East meets West at this 'greasy spoon' opposite Strangeways

The latest iteration of a ‘Cha Chaan Teng’ café is in the unlikeliest of places.

By Thom Hetherington | 5 May 2024

Share this story

Reader, I have an admission to make regarding my addiction to a dark corner of the Internet. I guess it was always within me, but the ennui of lockdown turned an idle hobby into an all-consuming addiction. Yes, I spend my sofa downtime compulsively scrolling around Google Maps, seeking out authentic-looking ethnic restaurants in the less fashionable corners of Manchester’s urban periphery.

Focusing on blind spots for the usual foodie chattering classes, my targets tended to be community hubs serving a taste of home for immigrants rather than influencers.

Such effortless scanning from on high, like a hangry kestrel looking for a field mouse lechon or a vole manouche, has uncovered everything from Romanian grill houses by the East Lancs Road to Arabic bakeries in Eastlands. It also led me to look afresh at Rusholme, the ever-changing ‘Curry Mile’, where Kurdish, Afghan and Iraqi cafes now dot the side streets, and African diners span the width of the continent, from East to West, along the length of Claremont Road.

It also introduced me to the recent boom in ‘Cha Chaan Tengs’, the traditional teahouses which are an integral part of Hong Kong life. They exist to feed and water locals from all walks of life at all times of day, and to do so quickly, cheaply and well. Unlicensed, clattery, and prone to formica tables and bright lighting, they feature long menus riffing around comforting standards, and are best thought of as akin to English greasy spoon cafés.

Which all sounded like unadulterated catnip to me, so I called up my plus one du jour, Vaughan Allan, CEO of Cityco – they’re the business membership organisation who do everything from welcoming tourists with their city ambassadors to organising events like Halloween in the City with its brilliant monster inflatables – and briefed him. “We’re going to a Hong Kong teashop in Strangeways”, I told him. “Trust me.”

“You know”, he said as we sat down, “I always said Manchester should make a special effort to attract all the Hong Kongers coming to the UK after 2021.” Coincidence or not, the city has since seen a huge influx, bringing their entrepreneurism, culture, and cooking. Salford in particular has become a bit of Cha Chaan Teng hotspot, with Sakura, Hong Kong Choi, the brilliantly named Yuppie Mom, and now Happy Valley, today’s destination, facing Strangeways prison itself.

Happy Valley Cafe Wall

Horse racing is Hong Kong’s number one sport, hence Happy Valley is named after the island’s famous race course of the same name rather than the recent Sarah Lancashire cop drama. So, whilst as a venue it ticks all of the usual Cha Chaan Teng design tics its interior is lifted by a huge horse-racing mural down one wall, and luminescent night time drone shots of the course itself along the other.

Open the trifold paper menu and you lay bare the polyglot nature of Hong Kong cuisine: Cantonese classics, some anglicised and some not; curries, hinting at the Indo-British influence maybe; satay from South East Asia; ‘macaroni’, potentially reigniting the Sino-Italian argument as to who invented pasta; ‘Japanese’ pork cutlets; Kimchi via South Korea; ‘Swiss’ chicken wings, and ‘four treasure rice’ with a full English of luncheon meat, ham, sausage and egg chopped through it.

Wash everything down with lashings of the traditional Hong Kong sweet tea, brown as acorns and made with a Ceylon-heavy blend and condensed milk. Or maybe a “3 layered coffee”, a red bean ice, an Ovaltine or even a Horlicks.

Yep, really. Glorious, isn’t it? Although I love authenticity as purity – fetishising dreamy French villages where you’d struggle to find a dish un-steeped in centuries of Gallic tradition and hyperlocal produce – as a Brit I have a particular affinity for places with a food culture as globe-trottingly magpie-ish as our own. Hong Kong has long been a place where East meets West, meaning to locals fusion has become canon, and it’s an absolute thrill.

Happy Valley Cafe's Curry Beef Tendon Brisket

First up was the classic curry beef tendon brisket, flecked with chilli and pooled alongside a timbale of rice and a single al dente sprig of broccoli. It was mellow, yellow, and almost Malaysian in style – slightly sweet, broadly spiced with coriander and curry powder, and thickened with coconut cream. The brisket was collapsing into the sauce like an eroding coastline, and the wibbly gobbets of tendon, cooked for five long hours, added gelatinous richness.

Happy Valley Cafe's Satay Skewered Combo

A ‘satay-skewered combination’ featured sliced beef, pork, and chicken, plus Chinese sausages, tight in their skins, and crispy fish balls. Beneath the meat was a thick, sharp satay, oily and gritty with crushed peanuts. A swift mix brought the dish to life.

Happy Valley Cafe's Pork Chop with Fired Noodles

The pork chop with fried noodles arrived off the bone and also sliced, and ate like one of my favourite Cantonese dishes – the sweet pork tangled amongst noodles, spring onion greens and beansprouts, bound with soy sauce and a sprinkle of sesame.

Happy Valley Cafe's Cheese and Kimchi Noodle Soup

Cheese and kimchi noodle soup with tofu sounded like a dish designed to shake you by the collar and bellow in your face, a blast of curdling fermentation heaving with depth and complexity, offering a counterpoint to the silky neutrality of the dusted and lightly fried tofu. As it happens, we found it texturally pleasant but possibly a little underpowered for our palates, leaving us peering into the bowl like disappointed scryers hunched over a misfiring orb.

The last section on the menu focused on sweet dishes, and whilst missing a heading such as ‘desserts’ could equally have been titled ‘Elvis Presley – RIP.’

Happy Valley Cafe's Peanut Butter Toast

The vehicle for every option was basically toast – white sliced and processed, crusts cut off. We went with the popular topping of peanut butter and condensed milk, which was so good we briefly lapsed into silence. “The condensed milk actually stops the peanut butter being claggy”, said Vaughan. “That’s very clever.” Claggy. I remember when we used to eloquently debate the competing merits of our favourite three stars.

On the subject of yardsticks, it’s important to measure a restaurant, or indeed a tea house, against its own intentions. We left Happy Valley in barely an hour, stuffed to bursting from a satisfying multi-course affair, and barely £60 lighter between us. In Cha Chaan Teng terms that’s mission accomplished.

Thom Hetherington and Vaughen Allen ate at Happy Valley, 153 Great Ducie Street, Cheetham Hill, Manchester, M43 1FB.

Petit Fours

  • I was honoured to be asked to be a judge for Code Hospitality’s prestigious Women in Hospitality awards this year, and was delighted to see some of my Northern nominations make the cut. Huge congratulations to all who made the list, but especially to our region’s stars which included Alice Power at the Black Swan at Oldstead, Kimberley Fern-McBride at Suppher, Jenny Thompson from Alty Market House et al, Jane Oglesby at Jane’s Farm, Kelly Bishop from Manchester Wine Tours, Camilla Topham from Distrikt, Anni Opong from Arc Inspirations, Dr Sylvia Travers from Haigh Hall, Baneta Yelda at Companio Bakery, and Lucy Noone-Blake from Pear Communications.
  • Seeking a spontaneous Mancunian dinner recently I found Double Zero booked solid at 6pm, and apparently for peak times it is packed out for two weeks ahead. Luckily the cavernous Cibo could accommodate me, but it too was thronging by the time I left. Medlock Canteen has just garnered a glowing Jay Rayner review; Nell’s is opening in the old Croma site; the outstanding Another Hand are finalising Jaan, their Middle Eastern concept, in Exhibition; Flat Iron is in the midst of a charming charm offensive with the city’s hospitality stalwarts ahead of their imminent launch, and I’m typing this whilst on a press trip to London with the incoming Caravan. Dear God is all this Mancunian momentum and positivity sustainable?! I’d say a considered yes, with context and certain caveats, but I think that’s a substantial subject worthy of addressing properly in a future column.
  • The (positive) surprise news of the month is that Niall Keating, a chef who earned two Michelin stars at Whatley Manor, will take over as the ‘Chef in Residence’ at the Stock Exchange Hotel restaurant, which will now be called Tender. Most recently he was overseeing Lunar at the Wedgewood headquarters in Stoke which looked outstanding, earning a green star from Michelin, and which was very much on my to do list. Noting my previous point I say bring it all on please, Manchester thrives on more not less.
  • And permit me bigging up my hometown, but the excellent Tre Ciccio are opening a third site to go with their outposts in the foodie hotspots of Altrincham and Ramsbottom. Their Glossop site was originally Bruckshaw’s bakers, where I used to eat traffic light cakes in the upstairs café during my 1970s childhood, but I’ll be equally delighted with wood-fired pizzas and roast chicken. As a town we are blessed with some strong ‘single site’ indies, including Hyssop, Harvey Leonard’s, Distant Hills Brewery and the outstanding Pack Horse just over the hill, but it’s a welcome development that we’re increasingly on the radar of ambitious multi-site indies too. Now will someone please take on the incredible old NatWest Bank site!