When you open a menu and almost nothing looks familiar, do you get nervous, hoping to make a quick exit before the server notices that you've been seated? Or do your eyes widen in awe and anticipation as you skip the few standard dishes and comb through dozens of exotic descriptions, each with a name you've never seen or an ingredient you've been longing to try?
Happy Cafe, which just opened at 945 South Federal Boulevard in the former home of Thuan Viet (where Pho Duy got its start before taking over a KFC next door), covers just enough familiar ground to prevent out-and-out panic while delving deep enough into the Hong Kong culinary canon to please transplants and adventurous eaters alike.
Although the metro area is already home to more than one Hong Kong-style eatery, the city is immense and so is its restaurant scene, ranging from time-honored Cantonese cooking to clamorous dim sum palaces to fusion cafes influenced by European immigrants, as well as regional Asian cuisine. Happy Cafe doesn't have much in common with Aurora's Hong Kong Cafe, where you can tuck into pork chops smothered in marinara or butter-drenched French toast, nor with Hong Kong BBQ just down Federal, which specializes in slow-roasted cha siu pork and duck lacquered a deep, glossy red. Nor is there much crossover with Uncle Joe's Hong Kong Bistro downtown, where Sichuan spice upstages subtler Cantonese options.
Still, there are threads that run through all of these restaurants: steamed or fried dumplings, homey beef noodle soups, the use of XO sauce (a pungent concoction of dried seafood, chiles, onions and garlic), and salt and pepper shrimp, for example. Happy Cafe has all of these, as well as beef chow fun, Singapore rice noodles, walnut shrimp, crispy wontons, and sweet and sour pork with pineapple, if you're seeking comfort in the familiar. (Also familiar, at least to Federal Boulevard regulars, is the dining room with its Asian murals and black tabletops; the interior has barely been altered over the course of three owners.) Just don't expect other American-Chinese favorites like General Tso's, kung pao or sesame chicken.
And you'll encounter something new as soon as you open the menu to the appetizers list: fried milk. This isn't some state-fair experiment, but rather a traditional Chinese street food. Milk is thickened with cornstarch (and sometimes egg) and cooled in a sheet so that it can be cut into squares, dipped in batter and deep-fried until crunchy on the outside. The interior doesn't get gooey like fried mozzarella, but stays soft and creamy for textural contrast, and the mild flavor is perked up by a savory dipping sauce. But then, even the tried-and-true fried dumplings, made here with thin, delicate skins and a pillowy pork filling, come not with a sweet or salty sauce, but with a tangy jolt of black vinegar.
The rest of the menu is divided into proteins (pork, seafood, chicken and duck, and beef and lamb), house specials and a roster of congee, noodles and fried-rice plates. They're all easy enough to navigate, even if some of the descriptions aren't especially helpful. The Happy Cafe Special, for example, turned out to be a stir-fried mound of sautéed garlic chives (similar to regular chives, only with a firmer texture and milder flavor) and onions studded with curls of squid, whole dried shrimp and strips of chewy dried pork. To be fair, I asked my server for a house specialty, and she told me everything that would be in the dish, so I at least knew what I was getting into. The combination turned out to be surprisingly subtle, while nodding to a historic section of Hong Kong's winding street market dedicated entirely to dried seafood.
If you're squeamish, organ meats like intestine, tripe and stomach are clearly marked, but don't be put off by the "crispy pork lard," which is in fact pork belly that's been slow-cooked and then crisped before serving with wok-tossed greens.
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Unlike Sichuan cooking, Cantonese cuisine (which evolved in Guangdong province as one of eight major Chinese culinary traditions) is known not for heat, but for deep flavors achieved with stir-frying and braising, and the use of fermented vegetables (especially cabbage), dried meats incorporated into sauces, and ginger, scallions and garlic. For hard-to-find dishes that still hit just the right homestyle cooking notes, try the old-style stewed lamb, brisket noodle soup, oxtail in wine sauce and five-spice duck redolent with warming star anise and clove.
Happy Cafe occasionally wanders away from Hong Kong, giving a taste of Taiwan in noodle soups and "three-cup" chicken, duck in the style of Taishan (not too far from Hong Kong on the mainland) and Fujian fried rice (served a little soupier than typical fried rice). All in all, a meal here can be quite a culinary journey.
The restaurant, located in the same shopping center as Lao Wang Noodle House and J's Noodles Star Thai, has a liquor license, so beer and wine are available, but start with a stong-brewed glass of milk tea, which comes with free refills to make sure you leave with a case of the jitters.
Happy Cafe is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily. Call 303-922-2226 for more information, and look for the sunny yellow sign when you arrive, further brightened by the smiling H in "Happy."