While other Chinese food traditions might be steeped in rich history, the sub-culture of the Hong Kong cha chaan teng is a comparatively new phenomenon. It’s also one that has profoundly impacted the restaurant scene in Metro Vancouver for more than 25 years.

Born in 1950s Hong Kong after the end of the Second World War, the cha chaan teng, which literally translates as “tea restaurant”, emerged to serve inexpensive western-style dishes to the working class. Up until then, the foods of the west were largely reserved for the wealthy. These western-style dishes were adapted to fit the Cantonese sensibility of the Hong Kong people.

Typical menu items at these cha chaan tengs include things like “French toast”, which is really just two slices of plain white bread with a smear of Malaysian kaya coconut jam in between, dipped in egg and smothered in table syrup. Other items might also include a minute steak drenched in a black pepper gravy, served with a side of plain spaghetti. Or you could get Singapore style fried rice vermicelli, or seafood baked in a creamy white sauce with rice.

It didn’t take long before Hong Kong-style cafes arrived in Richmond in the early 80s. I still remember sharing the mixed grill set dinner with my then-girlfriend, now-wife at Kam Do when they still had the restaurant on Alexandra Road. With a bowl of soup, a seafood cocktail, a glass of “champagne”, half a dozen grilled meats on a sizzling plate with rice or spaghetti, and a scoop ice cream for dessert, the $15 mixed grill was an exceptional value.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The winner of the Diners’ Choice Award for Best Hong Kong-Style Cafe from the Chinese Restaurant Awards 2016 is a great place to start for those looking to experience a Hong Kong-Style Cafe. Located in a newer complex across the street from the Richmond Olympic Oval, Copa Cafe (6200 River Road) is everything that the traditional cha chaan teng should be, while simultaneously being everything it typically isn’t.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The first difference? They’re not cash only, accepting both Visa and debit (but not Mastercard). Everything else is secondary: the contemporary, almost Mediterranean-inspired interior design with faux crocodile seating and artistic lighting fixtures starkly contrasts the otherwise Spartan approach of other Hong Kong style cafes.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The menu, which offers all the trusted standbys of a Hong Kong-style cafe, is filled with pictures to make ordering far more accessible for the uninitiated. Unlike other Hong Kong-style cafes, Copa Cafe doesn’t bombard you with a dozen laminated sheets with different “specials” to consider.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

My wife and I decided on the Mini Set Menu for lunch (menu above), which is typical of a Hong Kong style cafe. You choose your main dish, which usually involves a rice or noodle, though there are sandwiches too, and it comes with a complimentary hot beverage. Diners can then pay a little extra to get a bowl of soup or to upgrade their drink to something cold. Upgrades to bubble tea or other specialty drinks are also available.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

I almost always order the iced mixed coffee and tea ($1 extra, pictured above), a staple of the Hong Kong cafe that combines milk tea with instant coffee – although this particular beverage is an acquired taste. My wife went non-traditional with an iced Vietnamese coffee ($2 extra) instead. This is just one demonstration of how the this style of restaurant continues to evolve, absorbing prevailing trends and preferences of the local food scene.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

This mix of old and new continued with our optional bowls of soup, both of which were accompanied by a warm dinner roll. Go to nearly any Hong Kong style cafe and you’ll find some version of Russian borscht ($2 extra, pictured above), which is what I got. The other common option is a cream-based soup.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

By contrast, most won’t have lobster bisque ($3.50 extra, above) on the menu. This aligns with the original philosophy of the Hong Kong cafe, delivering fancy western food in a more casual and wallet-friendly environment. The borscht delivered the almost sour tanginess I desired, while the bisque was satisfyingly thick and creamy.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The standard on which I judge every HK-style cafe is the baked pork chop on rice (pictured above, $10.50). At Copa Cafe, the single deep fried pork chop comes pre-sliced, topped with a tomato-based sauce with onions and cheese. A generous helping of rice can be found underneath. The whole oval-shaped ramekin has been baked to melt the cheese and provide just a little bit of char around the edges.

Some other cafes might also throw in some frozen veggie mix, but Copa Cafe keeps it simple with the chunks of tomato and slices of onion. I just wished there was more sauce to further drench the rice.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Baked Portuguese chicken on rice is another staple on Hong Kong-style cafe menus, usually served in the same oval ramekin as the baked pork chop on rice. While that is an option at Copa, the Mini Set Menu expands to further encapsulate more culinary influence. In this instance, my wife got the Portuguese chicken with rice in a stone bowl ($10.50, pictured above). She could have picked from a number of different proteins and sauce combinations, any of which could be cooked in the same kind of stone bowl as you’d find with Korean dolsot bibimbap.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

This was certainly not something you’d find on the menu of a Hong Kong-style cafe in Richmond in the 1990s. Further borrowing from the Korean inspiration, this stone bowl rice came with julienne carrots and cucumber, along with the large pieces of grilled chicken. The Portuguese sauce is like a mild yellow curry and it’s not meant to be spicy at all.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

Even though the restaurant scene in Richmond has changed significantly in the last decade, gaining much greater influence from Mainland China and particularly from Taiwan, the Hong Kong style cafe continues to persist. Restaurants like Copa Cafe demonstrate that the cha chaan teng can adapt with the times, adding new menu items while holding on the traditions on which the affordable western-Cantonese fusion was founded.

Copa Cafe

Photo credit: Michael Kwan

The total bill for the two of us came to just over $35, including taxes and gratuity. The “mini set” menu at Copa Cafe is available daily from 11:30am to 6pm and from 9pm to closing. Underground parking is free and you can get your grocery shopping done at the new T&T Supermarket location next door when you’re done.