitous as it once was – and the nonconventional. think pancakes with bananas, walnuts and toffee and chicken pie served in a pool of green pea soup. the former is an enjoyable afternoon tea snack: the cakes are light and fluffy, the toffee is aromatic and not cloyingly sweet. the latter is an interesting combo of two classics that are probably better savoured separately, and the waiters will always ask if you would like some ketchup on your pie – which doesn’t really add anything to it.

g/f helen building, 8 cleveland street, causeway bay and 2 sun wui road, causeway bay opens 8am-11pm daily


gold standards

...egg tarts, with sunshine yellow custard encased in crumbly shells

with two other bing sutt within walking distance in the vicinity, kam wah holds its own with a long-held reputation for its polo buns and milk tea. both live up to the hype that draws many tourists to venture here. the bun is fluffy and pillow-soft with a crispy top, a great balance of textures that will have you easily downing two in one sitting. the tea is rich, creamy and aromatic and equally satisfying whether served hot or with ice. just as good is their egg tarts, with sunshine yellow custard encased in crumbly shells.

there are two shoplots worth of seats available but they fill up quickly. if you don’t manage to dap toi (share a table) as is the common practice at typical hong kong eateries due to tight spaces, grab some pastries to go from the takeaway counter fronting the store, which is another common feature among bing sutt.

47 bute street, prince edward, mongkok, kowloon opens 6.30am-midnight


40 and going strong

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on a street diagonally across kam wah is the 40-year-old man wah cafe & bakery, which is not on your typical tourist radar and caters to a local clientele of working class folks from the commercial areas in its vicinity and neighbourhood regulars. the interiors are a haphazard, almost messy display of retro wallpaper, chinese new year buntings and laminated menus plastered across the walls.

in space-scarce hong kong, eateries aim to turn tables around as quickly and frequently as they can, so service is always quick and efficient. and often, borders on brusque. but not at man wah, where the wait staff, who are all definitely older than the bing sutt itself, may have a no-nonsense air about them but are not unfriendly. you just need to look at the owner to understand why. usually seen at the till, he’s an affable gentleman with a booming voice who is happy to tell you about kam wah’s history – as long as it’s not during the lunch hour rush, when customers typically order from their set meal menu.

try the cha choi (preserved mustard plant) stir-fried with pork slices and served with a fried egg. add a splash of soy sauce over the eggs and eat with steamed white rice, and you have an honest-to-goodness wholesome meal. 

g/f 204 sai yeung choi street, mongkok, kowloon opens 7am-11pm daily


capital enjoyment

...hence the name, a tribute to one of hong kong’s oldest record labels

capital cafe is a newly minted chain (there are currently three outlets) that aims to recreate the bing sutt experience while drawing inspiration from popular cha chan teng australia dairy co. capital is owned by a pair of brothers, one of whom works in the music industry and hence the name, a tribute to one of hong kong’s oldest record labels. that also explains the concert and autographed posters that are part of the decor and the wall of autographs signed by big wigs from the local entertainment scene.

it would be all too easy to assume this to be a style-over-substance cafe that rides on its celebrity connections (this is hong kong after all, the hollywood of the east) but capital stands solidly on satisfying eats and what is a rarity in this city, friendly service. the fact that they insist on using hokkaido milk, known of its fine creamy quality, already scores them brownie points. they back it up with well-executed dishes such as scrambled eggs with truffles and a good selection of breakfast sets that give you bang for your hong kong dollar. 

g/f sai yeung choi street south, mongkok, kowloon and shop b1, g/f kwong sang hong building, 6 heard street, wan chai opens 7am-11pm daily

g/f shun king building, 185-187 shau kei wan main street east, shau kei wan opens 7am-7pm daily