Chinatown’s New HK Café Has Retro Vibes and Legit Noodles

Honolulu’s first modern tea restaurant has delicious milk tea, laksa and sweet toasts six days a week except Thursdays (for now).


There are two types of restaurants synonymous with Hong Kong: dim sum, which is practically universal, and the cha chaan teng, or tea restaurant. Cha chaan teng are the Cantonese equivalent of greasy spoon American diners, only the food is a throwback to Hong Kong’s past as a British colony. Think milk tea and ham macaroni soup or beef satay over rice. With the opening of HK Cafe in the former Happy Garden Restaurant space on Maunakea Street, we now have cha chaan teng in Chinatown.


HK Café is the shiny new Mini Cooper of cha chaan tengs, with vintage features that appeal to a modern audience. Gray vinyl banquettes and blonde wood tables flank the bright space. Walls are wallpapered in tile patterns and have retro-style posters advertising popular Hong Kong food items. The same aesthetic carries over to the branded melamine dishes and takeout cups with dark jade green sleeves.


Hk Cafe Interior Credit Thomas Obungen 1

Photo: Thomas Obungen


Breakfast is dominated by combo sets of jook, noodle soups and white bread sandwiches with butter and condensed milk. You’ll need to solve some mild algebra to order a set, which combines two items from different quadrants of the menu. Prices range from $16.75 to $22.75 and are good enough to share. The menu flips to lunch service with more items at 10 a.m., so if you want the best of both, go at 9:30 a.m.


Hk Cafe Noodles Toast Milk Tea

Photo: Thomas Obungen


Whether you go for breakfast or lunch, it should start with a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea. It’s the first scent that greets you at the door. Stronger than coffee, this pulled tea is silky smooth and not as sweet as it looks. Other options include the ubiquitous black lemon tea with half a lemon inside the cup, Ovaltine (hot or cold) and a sparkling citrusy drink called lemon ribena. Most drinks are $4.50, a dollar more if you want it on ice.


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French toasts laced with condensed milk and knobs of butter or dusted in Ovaltine powder are a must-have. The peanut butter toast ($8.99) is modest and can be easily made at home, but I yearn for it with HK’s iced milk tea. And don’t be shocked when milk gushes from the Ovaltine french toast when you dig in. Consider yourself warned.


Jook is gingery and soothing, the ideal cure for a hangover or days you need a little extra comfort. A bowl includes two choices from a long list of popular congee toppings including fish fillets, sliced pork, pork intestines, century eggs, chicken and shrimp. We order our bowl as a combo with a Chinese fried donut, you tiao, for dipping. At breakfast with two Cantonese friends, it’s a fast favorite.


ropes of white Cheung Funn noodles topped with Shrimp

Photo: Thomas Obungen


Now for the noodles. Rice flour rolls filled with minced pork and egg, beef or shrimp and doused in HK’s special soy sauce are not a bad way to whet your appetite. The crinkly lattice of the noodle holds toppings and sauce for the trip to your mouth. I pair a shrimp roll with a hot cup of milk tea for $12.95, which is one of the Combo E options.


a bowl of Beef Satay Mein noodles

Photo: Thomas Obungen


There’s also beef and tendon look fun and beef satay with egg noodles. The beef satay has more flavor: velvety beef with nutty satay sauce in a chicken-based broth. The braised beef and tendon are not as soft as I prefer, but others note their experience is different from mine. My bias here is Lam’s Kitchen up the street, so I’m going to stick with what I like. However, I have to recommend the dry stir-fried soy sauce chow mein ($8.95), full of dark caramel egg noodles infused with smoky wok hei, crisp bean sprouts and scallions. This I can eat a whole bowl of by myself.


a mound of Soy Sauce Fried Noodles with bean sprouts and green onion

Photo: Thomas Obungen


Beef chow fun is my litmus test for a restaurant’s wok cooking skills. HK’s places in my top five with generous, tender strips of beef and silky flat, possibly too-thin rice noodles. The noodles lack some bounce and chew but the flavors are on point and a plate can satisfy two people for $13.95.


a bowl of Seafood Laksa topped with shrimp and mussels


On the lunch menu, focus your sights on the seafood laksa ($16.95) and the fried chicken wings ($12.95) if you want a bit more substance to your meal. The laksa. Don’t come for me when I say this version at a Hong Kong-style café is one of the better laksas on O‘ahu. It turns out Hong Kong has more than a few dozen restaurants that offer this Nonya specialty. HK’s seafood laksa is generously filled with mussels, whole shrimp, squid and imitation crab meat. The aromatic broth packs a kick and the coconut, galangal, lemongrass and curry flavors are balanced with a shrimpy base. The thick rice noodles pick up the broth well.


Fried Chicken Wings piled on a plate

Photo: Thomas Obungen


The fried chicken wings are a nice surprise. Marinated and juicy with a strong herbal overtone, the thin skin helps lock all the flavor in.


Decidedly absent are more varieties of the macaroni and ham soups typically seen on cha chaan teng menus. I passed on the tomato macaroni soup on the breakfast menu, but from what I hear, it could stir up nostalgia for homesick Hongkongers. Additional items on the full menu will include Hong Kong-style curry fish balls and claypot rice dishes.


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While I haven’t been to Hong Kong, I am well aware that Honolulu has been lacking in its cha chaan teng culture. To me, these casual cafés with classic home-style foods are a perfect fit for Chinatown. Revitalization is underway in this district with the renovation of the Wo Fat building across the street and restaurants finding new success in historic spaces, so it’s thrilling to see a cha chaan teng in the mix. I hope HK Café can eventually open later so I can get my Cantonese noodle fix for dinner and peanut butter toast for dessert.


Soft Open Friday to Wednesday from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., 1113 Maunakea St., (808) 200-5757