Fast food in Hong Kong

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We’ve all seen those lists: ‘You know you’re a redneck when . . .’ or ‘You know you’ve been abducted, probed and brainwashed by aliens when . . .’, and so on.

Well, I’ve got an entry in the ‘You know you’ve been an expat in Hong Kong for long time when . . .’ list. That is: ‘I know I’ve been in Hong Kong for a long time when I get excited by the prospect of going to Fairwood Fast Food for a weekend breakfast.’

No, really!

Those of you who have lived here for a while have surely come across a Fairwood franchise – or one of its competitors, i.e. Café de Coral and Maxim’s – and may have thought ‘Ugh. Chinese McDonald’s, at best! Stay far, far, away . . .’.

For many years, this was exactly my stance. I was taken to a Fairwood by my students during my first stay in Hong Kong in 1988, and it was a memorable culinary experience. I am still trying very hard, in fact, to forget it. So even if the exquisitely refined and highly discriminating Mrs Tall suggested we grab a quick bite at a local fast food chain, I wouldn’t hear of it.

Things have changed. I discovered that on one Sunday morning when I needed to go to church earlier than they did, Mrs Tall and Daughter Tall, those two miserable schemers, sneaked over to our local Fairwood for breakfast.

This pattern – which soon was repeating – led to a breakthrough. By breaching the cold, stony fortifications of my culinary heart with their tearful entreaties – and also by threatening to abandon me at home alone so that I could enjoy my solitary bowl of muesli, by myself, in isolation – my wife and daughter convinced me to give local fast food one more chance.

And I was pleasantly surprised. I ordered a nice set comprising two eggs, sunny-side up; a thick slice of toast; a slightly dodgy-looking but okay-tasting chicken filet; and a cup of passable coffee with milk. The cost? Twenty-five dollars or so -- the whole set costs less than a coffee at Starbucks or Pacific Coffee.

Since that memorable morning, we Talls have become quite regular Fairwood customers, eating there once every couple of weeks or so. This is mostly a function of the frustrating lack of restaurants in my neighborhood, but it’s really no hardship. I think Fairwood's breakfasts are better than their lunch/dinner meals, but those meals still have decent options. I like their curries, and the ‘dead things on rice’ (e.g. cha siu, roasted chicken, etc.) is reliable, too. Daughter Tall has become a fan of their spaghetti bolognaise – although this one tastes to me like an weird hybrid between actual bolognaise sauce and American-style chili con carne (it even has kidney beans), she loves it. And since prices are so cheap, it’s hard to be too critical.

I also don’t mind eating at Maxim’s; if anything, they’re a bit up the scale from Fairwood. But Café de Coral still puts me off. There’s something creepy about their food’s appearance – their dishes look like competently-executed plastic models (like the ones in the windows in Japanese restaurants) that have inexplicably sprung to quivering, unwholesome life.

If you’re looking to make your own move into this exciting food and beverage arena, I’ve got some advice for you. There are a couple of challenges to eating at local fast food chains that you’ve got to be ready to meet.

First, you have to find a seat. Our local Fairwood on a Sunday morning at 10:00 looks like Pamplona as the bulls round the corner into the Plaza de Toros. Needless to say, every table is occupied, and there’s bound to be a huge line at the cash registers where you place your orders. The last thing you want is to order your food, line up again to pick it up, then stand there looking pole-axed, forlornly clutching your tray full of rapidly-cooling food as you search in vain for a table.

What’s needed, clearly, is a strategy. Here’s how the Family Tall handles this sticky problem:

First, a clear demarcation and execution of roles:

  • Daughter Tall, who glories in fearless search-and-seize commando ops, finds us a table. I doubt there’s a quality in a child that’s more valuable than being able to stomp up to a table occupied by a paper-perusing uncle with just a quarter-glass of lai cha in front of him, then plop down in the seat across the table and engage him in cute but quickly irritating conversation that compels him to fold up his paper and get the heck out.
  • Mrs Tall, our most organized and knowledgeable officer (i.e. she knows what all team members want to eat), lines up at the cash register, orders, and obtains the little receipt tickets needed for presentation at the food service counter. (Note that the wall-mounted menu has English translations, so there are no serious problems for a non-Chinese speaker who’s willing to point.)
  • Yours truly, who is, in his wife’s words, ‘very bulky’, immediately steps into the food service counter line, where he performs his placeholding function with stout-hearted determination.

With all members doing their jobs, we’ve usually got food on the table in 10 minutes or so.

The second big obstacle to dining comfort at Fairwood is orange. That is, in its current corporate image scheme, Fairwood features an orange logo, orange upholstery, orange walls and ceilings, and orange uniforms for all staff. And it’s a bright, mercilessly cheerful orange. I’ve made my peace with orange, but if you’re a purple person, for example, you may find Fairwood visually uncongenial. Fortunately, I have seen no evidence that Fairwood is attempting to apply its color scheme to the food itself. Café de Coral has less-antagonizing but dull color scheme based mostly on brown, and MX – well, have a look here.

If you’re still not convinced Hong Kong fast food is for you, you may want to have a look at the three main chains’ tasteful and convivial websites. They are linked as follows:

Readers, any favorites/reviews/mouse-in-the-oatmeal anecdotes related to your experiences in Hong Kong fast food restaurants?

Comments

Favorites

When I was younger and slimmer, I was a big fan of Dai-Ga-Lok's Lohmeigai (sticky rice w/ chicken & a bit of mushroom and pork, wrappped in a  lotus leaf and steamed). It set me up for a long day.

The curries are often not that bad either - SK-baba and I were out last night in scholastic business and picked some up to go. The beef brisket was better than the pork chop.

Overall, I view these chains as more consistent versions of my beloved Cha Chan Teng (kind of like Denny's in the USA compared to smaller locally owned diners). Which means that you will often find a cha chen teng that is better or cheaper, but you will also sometimes find one that is not as good.

I've mostly associated Fairwood w/ a green & red color (from their signs) - but now checking on wikipedia realise I'm showing my age, because it was changed 5 years ago. I guess I tend to go to Dai-Ga-Lok more often. That explains also why the recent Hang Seng machine color change to the red and green I've always associated w/ Fairwood happened.

Maxim's is a very interesting chain. They also own a lot of tea houses - I think the one in City Hall is a Maxims. They also now have their more up-market "Can-Teen" (for example in the Prince's Building or IFC) which  attempts a sort of middle-ground between Cha-chan-teng and Starbucks type place.

McCafe also attempts to straddle the $$$$$ of Starbucks or Pacific Coffee  with the pockets of the mass public. 

Local Fast Food

I love Tsui Wah's crispy fried noodles with pork and beansprouts.  And their fried fish skin.  Also at the top of the list is Sun Hing's fried chicken curry.  Nine-to-Five, previously on the 3rd floor of Prince's Building, used to do the best take-out lunches in the area.  Any and all of the chain fast foodies do very passable food for the price.  For all these options, it's the generally cheery faces of the staff, their ability to turn tables over and over and over in a two-hour timeline, and the truly good quality food they serve up.  They are a great part of Hong Kong.

Yoshinoya

Went to the one on Wing Lok Street (I think?) last Friday. I usually like the food they have at these places but I made the mistake of being a bit 'adventurous' and opted for a prawn and steamed egg thing that was gross. Perhaps Yoshinoya isn't quite in the same league as its brethren above?

SKmAma mentioned my favourite already. The Cha Siu Faan at any of the "Canteen" outlets has never dsiappointed (IFC mall mentioned above being the most frequented).

But really for good value the fast food places are really hard to beat.

More fast food

Great comments!

SKMama, thanks for mentioning McCafe. I had rambled on long enough and decided to leave out western fast food in HK, but McCafe is one of my faves as well. Not only do I appreciate their lower prices, I think their coffee is better than either Pacific Coffee or Starbucks. Their flat white (the name of which betrays McCafe's origins in McDonalds in Australia) is my recommendation.

Fiona, you are an aficianado! I would like to try that fried fish skin you mention . . .

Phil, I don't think Yoshinoya is a level down at all -- we go there a lot. I've never tried the dish you mention, since I almost always order the salmon + fish eggs on rice combo, which is good eatin'.

Fish Skin

Aaaaah Mr. Tall, there's nought quite so good as a bowl of rich broth and the two packets of crispy crunchy fish skin to dunk into it, as served at Tsui Wah.  I get the oddest looks when I order it (as I do wherever I order intestines)!!  It's on the fish ball noodle menu under the table glass plate, tiny print and you almost need a magnifying glass.

Cha siu faan

I'm with Phil on this one, a cha-something-faan is always filling and tasty. It's not hard to find shops selling the roast meats, just look for a window like this:

But as skmama says, the one from Maxims is always reliably good, and a safe choice.

Yoshinoya is good too, but I'm less adventurous and usually stick to their beef bowl.

Yum!

Tai Hing is good, the staff

Tai Hing is good, the staff are great. They have different menus depending upon the time of the day, with their dinner selection being better. Maks noodles in CWB make great Wun-tun mein. Im serious, good wun-tun mein and char siu fan are two of the world's classic dishes (along with a cup of yin-yeung and a slice of toast with condensed milk).

Finger lickin' -- oh dear . . .

In one of this year's greatest incidents of serendipity yet, my mailbox was honored to receive my eagerly-awaited KFC circular featuring this month's new menu items.

And it did not disappoint! Check out the latest addition to the 'Snacks' menu:

I'm sticking with Fairwood, where no 'bite rods' of any sort are on offer.

Still more re fast food in HK

My favorites:-

Cafe de Coral -- unlike Mr Tall, prefer them to Fairwood or Maxim's MXs. Though having said that, both Cafe de Coral and Fairwood's spaghetti are quite frightening and not very tasty. (One of my favorite lunch dishes at Cafe de Coral: "mincy ngau yoke tan fahn" -- i.e., mince beef and fried egg on rice!)

One step above in quality but also price: Tsui Wah *and* also Tai Hing.

Re Japanese chains: Strange as it may seem, I prefer Yoshinoya's chicken to beef bowls. But also way prefer Ajisen Ramen (especially its cold ramen platter on hot days) to Yoshinoya.

And then there's the street food... but maybe that's for another day and entry? ;)

Missing these terribly

Just came back to the states a week ago. Lunch was a lot better a week ago. Actually, all meals were better (and much cheaper) a weeke ago. My 4-year-old loved the Fairwood breakfasts. And my husband couldn't believe a decent dim sum breakfast for a family of 4 in Causeway Bay costed only US$7. I didn't find a lot of good deals on clothes this time, but HK is still really the heaven of eating out.

Joi Hing Barbeque

Hi there,

If you are into Cha Siu and if you are Wanchai, you should try this one.  It's one of the better ones around.  It's street address is Ground Floor, #265-267 Hennessy Road Wanchai, but the restaurant is actually on Stewart Road, next to Wing Wah Chinese Restaurant. 

When you order Cha Siu, always order those with 1/3 of fats in volume, what we call 半肥瘦 in Cantonese.  Those are the best.   Fats aren't that bad if you are only eating it once in a while.

T

A big fan of the coffee at

A big fan of the coffee at Caf de Corale -has a really burnt charcoally taste that gets you hooked after a while -

&Actually the McDonalds coffee is damn good too as are their breakfasts-on a par with Tsui Wa /CdC breakfasts

but the ultimate breakfast treat are the breakfast "biscuits"( scones to the Aussies) with honey at Popeye's - i think the only branch in HK is at the airport so also a rare treat-also pretty good coffee

Kinda weird how the coffee at these fast food places is better than Starbucks and Pacific

Anyway Coffee i would rate CdC first,McDonalds/Burger King tie for second and Popeyes /Paciifc 3rd
/Starbuck 4th
never tried Fairwood

I do find the lunches and dinners at fairwood and CdC to be vile sickly sweet/salty gloopy scary combo's

For $10....

Hi there,

Actually both Cafe de Coral & Fairwood use beans and machines provided by Tsin Wing Coffee.  The machines are specially tuned to their own agreed specifications, and the beans roasted accordingly.  They are not the best of my taste, but for $10 it is certainly best value for money.

I am uncertain for those new coffee machines in local McYuck (McCafe is another story) so I am not in the position to comment.

For better coffee I would either go to Crema Cafe in Shop G36, Ground floor of Peninsula Centre in TSTE or Cafe Corridor in Russel Street, Causeway Bay, right opposite Times Square, behind the Khiel's and Levi's stores.  The most important thing is these two cafes roast their own beans.

T

Canteen at IFC

I can't believe it!! No sooner do I go on about how great Canteen in IFC is, I went back on Friday and it's gone. Gutted.

Anyway, just had a nice chicken bowl at the Yoshinoya at Shun Tak. My faith has been restored.

Sad!

How sad to hear that.  I always did wonder how they could afford the rental on a prime locaiton like that with their frontage.  Darn it though, any loss of reasonably-priced food outlets in a good location, is a sad event.  Hopefully Canteen in Prince's Building will last, it's almost the only value-oriented eatery in that location.

By the way, I had a really awesome pasta dish at Deli-O in Jardine House on Saturday, creamy chicken with penne pasta (and some lovely courgettes mixed in) including drink was only $48!  Freshly cooked, pasta al dente, nice firm veggies and no lack of large chicken pieces.

Coffee

An expensive option, but Cafe Habitu (several locations including Hutchison House, Gloucester Road next to Luk Kwok) serves truly wonderful coffee - I don't even need the extra shot that I require in my Starbucks coffee!

Graze Cafe

Tucked away in the lovely and vibrant area of Sheung Wan you will find a fabulous little cafe that serves brilliant hand picked coffee! Also has a great selection of cakes, muffins and a general lunch menu.

http://www.graze.hk/

Cafe Habitu

I couldn't agree more on the coffee. Cafe Habitu's food is okay, but its coffee is excellent. I like their cafe misto.

cafe de coral

As new arrivals (coming up on 5 months)- we LOVE cafe coral, and to a lesser degree, mx and fairwood. We spent our first month here in a tiny apt in Aberdeen, and while we actually like the area a lot, the meal options were a bit intimidating. Still jetlagged, we wandered into a coral, were thrilled to see English on the walls... (although no English from the staff) and ordered way more food than we needed.
We've since moved, but are still on a budget, and still in a "local" area, and many evenings have found us exhausted in the CdC- ordering "the usual".
We've found the food is usually pretty good- I actually like the bolagnaise- reminds me of Chef boyardee- and we understand the system now. (Except for one evening after school, sports, and a very long bus ride, when somehow I ended up with an entire extra order. (6 items in total, for 2 big people, 2 small)- Couldn't figure out how to explain the problem, so went home with lots and lots of food)

Samdor Noodle

Mrs Tall and I had an exceptional fast food lunch this past Sunday. Samdor Noodle, on the ground floor of Golden House, 30 Pottinger Street in Central (it's just down from Queen's Road, behind the China Arts store) was the venue, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

Mrs Tall eats here often, and orders the stewed beef brisket (i.e. ngau laam) every time because she finds it irrestible. I had to agree; it was some of the best I've had in HK. It's less stringy than at many places, and seems to be cut more across the grain of the meat. In any case, it was tender and utterly delicious. 

We also had a bowl of their special wonton noodles (very good) and a plate of those deep-fried fish balls that you dip in fermented oyster sauce (this is not for beginners, as it stinks of rotting seafood and ammonia, but tastes wonderfully pungent on the fish balls).

The restaurant was full but not crowded on a Sunday, but Mrs Tall says it's a madhouse on weekdays. She recommends arriving closer to 2:00 pm, when the wait for a table is likely to be only 10 minutes or so.