Cover Is Happy Cake Shop the happiest place in Wan Chai? (Illustration: Stephen Collins)

The founder and creative director of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio is a big fan of Hong Kong's local bakeries

As part of our series celebrating the vibrancy and community within Hong Kong’s dining scene, we spoke to several of the industry’s leading lights about why they love the city’s unique food culture. Here, JJ Acuna—founder and creative director of JJ Acuna / Bespoke Studio, the design brains behind restaurants such as Miss Lee and Hansik Goo—explains how his first Hong Kong food memory involves pineapple buns and why he loves having hot sauce for breakfast.

Tell us about one of your favourite Hong Kong food memories.

One of my earliest Hong Kong food memories is the first snack I ever had at Happy Cake Shop, from when I moved into my first flat in Wan Chai about 15 years ago, having just arrived in Hong Kong after graduating in New York City.

I’d just got my keys and walked into my empty flat with a couple of suitcases. Hungry, I walked around the corner—and there was Happy Cake Shop, looking very 60s and retro, with bright welcoming lights and yellow colours everywhere from its signage to the tiling inside. Because everything there was so inexpensive and I was shopping on an empty stomach, I ordered a couple of egg tarts, a pineapple bun, coconut tart, cream cone, meat floss bun, and a Vitasoy—I was so hungry! I went back to my flat, plopped down onto the empty floor, spread it all out and finished every last bite.

Happy Cake Shop is a great bakery and still there today. It might not be the healthiest option, but it’s old Hong Kong-style and still worth supporting. I don’t live in Wan Chai anymore—but to this day, every time I pass by, I make sure to grab a pineapple bun, which I still think is one of the city’s best. There’s a reason they’re still around!

See also: Neighbourhood Guide: Where To Eat, Drink And Shop In Wan Chai

What are some of your favourite local ingredients to use?

As a native Filipino, my friends always make fun of me because I always order sauce wherever we go—and not just any sauce, the spicier the better. When I’m in the States, it’s American hot sauce or barbecue sauce; in the Philippines, it’s white vinegar or a local fish sauce called “patis”; and in Hong Kong, if I’m out eating Chinese food or making it at home, I’ll make sure I have some Cantonese chilli oil or XO sauce.

At home, I stock up on Lee Kum Kee’s XO sauce and Chiu Chow chilli oil. They’re great for the everyday and using on noodles, beef tendons, kale, rice… everything really. I even love having them at breakfast with scrambled eggs and Filipino-style garlic rice. My pantry has an area especially for sauces, and the XO sauce and chilli oil are the ones I run out of most frequently.

If you could only visit one restaurant in Hong Kong again, what would it be – and how does it sum up what you love about the city’s food scene?

While Hong Kong has tonnes of great options when it comes to dining, for Western food, my favourite restaurant would probably be Castellana—a Piedmont-style restaurant helmed by chef Marco Sacco of Italy’s two Michelin-starred Piccolo Largo.

The flavours of the food there are out of this world and the interiors, like the meal itself, are tasteful, subtle, and just right. When I’m at Castellana, I really feel like I’m not in Hong Kong. They have three fabulous menus to choose from each night for dinner, and each has a wine pairing option too. From beginning to end, I feel like I’m in Europe; it’s private, it’s white tablecloths, it’s fantastic.

Castellana is typical of what makes Hong Kong’s dining scene great. When it comes to European offerings, Hong Kong can deliver a more nuanced and elevated experience and flavour, and diners in this city can totally appreciate regional ingredients and flavour profiles. I love it how the city is always open to chefs who want to try something different and something new. This city isn’t cheap – but with the right investor, Hong Kong can embrace great concepts like this indie darling. My favourite dish is their rigatoni pasta in alpine butter and Aristocrat caviar—it’s the best of both Italy and France.

JJ’s Picks:

  • Happy Cake Shop, G/F, 106 Queen’s Road East, Wan Chai, Hong Kong, +852 2528 1391
  • Castellana, 10/F, Cubus, 1 Hoi Ping Road, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong, +852 3188 5028
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