But that's not to say the food isn't good. Cha chaan teng are well known for their variety of milk teas. And when it comes to pastries, nothing conjures up feelings of old Hong Kong quite like an egg tart.
Dan ta (literally egg tart in Chinese) is an iconic pastry in Hong Kong. It's a light snack that can also double as dessert. The yellow custard centre resembles a burning sun, while the crust comes in two main varieties: a cookie type and a puff type. For the cookie variety, the most famous bakery in the city is Tai Cheong Bakery. "The crust was developed from a cookie-type skin," says the bakery's owner Au Yeung Tin-yun. "I developed it myself in 1982. It was a work in progress. Originally it wasn't as good and didn't taste as good as it does now."
Sifu Au Yeung worked at the original bakery in Central, owned at the time by his uncle, well before his teens. "I've been working in the industry since I was nine - never been in school - but left [Tai Cheong] three years later," he recalls. "Then I worked in hotels and at the Jockey Club. At 24, I was the main guy in charge of a freezer storage compartment."
Later he returned to Tai Cheong and took over the company. In late 2007, Tao Heung Group, a major player in the dining market with more than 60 restaurants in Hong Kong, acquired majority ownership of the company. Tai Cheong recently opened a new shop at Hung Hom MTR station and introduced a new smaller egg tart designed to be eaten in one bite.
Dubbed the "two-inch, one-bite" egg tart, it is also available on the Intercity Through Train menu. The new shop and the egg tart's availability on the train was meant to cater to the mainland crowd travelling to and from Hong Kong.
Tai Cheong Bakery is well known as the egg tart place of choice for Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. There are numerous photos of his visits to the shop.
Sifu recalls the first time he met Patten. "He was in Hollywood Road at Man Mo Temple. He asked [his driver] to stop for something to eat. He parked at the bus stop and when he walked in, I didn't know it was Patten until the driver winked at me. We just shook hands. He was really polite."
The following week Patten returned for second helpings. "Every time [after that] he would buy a butter bread or egg tart and we got better acquainted," he says.
Egg tarts may look simple, but making them is a craft. It takes a fine balance of ingredients and a perfected baking technique to bring out the flavours and texture. "The essence of the egg has to be strong and the skin has to be crispy and well layered," Sifu notes.