Hong Kong native and Cha’s owner Charlie Lau became a restaurateur because of a hankering. A movie producer by day, Lau came to Shanghai with Ang Lee to film Lust/Caution, and was disappointed that Shanghai lacked a proper Hong Kongese cha canting, a casual all-day eatery that serves traditional Cantonese food alongside milk teas and coffee. So he decided to open his own.
On the set of Lust, a 1930s period piece, Lau was responsible for ensuring the historical accuracy of the costumes, casting and set design, so it’s not surprising that he designed Cha’s with the past in mind. Walking across the restaurant’s threshold transports you to 1950s Hong Kong. Tin cans of Ovaltine, condensed milk and Spam – all nods to the busy port’s British colonial past – are stacked against the back wall. Public lavatory signs from that bygone era mark the way to the bathroom, and even the floor – a tight green and white tile pattern – is part of the set; it’s a replica from a Wong Kar-Wai film.
Like most diners the world over, cha cantings easily fall into the category of the greasy spoon, with their calorie-laden dishes on the cheap that fuel full days and late nights. Cha’s serves weighty Canto classics that have migrated across the Hong Kong border, like the exceptional naicha (奶茶), black tea shaded a luscious caramel by diabetic-coma-inducing sweetened condensed milk.
This is no place for a diet (and we’re never on one), so we never miss the wildly popular soy sauce chicken. The whole fattened chicken is seared in a wok, then quick-braised in rosé wine and soy sauce, with ginger and peppers added for a subtle kick. It’s served chopped on the bone at room temperature, the browned skin holding in layers of unctuous fat and tender chicken that will have you gnawing down to the crunch of the bones. When we’re really throwing caloric caution to the wind, we go for the deep-fried chicken wings, flavorful breaded bites that shame the Colonel himself. Or you can opt for one of the healthier options on the menu: shrimp stir-fried with egg. Every visit, we lose ourselves in the magical textural combination of droopy scrambled eggs, fresh plump shrimp and spring onions.
With a noodle list that takes up almost a quarter of the menu, it can be daunting to select one staple to round out your meal, but we recommend the dry-fried rice noodles with beef (干炒牛肉河粉, gàn chǎo niúròu hé fěn), the Chinese version of Thailand’s pad see ew, or fried ramen topped with barbecued pork.
Dessert at Cha’s keeps the hits coming. The pineapple buns – named for the shape of the split top, not the fact they have any of the tropical fruit – are the size of small saucers and come split with a thick pat of butter poking out.
Since the original outlet opened in 2009, the line has hardly diminished, so diners should expect a small crowd no matter what time they arrive. For a table of two, expect to get seated under the fluorescent lights with another couple. The second location practically doubles the restaurant’s capacity, but long lines can postpone meals for up to an hour at prime dining times.
Editor’s note: The original location of Cha’s was recently renovated (although it still has the same cool vibe and puts out the same delicious food), so we thought it was a good time to rerun this 2012 review.