Hong Kong’s Honolulu Cafe to open at The CentrePoint in April

Honolulu Cafe's Singapore shop will serve freshly baked egg tarts, along with macaroni and noodle dishes and weekly specials.
Honolulu Cafe's Singapore shop will serve freshly baked egg tarts, along with macaroni and noodle dishes and weekly specials. PHOTO: HONOLULU CAFE

Popular Hong Kong cha chaan tang famed for its egg tarts sets up shop at The CentrePoint in April

London-style roast ducks by two different brands rocked the food scene here last year and this year the competition is for the title of best Hong Kong egg tart.

In April, popular Hong Kong cha chaan tang Honolulu Cafe - famous for its egg tarts with flaky pastry - will open a 50-seat restaurant at The CentrePoint in Orchard Road.

It will go head to head with Tai Cheong Bakery, which is known for its egg tarts made with shortcrust pastry. Tai Cheong is slated to open within the next three months in Orchard Road and will set up a pop-up stall early next month, although the location has not been confirmed.

Tai Cheong's opening here is a joint venture with Food People, a company set up by Mr Wei Chan, managing director of The Pine Garden bakery, and Mr Han Jin Juan of Palm Beach Seafood Restaurant.

Honolulu Cafe is a franchise brought in by a new, yet-tobe-named food-and-beverage company set up by Mr Lee Yuen Yong, who is also the managing director of F&B company Asia Gourmet. That company brought in wonton noodle specialist Mak's Noodle from Hong Kong, which has shops at The CentrePoint and Westgate and will open a third at VivoCity in May.

I'm not sure how it will work here, but... I must have its egg tart and coconut tart when I go to Hong Kong.

CHEF WILLIN LOW of modern-Singapore restaurant Wild Rocket on Honolulu Cafe's opening here

On bringing in Honolulu Cafe, Mr Lee says: "Not many people in Singapore know about it, but its egg tart is the best we can get in Hong Kong. The recipe has 70 years of history. All other egg tarts evolved from it and it is a household name.

"On more than 10 trips to Hong Kong, the team tried egg tarts from more than 50 stores before deciding that Honolulu Cafe's are the best."

Mr Chan, who is bringing in Tai Cheong, says: "The market is big and diners will figure out which one tastes better. We are confident of our brand. Honolulu Cafe's egg tarts have flaky pastry, so it's a different class."

Honolulu Cafe was founded in the 1940s by the late Mr Yeung Jin Hei, who died 21/2 years ago at the age of 84. It started out selling coffee, tea and baked goods. Over the past 20 years, its menu has evolved to include everything from noodle dishes to sandwiches.

Mr Yeung's second son Derrick, 50, took over the business in 1996 and runs it with his 51-year-old brother Wayne, who handles the daily operations of the six outlets in Hong Kong. Their youngest brother is not in the business.

Derrick has been instrumental in expanding the brand overseas, starting 11/2 years ago. Honolulu has three shops in Beijing and one in Shanghai.

The Singapore shop will be its fifth overseas outlet and the 1,500 sq ft eatery will serve freshly baked egg tarts, along with macaroni and noodle dishes and weekly specials.

Derrick says that an egg tart, with Honolulu's signature "192 layers of flaky pastry", will cost $1.70. The price is comparable with egg tarts in Singapore, which cost an average of $1.50 and no more than $2.

He is now meeting suppliers and recruiting staff and chefs, who will undergo training in Hong Kong.

The outlet in Singapore will have a more modern design compared with the more traditional decor in Hong Kong. He is also considering implementing a similar modern design in the Hong Kong outlets.

Aside from Singapore, he plans to open in Taiwan, in line with his plans to go "more international".

He says: "My father was more conservative and not willing to do business outside Hong Kong. He thought people might not accept the cha chaan tang concept, especially in China. I told him many times that the cha chaan tang is a huge success, but he was still reluctant."

Asked why the chain is called Honolulu, he says: "Many years ago, Hong Kong was a British colony. It was the culture to drink milk tea and eat pastries. We wanted a Western name, but it's nothing to do with Hawaii or Honolulu."

He hopes to bring an authentic taste of Hong Kong to Singapore, chuckling and shaking his head when asked about the ones he has tried here.

He says, laughing: "I can't believe I'm sitting in a cha chaan tang eating cha chaan tang food. I can't believe it."

Chef Willin Low of modern-Singapore restaurant Wild Rocket, who likes the egg tarts from both Tai Cheong and Honolulu Cafe, says: "I'm not sure how it will work here, but I like the style of Honolulu Cafe. It is authentic, nostalgic and a slice of the real Hong Kong.

"While I prefer shortcrust pastry for egg tarts, the only flaky-pastry one I like is from Honolulu Cafe. I must have its egg tart and coconut tart when I go to Hong Kong. When I'm with friends in Hong Kong, I take them to eat the egg tarts from both brands and ask what's their preference. It's always a tie."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2016, with the headline 'Honolulu Cafe to open here'. Print Edition | Subscribe