The Pacific CafÃ© Hong Kong Kitchen is one of a handful of restaurants in and near Seattle'ês Chinatown-International District founded on the same premise: to serve informal, individual-sized portions of popular, Hong-Kong style dishes in great variety and at hours that accommodate all appetites and walks of life.
Located on 5th Avenue near the city'ês rail hub and a concentration of bus stops, the restaurant is frequented by Amtrak employees, Japanese hipsters, and office workers from the complex of buildings across the street.
It is sleek and modern, with a look that strives to be clean more than stylish or fancy. The television that hangs in the dining room is always on, although no one seems to watch it. In Hong Kong, these establishments fill in the gaps left by formal restaurants, serving breakfast anytime to people on their way to work or on their way home, and providing late-night meals to those working the swing shift or sobering up from a night of drinking.
The Purple Dot CafÃ© and Hong Kong Bistro on Maynard Avenue, KC Kitchen on Eighth Avenue, and the LA CafÃ© on Jackson Street are other versions of the transplanted Hong Kong coffee shop, known as cha chaan tengs. On the surface, each appears to be just another Chinese restaurant in a neighborhood of many. And for all intents and purposes, that is what they are, with a few subtle but important distinctions.
What most notice right away is the seemingly incongruous addition to the menu of western dishes like steaks, chops, clam chowder, club sandwiches, spaghetti, borscht, French toast, Caesar salad, and the like. The dishes, rather than served family style on a large platter, tend to be sized for individual consumption. There are whole menu columns of mix-and-match noodle soups, and one-pot stews and rice dishes. Also unique to these restaurants is the variety of desserts and sweet beverages that include blended tea and coffee.
The signature dish of the cha chaan teng is perhaps the oven bake, a variety of rice or noodle casseroles made for one person, covered with a cheesy white sauce, a Hong Kong version of chicken a la king. It tastes neither entirely Asian, nor entirely western.
To visit one of these restaurants in search of expertly executed Chinese food — by and large the Chinese food is good but not spectacular — would be to miss the point. The Pacific CafÃ© and its counterparts are really something much more basic, something very American if you will, a link to a lost part of our past. They are diners.
American diners also intended to serve inexpensive meals to the working and middle classes. They were open at all hours and served all appetites. You went there for bacon and eggs, lasagna, lamb chops, a ham sandwich or perhaps a taco salad or moussaka. While restaurants specialize in one type of food, diners had to cover it all. The menus were huge even if the quality was ordinary.
Abundant after World War II, diners lost ground to fast-food restaurants. Today they are practically museum pieces. Only a few cities really even have them in great number — New York for instance. Most are in the Northeast, traditionally operated by Greek or Eastern European immigrants.
Here in Seattle, some restaurants like the chain operated by Chow Foods (Hi-Life, 5 Spot, Endolyne Joe'ês) emulate diners, leveraging the romance of nostalgia. The hugely successful Cheesecake Factory franchise (there are three in the state, in Tukwila, Bellevue and downtown Seattle) takes the whole spectrum of American food and serves huge portions in a spectacle-like setting, taking the basic concept of a diner and essentially giving it a network-television makeover.
So ironically, the closest thing we have to the honest American diner here in Seattle might be the Hong Kong version: unassuming, low on pretension, high on variety, inexpensive (the vast majority of items cost less than $10) and open late, although not as late as they could be. The Pacific CafÃ© closes at 10 p.m. The LA CafÃ©, which opened a few years ago with hours that ran from 7:30 a.m. to 2 a.m. every day, now opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. except on Friday and Saturday, when it's open until 1 a.m.
Seattle is simply not Hong Kong or even Los Angeles, with its great concentration of Hong Kong-style cafes that have operated since the 1980s. It remains to be seen whether these types of restaurants will thrive here in Seattle the way they have in L.A.'ês San Gabriel Valley without a critical mass of Hong Kong expats who are intimately acquainted and in love with the idiosyncrasies of the Hong Kong diner.
Hong Kong, once a British colony, has always been the Western world'ês gateway to China. It is Asia'ês equivalent of New York, a city with a deep-water harbor, founded on trade and driven to one thing, making money. The Portuguese, the French, Russians, Japanese, and of course the British all spent time in Hong Kong one way or another, and the menus of Hong Kong diners reflect that history.
In addition to the Chinese items, there are Portuguese pork sandwiches, borscht, escargot, Japanese udon and unagi-don, Spam, and sandwiches without crusts. The British influence is most pronounced. Tea is served with milk, a uniquely British habit.
It is almost certain the Pacific CafÃ© and its brethren are the only restaurants in Seattle to serve Horlicks, the British, hot malted milk drink, and its cold-variety cousin that is more familiar to Americans. At the Pacific CafÃ©, you can wash down your meal with a glass of Ovaltine.
If you go: Pacific CafÃ© Hong Kong Kitchen, 416 Fifth Ave. S., 206-682-0908, www.pacifichkcafe.com. Open 11 am-10 pm Tuesday-Sunday. Closed Monday.