It was in 1997 that Britain handed Hong Kong over to the Chinese after 156 years of colonial rule. Even before that, Hong Kong chefs — some already famous, like Chung Ping Hui of Ping’s — flooded into NYC and began helming big-ticket Cantonese seafood spots. But smaller Hong Kong cafes known as cha chaan tengs also appeared, selling the quirky lunch counter cuisine of the former colony. This unique menu included Cantonese, British, Southeast Asian, Japanese, and Portuguese elements — with an emphasis on breakfasts, hot beverages, and dim sum.
Early cafes appeared in Chinatown in the ’90s, like C & F (now closed) and XO Kitchen, offering Spam and egg sandwiches, along with jelly fish salads, and plenty of macaroni and baked rice dishes, some featuring hot dogs. Soon thereafter, more ambitious Hong Kong restaurants like King’s Kitchen opened multiple locations, specializing in clay pot cooking.
Nowadays we have lots of cha chaa tengs, including S Wan and M Star, serving milk teas, dumplings, and French toast. Now a new cha chaang teng has appeared in Greenwich Village offering a modernist twist on the cuisine squarely aimed at NYU students. Sing represents a shortening of the name Sing Choi Kee, a Fujianese chain founded in 2020 with almost a dozen locations in China.
Having opened about a month ago at 182 Bleecker Street near MacDougal, Sing follows an earlier branch in Flushing’s Tangram Mall, both helmed by Jason Jiangnan Zheng. The Greenwich Village edition boasts a gleaming white interior, lots of neon, playful beverages (“hot Ovaltine with polar bear”) and tables that resemble elementary school desks. A backyard heated with flaming propane towers is more likely to be crowded with students than the narrow dining room.
There’s not a speck of Spam or slice of white bread in the place: no baked macaroni, no congee, and no rice noodle rolls, either. Rather, a series of showy dishes at affordable prices constitute very full meals. Most prominent are four “slippery egg” dishes ($14) that feature a mountain of rice blanketed by an omelet laced with milk and cheese, which glows alarmingly yellow. The one I tried had a breaded chicken cutlet on top with a Malaysian-style coconut curry gravy on the side.
Noodle soups are another strong point. Using soft rice noodles, these deploy a mellow chicken broth and fill it with multiple ingredients, focusing on beef or seafood. The most expensive is abalone and seafood rice noodle soup ($20) featuring what seems like an unusual selection for a fast food joint: squid, shrimp, mussels, and fish balls, in addition to actual abalone, once a luxury product but now being farmed along the Fujianese coastline. This soup is briny and fortifying, but I left wishing I’d ordered the spicy beef noodle soup instead.
A third class of big feeds may leave you scratching your head. These center on spaghetti with tomato sauce. Even two decades ago, there might have been one or two of these on Hong Kong menus, but here these Italian American dishes have ascended to a primary position. Though it might remind you of something shaken from a Chef Boyardee can, beef pasta with tomato sauce ($14) was so good I gulped it down, bell peppers and all.
Even though the place doesn’t open till 11 a.m., breakfasts still constitute the largest part of Sing’s menu. Several types of French toast are provided, but no egg-and-toast breakfasts. They are so proud of their pineapple bun, a Chinatown bakery staple, that they will mention it the minute you sit down. It is well worth trying, especially if you get the version thickly spread with butter ($4.50).
Speaking of dairy products, make sure you get a steaming mug of yuenyeung ($4), a mixture of tea and coffee thick and foamy with evaporated milk imported from Hong Kong. An entire group of beverages feature a frozen teddy bear in lieu of an ice cube. The standard Hong Kong milk tea in cold form comes in a tall pitcher, next to it a glass of ice cubes with a brown bear — made of more frozen milk tea — hanging on for dear life. Sad to see the bear dissolving before your eyes, a plaintive expression on his face.
Ultimately, Sing is a great place for snacking, and many patrons were doing just that exam week. On various tables next to unfolded laptops, I saw deep fried fish balls with or without curry sauce, chicken nuggets, French fries, and, best of all, deep fried Chinese sausages ($8) — red, anisey, and crisp, served with a small salad on the side. If you could only get a beer to go with them.