Flashback to a few months ago at the flagship branch of Honolulu Café in Wan Chai, Hongkong: the floor is greasy and the lady at the cashier is sneezing gustily. We cower beneath her nasal explosions. A server unceremoniously plonks two still-wet cups of tea in front of us. Meanwhile an old geezer at the next table stares at us as he picks his teeth. Honolulu, popular for its milk tea and flaky egg tarts, is as authentic as a cha chaan teng (“tea restaurant” in Cantonese, the HK version of our kopitiam) gets: slightly grimy, with brusque service and an aura of nostalgia. It started in the 1940s as a humble tea shop selling pastries and has evolved into five outlets in HK and four in China, serving meals like rice and noodles, too. But today, at its Singaporean franchise at The Centrepoint, we’re having a totally different experience. Yes, the place is packed. But the open-concept café parked in the mall’s new food wing looks nothing like a cha chaan teng with its gleaming chequered floors, stylish wooden counter displaying golden egg tarts and pineapple buns, and mod furniture. Everything is spotless. “Sure, no problem,” says a manager genially when we ask to switch to a seat with better lighting (blame Instagram). The middle-aged waitress who serves us is super patient as we hem and haw over the menu. So what if this outpost lacks the original’s gritty charm? We choose better hygiene and service any day. The 52-seater is opened in partnership with Honolulu’s second-generation boss, Derrick Yeung, 50, and local F&B company Asia Gourmet Roast Pte Ltd, which also runs Mak’s Noodles.
THE TEA: Thankfully, the food and tea here are authentic, even if the decor is not. Well-made Hongkong-style milk tea is a thing of beauty. It’s a more voluptuous version of Singaporean teh si: creamier, silkier, less acidic, even floral. Reputable cha chaan tengs create their own brew using a few varieties of Ceylon tea leaves (dust, mostly). It’s like blending so-so grapes to make wonderful wine. And it’s strange that we couldn’t find a good cup of nai cha in Singapore given how much locals love Hongkong cuisine. Until now. The hot Hong Kong Milk Tea ($3) at Honolulu is the real deal. The café uses a blend of three types of tea, one of which is Lipton. And that's all they're willing to reveal. It’s liberally splashed with Black and White evaporated milk from The Netherlands. Cheeky 27-year-old Jason Li (above, right) whips up our tea this afternoon. “It’s not nice!” he chirps when we ask him if he’s tried Yakun’s teh si. His tea is a bit tannic at first sip. Then we remember to stir it. It morphs into a strong, smooth and soul-lifting beverage. Jason has been brewing cuppas at Honolulu Café’s branch in Central, Hongkong, for five years. We sample the tea again a day later at a hosted media tasting, this time made by rotund tea master Luo Tak (above, left), a "tea consultant" for Honolulu. He hilariously sports two gold medals around his neck like a gangsta rapper (Jay-Tea?). Both are prizes for tea competitions, one of them for the 2010 International Hong Kong Milk Tea competition. He visits this branch just once a month, though. Is his milk tea worthy of a champ? Well, it’s slightly more robust than Jason’s, but not so much better that we can tell the difference immediately. Which is good news, ’cos Jason has been posted here permanently. Yay.
THE FOOD: We’ve never been fans of the no-frills savoury fare at Honolulu in Hongkong. Surprisingly, some dishes we try today hit the spot. Such as the Pork Chop Bun ($5.50), a flavourful pan-fried fillet wedged in a fluffy Chinese bakery-style bun. “Tastes like a healthier McChicken,” remarks our appreciative makan partner. We prefer the Baked Pork Chop in Tomato Sauce ($9.50) with rice. The same tender pork chop, along with onions, carrots and fried rice are smothered in faintly tangy tomato gravy, melted cheddar cheese and a sunny side up egg. The resulting gooey, savoury mess is utterly comforting.
We are, however, disappointed by the Instant Noodles ($5.50 with a choice of topping). Instead of murky white soup spiked with Campbell’s Cream of Chicken often seen in cha chaan tengs, this one has an insipid, watered-down broth. If you want the milkier version, get the macaroni or spaghetti.
THE TARTS: Our Honolulu Egg Tarts ($1.80) arrive hot from the oven. They’re baked by a chef who’s worked at Honolulu in HK for a decade, and he’s now stationed here. While they aren’t the most full-bodied and buttery egg tarts we’ve had — they’re undeniably yummy. The pastry, which the café says boasts “192 layers” (we were too lazy to count), is flaky and crusty like tau sar piah. It’s kissed with fresh house-made lard, butter and margarine (thankfully, we couldn't detect the latter). The custard has the fragile wobble of just-set silken tofu. It’s not too sweet and quite light, with a pleasantly eggy hint. Speaking of tofu, we're told there's also a new bean curd tart available now.
VERDICT: ***1/2 The reasonably priced tea and egg tarts here are good enough for us to not feel compelled to binge-drink and eat our way through cha chaan tengs the next time we visit Hongkong.
Update: A second branch of Honolulu Cafe will soon open in the west, though details are sketchy.
#01-33F/G The Centrepoint, 176 Orchard Rd, S238843. Tel: 6734-6609. Open daily 11am-10pm. Last orders at 9.30pm. www.facebook.com/honolulucafe.sg