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December 20, 2009

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Join Cha's queue for vintage Cantonese

CHA'S is a throwback to the classic Hong Kong cha can ting diner, a tea cafe/restaurant with an eclectic, affordable menu of authentic Cantonese meals and Hong Kong treatments of Western dishes.

Located in the clean and classy section of Sinan Road behind the H&M clothing store, it is a time-warp haven 100 meters and many dining genres away from the multifarious styles of Chinese and Western cuisine on the upmarket Huaihai Road.

Manager and shareholder Simon Cheng is a contemporary of the cha can ting heyday and remembers them proliferating around his home in Kowloon City as he was growing up.

Small-tiled green-and-white floor and brown-and-cream walls strongly evoke the popular Hong Kong eateries of the 1950s and 1960s. And the fluorescent lights, ceiling fans, "lavatory" sign, bakelite radio and "Coming Attractions" cinema advertising frame with genuine photos from the era underscore the restaurant's ethos.

Cha's has a deep dining area with the front counter to one side and a small, crowded waiting area near the entrance. At the back is an open servery with a busy kitchen behind it.

There's faux marble padded booth seating along the walls and free tables in the middle. The menu is a double-side printed A4 sheet in Chinese and English and placed under the glass table top.

It seats 80 at one time and there's always a queue of hungry patrons at the door who've taken a ticket and are waiting for a spare table.

On Saturdays, it is constantly full from 11am to 11pm. But it's relaxed and comfortable with a constant buzz of chatter. There's more than 50 staff and the food comes thick and fast, fresh to the minute and in abundance.

And, despite the authentic, recreated environment, the food is the thing and the truly natural flavors of fresh fish, beef, chicken and vegetables are a welcome relief from the prevailing local enhancements of vinegar, soy and chilli.

The average price for a substantial dish is around 30 yuan (US$4.39) and only three on the 70-item main menu exceed 48 yuan.

The drinks list is true to the joint's style, offering the likes of milk tea, pomelo tea, ovaltine and cocoa (all 11 yuan), Bovril beef tea (12 yuan) and milk shakes (18 yuan). There's also toast and jam (8 yuan), a couple of curries and a banana split (25 yuan).

Of the main courses, the Stewed Chicken with Black Bean and Shallots (32 yuan) consisted of succulent, chunky pieces of glazed flesh in a lean sauce with red and green peppers and onion.

A thicker mushroom sauce coated the large slices of beef brisket (32 yuan) layered on a bed of crunchy fried noodles. For personal taste, the sauce was too thick, or there was possibly too much of it, but the dish didn't suffer overall.

The highlight was Braised Roast Garoupa (38 yuan) with tofu in oyster sauce. Served in a hot ceramic pot, the fish pieces had been lightly singed to fawn and retained their delicate freshness while being enhanced in the subtle sauce and chives.

The Stir-fried Scallops (46 yuan) picked up some taste by being braised with ginger, carrot slices and diced mushroom and were presented on a bed of crisp steamed broccoli. The sole selected vegetable dish was spinach fried with preserved tofu (18 yuan).

Fujian Fried Rice (32 yuan), chosen from 28 treatments of rice and noodles, was, on top of all else, one dish too many.

Suffice to say, it was a main meal on its own, consisting of white rice, egg, seafood pieces and mushroom slices and in the wider context of rice in this town, it was wonderfully substantive and gluggy. A true chow fan.

Cha's cannot be fully appreciated in one visit for its variety of home-comfort dishes, their delicate preparation and flavorsome freshness or the meticulous attention to detail in the style and decor of its tribute to a bygone way of eating.

And the comprehensive range of its genre's meal offerings is tantalizing enough to keep one returning for months ... if only you can get in.


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