A “coming soon” hangs from the doors of Mabu Cafe, a new Hong Kong-style cafe in Manhattan’s Chinatown that insists it’s still in its soft opening. That hasn’t stopped New Yorkers from getting in line. By 11 a.m. on Thursday, a half-dozen people stood outside of the restaurant, turning over menus the size of travel brochures with pictures of pineapple bun breakfast sandwiches, spaghetti bakes with pork, salted egg yolk toasts, and pork chop croissants. An hour later, the small line had grown into a crowd of more than 30 people — the type of scene that’s typical on weekends at Nom Wah Tea Parlor, Chinatown’s oldest restaurant, located a few doors down.
Mabu Cafe is the first United States location of a small chain of Chinese and Taiwanese restaurants based in Toronto, Canada. The cafe opened two weeks ago at 18 Doyers Street, near Pell Street, according to a server at the shop. It’s been mobbed ever since.
Customers find their places in a line that stretches toward Pell Street most afternoons. Every so often, a worker emerges from the restaurant’s neon-lit stairwell and waves a group downstairs. For all of the hype outside, the restaurant below is surprisingly calm. Customers huddle around tables made from mahjong tiles under the glow of neon signs that wish customers wealth and good fortune in Chinese characters. Between booths and tables, there are only around 40 seats.
The restaurant is an ode to Hong Kong’s cha chaan tengs, casual diners where set meals and sugar reign supreme. The massive menu advertises more than 80 items, not including drinks. While versions of lava toast and baked spaghetti can be found at other Hong Kong-style cafes in the city, none serve them in as wide a selection with as many twists as Mabu Cafe.
Take the fried ovals of milk custard, which are served on top of a functional scale. (Weight at the time of serving: 125 grams.) Under a section of the menu labeled “instant noodles,” a Thai soup with mussels and shrimp overflows from a ceramic Cup Noodles mug. One of the desserts — made with grass jelly, sago, and taro balls — consists of an edible bear lounging in a small bathtub filled with coconut milk.
Others dishes are more straightforward, like “hot plates” of meat that come out sizzling like platters of fajitas, or bowls of rice topped with everything from scrambled eggs and eel to curry chicken and black truffle. Most larger plates range in price from $15 to $25, which includes the choice of a drink.
The restaurant’s Western Chinese comfort foods have been a hit in Toronto, where parent company Mabu Restaurants has operated a handful of businesses under similar names since 2011: There’s Mabu Station and Mabu Generation, serving Taiwanese fusion; Good Luck Hong Kong Cafe, another cha chaan teng; and the first location of Mabu Cafe.
Mabu Cafe, their first opening outside of Canada, is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday. An upstairs dining room with more seats should be open in the next two weeks, according to a server at the cafe.