Call four to five the awkward hour in Chinatown, the flux time between day shift and dinner, when commute traffic on Webster Street stalls clear up to Twelfth Street and cooks in smudged aprons drag the day’s flattened boxes out to grimy curbs. There’s a weird quiet that translates to an absence of grannies picking through sidewalk crates of peaches and kabocha pumpkins. Even the mixed aroma of damp cardboard, cantaloupe rinds, and a mysterious and pervasive tang — the collective smell of Chinatown — has wafted indoors on the wheels of rolling produce bins.
But at the Saint Anna Coffee Shop, things are weirdly frantic. Here, four to five is the middle of so-called Happy Hour, a Hong Kong tradition that’s part colonial residue of the British afternoon tea and part early-bird special. Every afternoon from three to six, places like the Saint Anna are packed with kids, seniors, and entire families loading up on extensive lists of specials generally costing less than three or four bucks a plate. And while the deliciousness factor is strictly hit-or-miss, a late-afternoon visit to one of Chinatown’s Hong Kong tearooms is an act of homage to the neighborhood’s pair of prime values: dizzying variety, and prices so cheap even kids can afford to gorge — obvious from the massive after-school foot traffic that crowds the Saint Anna on weekdays.
On a Monday at 4:15, between walls of pale, dollhouse pink, a single server tends to the madness like a mom minding kids. There’s a pudgy boy in a saggy white polo buttoned to the neck, his school uniform. He refuses to stay in his seat as he destroys a plate of doughy crinkle fries and chicken wings. At a nearby table, emo girls sip tapioca teas of baroque complexity through fat green straws. One has thick hair hacked into chunky bangs, heavily made-up eyes with a touch of raccoon, ink-black nails, and pink high-tops. She’s delicately spooning black tapioca pearls out of her glass.
But if Saint Anna’s teatime specials — predicated on starch and the deep fry — are anything but delicate, they nevertheless fuse the Cantonese mania for speed with the Anglo-American fondness for the factory-made bread loaf.
Take the prawn toast, three squishy bread slices with eggy casings, each topped with a single shrimp and all flocked with breadcrumbs. They’re crispy on the outside, bland on the inside, and come with a sticky lump of mayo for smearing. With the French toast, a fluffier, more amorphous cloud of egg veiled the bread, you get a hint of eggs foo yung — never mind the dollop of margarine and pancake syrup reeking of fenugreek, the spice that gives artificial maple its whiff of the almost-passable.
The best of Saint Anna’s teatime noshes has to be the fried chicken leg, a haunchlike joint cooked twice, just like certain versions of Filipino adobo — baked or braised to soften the flesh, then cast in hot fat to swell and crisp the skin. The chicken had an anise glow of five-spice and the shiny lacquer that happens when skin gets a healthy basting of black soy.
Even in the throes of a happy hour built more on tapioca teas than culinary gold, Saint Anna offers up its regular menu of solid if not exactly noteworthy Hong Kong diner grub. Some, like chicken shashlik or the ubiquitous borsch, have the ring of the bizarre. In the case of the borsch, the strangeness went only as far as the name. Blasted with vinegar and chile, it skewed more hot and sour than frozen steppes, a decent meat broth fortified with tomato, with transparent scraps of boiled cabbage and lush hunks of fatty brisket. Given a free afternoon and a hankering to peek through some essential window onto Chinatown — albeit one crowded with pimply boys, and quite possibly a girl wearing a T-shirt that says I (heart) Guys — I’d show up at the Saint Anna any day. For borsch, that is, and a leg and thigh of crackly skinned chicken.
Directly across Eighth Street at D&A Cafe, Happy Hour plays out less like some urban setting for a strictly Asian take on High School Musical and more like some multigenerational family hour. It used to exist on a pokey corner on Webster, but the big new D&A moves diners through like passengers at Oakland International. A plastic rope line separates the takeouts from the eat-heres, and walls blazing white under a dense grid of screw-in fluorescents lay down the rules in English and Cantonese: “Please have 1 representative to wait in line to be seated.”
Here the Happy Hour menu runs to three pages. You pick from three price grades: $2.25, $2.80, and $3.80. Not to mention the teas, the sugary soft drinks called ices, and bubble drinks that must generate the most profit. A big glass of iced lemon tea (hot tea, simple syrup, and lemon slices poured over ice) costs more than a buck. By non-Chinatown standards, that’s cheap, but when you consider that for roughly twice as much you can score more foil-wrapped chicken than you care to eat, the drinks seem downright pricey.
The specials seem to land in two distinct categories. Here’s my breakdown:
Fried quail (four tiny half-critters with spiky little bones): Good.
Foil-wrapped chicken (six packets filled with garlicky, fatty trim): Not so good.
Boiled fish paste (kidney-shaped fish balls steamed over mung sprouts): Good.
Honey walnut shrimp (six specimens shaggy with clots of undissolved cornstarch): Not so good.
Fried pig intestine (browned and shriveled like rolls of baked turkey skin, with a taste that was part black truffle, part camphor): Good — if you can deal.
Braised beef haslet (beef and tendon braised with soy sauce and romaine leaves): Good.
By the way, that word “haslet” refers to innards, a Victorian leftover from British Hong Kong. Another colonial relic is D&A’s hot milk tea, a mug of orangey brew steeped so long its tannins make your gums ache, with enough full-fat milk to make it all feel slightly chewy. It’s Hong Kong all right, but with a whiff of Oakland strong enough to rival that of the street.