Casual Hong Kong restaurant Dragon Oriental opened in Chinatown in mid-March. Co-owner Matthew tells us they noticed that there was a lack of typical Hong Kong style restaurants – or cha chaan tengs – in Chinatown. Loosely translated as “tea restaurants”, these affordable, low key Canto-Western spots are very popular with Hong Kongers like Matthew. So he decided to build one here.
The grade II listed building that houses Dragon Oriental was vacant for a while before they moved in. All of the interiors except the kitchen have been built and decorated by the team of owners. The red and green neon signs have been imported from Hong Kong as he says they couldn’t find any that beautiful in the UK. It’s a huge multi-level space and one of the few places in Manchester that is happy to cater to large groups of up to 40 or 50 people.
“We’re not only a cafe or restaurant,” says Matthew, “We include all Hong Kong popular foods. There are no [restaurants or cafes] of this style in the UK. The size, the atmosphere, the music.”
The menu is vast so Matthew guides us through it. His number one recommendation is the traditional HK style French toast – which he calls an “appetiser”. He says Hong Kong people go crazy for it. Dragon Oriental’s version consists of peanut butter and jam sandwiched between two fluffy slices of white bread coated in egg batter and fried to a golden crisp before being topped with a melting pat of sweet butter. Melvis would approve.
He also suggests we try their prawn toast and signature bandit wings which have a whiff of India about them with the inclusion of cumin seeds and other spices. There is also a lot of influence from Portugal in Hong Kong due to influence from neighbouring Macau which was at one time a Portuguese colony. So we try baked-to-order “Portuguese pork chops” which Hong Kongers have made their own by the addition of copious tomato ketchup (a Hong Konger favourite) and pineapple to make a sweet and intense sauce. Pork chops are then baked in the sauce and topped with cheese which melts and bronzes in spots like the top of a lasagne. It’s served in a kitsch 70s style casserole dish on rice with a broccoli garnish.
But we also have to try the Hong Kong breakfast set. You can choose your noodles (rice noodles, instant ramen etc), and add broth and whichever toppings you like – we add HK favourite luncheon meat (aka Spam) and scrambled egg to ours. It’s served with buttered toast and a choice of drink.
Another signature dish is char siu rice topped with a fried egg. Matthew tells us that this dish was made famous under the moniker of “sorrowful rice” by superstar HK actor Stephen Chow in his film The God of Cookery. There are other Chinese BBQ meats that you can mix and match: pork belly, soy chicken, roast duck and so on.
Elsewhere, you’ll find recognisable favourites like sweet and sour kung po chicken, aromatic ma po tofu with its characteristic Sichuan spices, the popular soy sauced beef with flat ho fun rice noodles, and Manchester’s obsession: salt and pepper chicken. Repeat visits are essential to take it all in and the menu will also change every couple of months, Matthew tells us.
But drinks are not to be overlooked. Matthew says they are very important to Hong Kongers who are “crazy about milk tea”. In the two years he has been here in the UK, he says he has never found a place that serves typical milk tea how he likes it. He assures us that his is the best.
The tea is imported from Hong Kong. It’s richer and fruitier than your typical English Breakfast, made with creamy, unsweetened condensed milk and served hot. You can have it iced and/or sweetened instead if you like. There is also something called Yuanyang on the menu which is coffee and milk tea mixed together. We’re not sure we’re ready for that. If you prefer, there is wine and beer too.
For dessert, try another cha chaan teng classic: red bean ice cream milkshake with sweetened red beans topped with milk and vanilla ice cream.
Matthew also tells us the Hong Kong style of dining is very flexible. If you want a slight variation on a dish, not just adding a different kind of meat to an existing noodle dish or having your egg scrambled instead of fried but incorporating seafood orders from other shops, as long as the chef can do it, they can make it your way for you. The team here tell us they are keen to welcome non-Hong Kongers to Dragon Oriental. Put it on your list for a midweek lunch treat.