Friday, 4 May 2012

The Potless Budget Restaurant Review #1: Wong Kei, London, W1

Being Potless isn't all about cooking at home - it's about having a fabulous value-for-money eating experience, wherever you are.

So, I present to you my series entitled: 'The Potless Budget Restaurant Reviews'!

Having trawled the globe looking for the best of the cheapest eating out establishments, I can now share my findings. 

'Cheap' is, of course, subjective. But what makes a restaurant qualify for this list is a sense of extremely good value. A greasy spoon cafe might be cheap (and delicious too, come to that) but it won't make it onto the list, unless the eating experience it provides is of the very highest quality in proportion to the price it charges.

Today's entry is a favourite of mine and my family's since the early 1970's, and, as such, is a perfect place to occupy my first ever review. For nearly forty years, I have been a regular at the 'rudest restaurant in London's Chinatown' and the food is as good, if not better, than ever.

Wong Kei 
41-43 Wardour Street
Tel: 020 7437 8408 

The Restaurant:

This four -floored establishment is situated at the 'T' junction of Wardour Street and Gerrard Street in London's busy Chinatown. As soon as you walk through the front doors, a waiter will demand of you how many people are in your party, and any answer apart from 'one, please' will have the words 'Upstairs!' or 'Downstairs!' being screamed at you across the ground floor of the restaurant - the only floor which allows lone diners. In a feeble stab at self-aware humour, the waiters in recent years wear T shirts emblazoned with the 'Upstairs/Downstairs' motto on the back. Hilarious? Er, not.

If you happen not to be alone and are feeling bold, you fancy a quick meal and can't be bothered to walk up the cold staircase at the back or down to the basement replete with fake waterfall, then you may confidently stride toward the ground floor back seating area, where a dozen or so tables allow up to four guests - but be confident, don't make eye contact with any staff member and leap for a table while taking off your coat. As you sit down, ask for a menu - still looking down at your feet.

If you do make it upstairs, the first floor is the busiest and the second floor is the prettiest - with lower ceilings, nice carpets and a more intimate atmosphere. On the contrary, the basement is dank and unappealing, with tiled floors and that crappy waterfall thingy. The ground floor is made up of long and short tables with lone diners sitting zig-zagged down their lengths, to provide themselves with a little more elbow room.

One of the dubious pleasures of Wong Kei is the expectation of sharing a table with strangers. About 75% of the restaurant's dining areas are made up of large round tables of six or eight - which means that a couple or a foursome are more likely than not going to be eating with other couples or foursomes. This is fine, if you are fun and the other people are likewise, otherwise your dinner will be a muted affair with you and your table rivals closely guarding your respective territories with strategically placed chopsticks and napkins. Either way, the sharing space creates a sort of quasi-wedding atmosphere, with just a hint of disappointment when no-one gets up after dinner to make a drunken speech. Unless it's a Friday night, when the late night diners are mainly office workers after a quick post piss-up meal.

The Menu:

First of all, as you sit down, you will be presented with a battered stainless steel pot of delicious fragrant (and free) Chinese tea, small cups and bowls and pairs of possibly Ming-era discoloured, but presumably clean, chopsticks. If you leave your teapot lid open at any point during your meal, a waiter will provide you with endless free refills.

The menu ('Cash Only') is filled with one sentence descriptions with the usual sweet and sour suspects in attendance, but with the odd surprise thrown in here and there to keep you on your toes. A jelly fish salad offers a pleasant alternative to the been-there-done-that crispy duck starter, but the crispy belly pork is the best way to start your meal. Served cold, it is succulent in all the right places, and crispy in all the right places and smothered in a delicious sauce.

Won ton noodle soup (pictured) is a fantastic lunch all on its own, or great for two to share as part of a larger meal. It's by far the best Chinese soup, of any variety, that I have ever eaten, and is pretty legendary - I don't know anyone who has gone to Wong Kei and not raved about the won ton soup. The portion is enormous and Mrs Ribeye and I normally order a soup each, plus some of the most incredible fried chicken wings EVER, for a perfect simple mid-week evening meal.

If you feel like getting messy, the baked crab in ginger and spring onion is a huge portion of the king of crustacea and delicious. Mrs Ribeye can't stand all the messing about with nutcrackers, but I think it adds to the fun - as long as you don't mind covering yourself in sauce. There's no way around it.

If there is anything negative to say about the food, I would reserve it for the typical provincial take-away fare of chicken and cashew nuts or beef in black bean sauce etc. It's not that the food is poor, it's just that it's a bit bland and boring - I would stick to the things which a large restaurant like this can do easily and cheaply, due to the high turnover, which the small restaurants cannot do for the same price and at the same quality - like barbecue meats and seafood. Try the crispy prawns in their shells. Where else can you get such a huge portion in central London for under £7?

Having said that, the only 'regular' menu item which I would order again and again is the Hong Kong style sweet and sour chicken. It is sublime.

Wong Kei is not a dessert-y kinda place. I would nip into Gerrard Street to a Chinese bakery for a cake to nibble as you wander through Chinatown on your way home, but in no way will you need it.

Drinks are mainly Chinese beer (delicious and slightly sweet tasting) and bad wine. I normally drink beer or stick to the free tea.

The Bill:

'Cash Only!' screams the menu on every page - so go to the cashpoint on Shaftesbury Avenue before entering the restaurant. Expect a bill of between £8-15 per head, depending on what you order and whether you have drinks or not. If you go with friends, you will be best to buy a few dishes and share - this keeps the cost even lower (nearer £10 per head, with a beer) and makes the experience more 'Wong Kei-esque'.

The Experience:

Not for the faint-hearted, and don't expect a silver-service dinner, but do expect cheap, well-cooked, delicious food in an unparalleled location. The waiting staff are no longer overtly rude, but they are not exactly full of smiles either. I absolutely love the place and expect to be taking my own children and grandchildren there in forty years time. By 2052, the waiters may even say 'hello' as I enter the restaurant.


  1. Spot on review - particularly "UPSTAIRS!!"

    I was first taken here by my boyfriend (now husband!) 9 years ago and we still visit regularly. I insist on taking friends/family there every time we go to that area and need to eat, although not all of them appreciate the service as much as I do.

    My favourite thing is being seated on a table with a couple who've neve been there before, and witnessing their fear/confusion as they realise that perhaps this wasn't the best venue for a romantic first date....

    1. Hiya,

      Yes the service is a unique joy to behold!

      I love your 'not the best venue for a romantic first date' comment. I think that any couple who can survive a Wong Kei first date are definitely made for each other...

      Reg x


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