Monday, July 22, 2013

[香港 HONG KONG] - One of the greats and one of the worst - 蘭芳園 Lan Fong Yuen

The legendary Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園, birthplace of Hong Kong milk tea

In America, the Taiwanese tapioca/boba milk tea is the most popular Asian/Chinese drink. But for those who grew up in Hong Kong, and those expats in particular who grew up under British colonial rule, will certainly relate to, and have strong sentiments towards this iconic cup and saucer beverage, best enjoyed hot, known abroad as Hong Kong style milk tea 港式奶茶, but where this drink was invented, the name is more known as pantyhose milk tea 絲襪奶茶.
For those in Southern California who are of Taiwanese American extraction, have plentiful access to cha chaan teng 茶餐廳 cafes in the San Gabriel Valley...which are plentiful but at the expense of quality. It is sadly the only access to a HK style milk tea as one would get, and it is not even close to what it should is only marginally better in Northern California with a few random exceptions.
50 year old iconic business, still selling the famous "pantyhose milk tea"
Lan Fong Yuen started off as a dai pai dong, and the first owner, Mr. Lam, who is now as old as Jiro Ono 小野二郎, once lamented during the 1950s seeing his fellow people working the docks carrying heavy sacks of Darjeeling or Ceylon tea that were destined for the upper ruling British elite for their afternoon tea enjoyment, decided to come up with his own version of the milk tea drink, with the goal of making it affordable and pedestrian. After much trial and error and research, he came up with a multiple leaf blend (upwards of 5 to 6 different kinds of leaves), and an intricate yet laborious brewing technique, to reach his desired taste, color/texture, and fragrance.
The tea is brought to a boil but is carefully kept at a consistent temperature, and is poured from one pot to another back and forth upwards of 7 to 8 times to ensure even mixing and oxygenation, with the help of a hand woven cloth that is made by the owner's wife, Mrs. Lam. The cloth acts like a cheesecloth strainer, and keeps any larger particles and tea leaf bits behind. The stained cheesecloth which goes from white to dark brown, is easily mistakened for women's pantyhose, and customers would come in and ask Mr. Lam to make a cup of "pantyhose milk tea", so the name stuck.
The original dai pai dong, kind of like an elevated office cubicle that used to be where customers sit on a stool facing the window in the old days, persists to this day as the tea brewing and prep station. The dining area has expanded to two to three indoor spots nearby, a testament to their success.
The 2nd generation of owners with Chow Yun Fat (left picture), and famous food critic Chua Lam (right picture)
In the old days customers would sit on these stools, hence the term "squatting at a dai pai dong". Your knees would then be at belly or above belly height.
Inside the tea prep station
Yep that's canned corned beef for their sandwiches (paired with hamburger buns). I much rather have the NY Kosher style version
In the California the old man longevity brand of condensed milk is common, but here they use Omela
Alan Tam (iconic 80s era pop singer) album covers adorn the walls. Apparently he's a huge fan of Lan Fong Yuen along with other celebrities
 Fast forward to the present, there are many eateries and restaurants that offer their own version of the Hong Kong style "pantyhose" milk tea. Some are better than others, and some might even say that Lan Fong Yuen is no longer the best, but still holds a standard.
There are a number of reasons for this.
Lan Fong Yuen, has unfortunately fallen victim to hoards of tourists from all around the world, with a predominate influx coming from Mainland China (particularly those coming into large amounts of wealth). But regardless of whether a customer is a tourist or not, service can be pretty spotty, and it depends on who is your waiter (as well as who you are).
Even if you speak Cantonese, and if you aren't familiar with the rules, if you get the wrong waitstaff like I did, and try to order one drink, they may take out a placard and make you read it (where it says minimum charge HK$18). They really don't want you to come in and just have one beverage, which to them is not worth their while. Unfortunately I had breakfast already, so ended up getting both a hot and a cold milk tea.
Lactose intolerance special: Iced milk tea, and hot milk tea
The iced milk tea is supposed to contain a few ice cubes that are made with frozen milk tea, so when the ice melts, the tea is not entirely diluted. But unfortunately all of the cubes in my cup were ice (made from water).
One of the disadvantages of dining in Hong Kong at famous establishments is that some businesses cater towards the media as well as celebrities and other personalities, because they are worthy endorsers of their products and services, and as a result, always get really good treatment. No doubt when Alan Tam, Chua Lam, Ah So, Kenny B, and the other usual suspects come here, they are treated with tender love and care.

But you and I? Hard to say. As decent as the milk tea tasted overall, the way the waiter acted, virtually soured the entire experience. Coming from an iconic business built from the ground up and passed down the family, touted by celebrities and personality types as a personable experience where customers are treated like family and friends, is an oxymoron at best. Once a true flavor of Hong Kong, is now a tourist shrine and a factory that dishes out the goods.
Some say that their Sheung Wan location is way better, because they hired a former roasties chef from a well known least you can have cha siu/bbq pork along with your Brazilian grilled chicken filet with lo mein instant noodles and ginger/scallion sauce. But definitely not going to bother with returning to the Central location. Life is too short.
Lan Fong Yuen 蘭芳園 (original location)
2 Gage Street, Central


  1. I'm still charmed that a milk tea shop has become a tourist destination.

    - FYG

  2. I agree with your assessment of this place - but there are many variables which would have affected your experience and 99% of locals wouldn't know about this too!

    Not sure if you noticed - but there are 2 shops on this same street!

    The one with the Tea Ice isn't this oldest shop, but the 2nd oldest shop just 2-3 shops down the slope!!

    In fact, the teas at the 2nd shop are better, both hot and cold!

    At this original shop u went to, the tea tastes quite diff if you drink Take-away vs sitting down. Don't ask me why but I have tried it many times to come to this conclusion!

    As for the Sheung Wan store, yes their BBQ Char Siu is quite good! Teas are not good though. Overall I think Lan Fong Yuen is giving HK Teas a bad name lol! Bad QC across the branches. Same with Tim Ho Wan these days, none of the later shops are as good as the original and closed Mongkok store, even the Olympus City one (where MK team supposedly moved to) is not even 7/10 of the original quality! :((

  3. Thanks HK Epicurus! Had no clue...I might give the 2nd oldest shop a spin...hope I don't run into that aweful employee I had. As for milk tea I preferred the cold bottled one at Shui Kee in Sheung Wan market, Sing Heung Yuen, and Kam Fung in Wanchai.