In my experience, Chinese restaurants generally don’t like it when you want to make substitutions. Some may accommodate as a courtesy, whereas others have more of a “take it or leave it” kind of attitude. That’s why it’s such a curiosity when you go to a Hong Kong style cafe (or “cha chaan teng“), because these are the kinds of casual restaurants with an almost overwhelming amount of choice. And many menu items even let you customize your meal as you see fit.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., Alleluia Cafe is located at the far end of Richspot Plaza (188-8131 Westminster Highway). That’s a small strip mall, partway between Richmond Public Market and Number 3 Road, and you could drive by it for years and never notice it was there. By most standards, Alleluia is your typical Hong Kong style cafe. It’s not new and shiny like the new Copa Cafe out by the Richmond Olympic Oval and the menu doesn’t venture too far outside the box.

It sticks to the guiding principle of a cha chaan teng in marrying western dishes with a Hong Kong inspired sensibility. When we arrived for lunch one sunny weekday afternoon, we were greeted with three separate menus each: the all day western mini sets, the all day Chinese mini sets, and the appertizer [sic] and snacks menu.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

This is very similar to the approach to breakfast we experienced at Happy Date Bakery and Restaurant. You’ve got your more traditional Chinese dishes separated from the western-inspired dishes. In both cases, you are offered at least one “mix and match” set where you can pick and choose the items you’d like to include in your meal. So, that’s what we did.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

All of the “mini sets” (which realistically aren’t that mini and are easily complete meals in their own right) are accompanied by your choice of hot or cold beverage. Unlike many other similar restaurants, Alleluia does not charge a premium for a cold drink. You can choose to upgrade to a specialty drink, such as bubble tea, lemon Coke, or red bean and ice for a small charge though.

The Iced Hong Kong Style Mixed Coffee & Tea arrived rich and milky, just sweet enough not to require any additional sugar. The Iced Lemon Tea was similarly cold and refreshing. Cold drinks are generally larger in size than their hot counterparts. Other options include Ovaltine, Horlicks or milk tea, among others. You can also get a regular old pop instead if you’d prefer.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

One of the larger and more filling meals that you’ll find on the menu is the Mix & Match Combo ($13.25 for two items). You can add a third item for a couple bucks more if you’re feeling particularly famished.

Shown here are the rib eye steak and deep fried chicken wings, served with mushroom gravy and spaghetti on the side. Each component on the plate, with the exception of the frozen vegetable medley, can be customized. If I didn’t feel like a rib eye steak and chicken wings, I could have opted for a chicken filet, a pork chop, a jumbo sausage, a fish filet, ox tongue or even mussels instead.

The spaghetti can be swapped out for steamed rice or, if you prefer, you can pay a small premium to upgrade to green salad, french fries or even yam fries. It was really surprising for me to see yam fries at a Hong Kong style cafe. The sauce can also be changed.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

While the cut of beef for the rib eye steak is understandably not of the highest quality, I was actually quite impressed with the three deep fried chicken wings. The skin was wonderfully crunchy and crispy without feeling too heavy or greasy, while the meat inside was succulent and substantial. These are some great wings and my almost 20-month-old daughter loved them too.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

A bowl of cream of chicken soup with bits of carrot accompanied the custom “mixed grill.” The soup is decidedly thinner than most cream soups and it was a little on the saltier side. I consider it a free bonus more than anything.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Switching over to the “Chinese” menu, we find a section for Mix & Match Soup Noodles ($10.50 for two items). This is very similar to the mixed grill in philosophy, except it’s obviously a bowl of soup noodles. We’ve really seen this trend rise in popularity in recent years, particularly in Taiwanese restaurants.

It used to be the case that the menu would be listed with one “meat” item with a certain noodle in the standard soup base — like BBQ duck with egg noodles — and you would have to request specific substitutions if you wanted something else. By contrast, a “mix and match” approach like this is explicitly welcoming you to customize your bowl of noodles to suit your taste.

We went with fish balls and tofu puffs in broth with wide rice noodles. Again, the choices for meat (or meat alternative) items is thoroughly impressive, from luncheon meat to minced beef with parsley. It’s really up to you. The noodle choices are par for the course, from rice vermicelli to egg noodles, but there aren’t too many options for the soup base. The most adventurous would be a Thai tom yum.

Alleluia Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Some culinary experts have said that the best restaurants in the world are those that choose to specialize in just one thing. Go to Tokyo, for instance, and you’ll find an abundance of restaurants that only do tempura or only do robata. That’s not at all the philosophy behind what a Hong Kong style cafe has become.

Indeed, the evolution of the cha chaan teng has led to a world of choice. There may be a lot of rice, there might be a lot of noodles, but there sure are a lot of different ways you can dress up those rice or noodles. Alleluia Cafe isn’t especially exceptional, as far as Hong Kong style cafes are concerned. It may not exactly be a gift from the heavens, like its name may lead you to believe, but you do get a giant menu in a space that’s warm, comfortable and inviting. Having all day mini sets doesn’t hurt either.

The total bill, including tax and gratuity, came to just under $28. Alleluia Cafe is a cash only establishment, so you’ll want to hit up the ATM before popping by for a bite.