Eddie Hoang, hiphop enthusiast and writer of the memoir Fresh Off the Boat, source of the popular sitcom, came up with this Taiwanese steamed bun eatery to make his name a few years ago. It’s still doing brisk business, and the food is reliably tasty, though portions are small. The Chairman Bao® ($4.05), filled with braised all natural Berkshire pork belly served with ‘Haus Relish’, crushed peanuts, Taiwanese red sugar, and cilantro is a winner, but the Fried Fish Bao with Tartar Sauce, lemon cabbage slaw and fried garlic is also worth a look. Service is friendly, beats are pumping, and the tables and walls are tagged, stickered and radiating East Village grime. Surprisingly, the premises has no license to serve beer, which would be the perfect accompaniment, but might encourage hanging around a tiny spot that just can’t cater to casual drinkers. Imported Asian sodas, Stumptown coffee and taro fries are available. I’ll definitely be trying the Birdhaus (24-hr brined chicken) and Coffin Bao next time, even though the food is about 30% more expensive than it should be.
Subway: 3 Ave (L)
We came to this karaoke bar/restaurant (‘four rooms providing opulence and luxury’, apparently) for a quick lunch – which proved impossible since service is so unbelievably slow. The meal deal is great, with a pick-and-mix bento box for £8.50 including pork belly, roast duck or other meat mains with noodles or rice, accompanied by sautéed or steamed vegetables and a corn or miso soup. Quality is good but flavours are nothing special in the interplay between compartments. There is also a dim sum deal but I have long abandoned hope that mid-range Chinese restaurants in London can ever do a decent job with dumplings: only a dozen or so establishments in the Big Smoke really know how to do a small parcel. Vibrant decor, decent food and prices, but expect little attention from the somnambulant waiters.
Tube: Westminster/St James’s Park
Cantonese and classic Shanghai dishes in a foodie haven of Marylebone, right opposite Royal China. With prices higher than its competitor across the road, and service and atmosphere better too, this restaurant may soon wear the crown of best authentic dim sum in the city due to its consistently high quality dishes. Pork buns, steamed prawn dumplings and venison puffs were all excellent, and the crispy duck was perfectly cooked and shredded, and not greasy in the least. Ask to be seated inside rather than in their airy, slightly bland courtyard space in the back. Highly recommended.
Tube: Baker St
Since 1982 Hunan has championed the No Menu concept, a ‘leave it to us’ ethos which involves finding out what you don’t eat/like, then bringing you lots of impressive little dishes – mostly pork-filled to start with – ranging from dumplings and spring rolls to scallops and shredded lamb. Between twelve and eighteen mini-courses is the norm. It works out well for them of course, as they just cook lots of food and plate it up in different amounts and combinations, but the concept makes your table feel special.
Cantonese specialities such as seabass, prawns with spinach, and lightly battered strips of chicken come before the larger dishes such as lobster noodles and crispy aromatic duck. It’s all very good, but at these prices it needs to be: £32.80 for lunch, £48.80 for dinner, with a minimum of two people sharing. The wine list is extensive and service, especially from the bouncy maitre’d Michael, especially friendly.
Closest tube: Victoria
‘Abajo de Plaza de España hay un restaurante chino’ has been dropped so many times off the lips of cosmopolitan and hipster madrileños that it’s become something of a cliche. Yes, Chinese people do come here to eat, even though they order from a far more extensive menu than the non-Mandarin speaker would get.
Having eaten here at least a dozen times over four years, I can happily report that the food is very tasty, and quite authentic, though neither particularly fresh nor healthy; some dishes are swimming in oil, just like you’d see in Beijing, and the meat can be a lower quality than other restaurants – but no worse than a typical neighborhood Chinese joint.
Highlights include the costillas dulce (pork spare ribs) for 5.50€ and arroz glutinoso (sticky pyramids of rice wrapped in leaf, hiding chunks of wonderful barbecued pork) for only 1.30€ per individual portion. Noodles are flavourful, the dim sum can be dull and turgid in texture, but the range of choices is impressive for such a small modest place.
The space isn’t the best for decor – simple cafe plastic with no frills – but the atmosphere is great when it’s heaving and there’s a queue of ten waiting outside. We’ve tended to get take-aways to eat ten metres directly above the restaurant on the grass around Plaza de España’s fountain.
Metro Plaza de España
If you’re not fussed about the quality of your sushi, but you’re keen on being a glutton, Zen is perfect. All you can eat for a weekday price of 13€, or weeknights at 16€, and 18€ on weekends mean that its four branches around the city see brisk business.
The Retiro branch attracts a mixed crowd, and it’s very much a local institution. I actually saw a man tackling a maki roll with a knife and fork, chopping it up like a steak and guzzling it with gulps of Mahou; I’m still glad that Asian cuisine has come down off its pedestal and is becoming more accessible to the Spanish masses.
The decor is a real surprise: although mostly made up of prefab panels and plastic ornaments with a touch of kitsch, it’s cosy and airy at the same time, blessed with huge windows set back from the street. Purples jostle with dark-chocolate furni, and lanterns hang off exposed black pipes. It’s almost sexily urban.
The menu has a good selection of nigiri and some maki, with a dozen Chinese classics and some noodles and rice dishes. It’s predictably Chinese-owned, and the service is swift and purposeful.
There is a constant sense of the money-making activity of the establishment, rather than serving up good, honest food with any semblance of ceremony. The sushi rice was completely wrong – not only cold, but dry too – and the fish was insipid low-grade crap. All the Chinese dishes came with the same MSG-heavy cornstarch sauce that gave them an awful finish. The chicken skewers were no better, seemingly fried, grilled and barbecued simultaneously.
Crisis-busting prices, but suffering from a real lack of quality and taste.
Metro Sainz de Baranda
And the search for the perfect Chinese restaurant in Madrid continues… A reasonably-priced place that is distinct from the identikit neighbourhood joint. DB claims that the city just can’t do a decent Peking duck, but if he was pushed and had to choose, Buen Gusto’s does it for him.
I’ve been there four times and have never been disappointed. A huge room containing large tables armed with lazy-susans – well-heeled Chinese families come here and spend a lot – as well as tables for two and four, the space can be overwhelming, especially as on entering you are confronted with a dramatic aquarium and large photo of the king with the restaurant owners.
The menu has a lot of pictures, which helps with some of the more complex dishes. The Peking duck is tasty, but could do with a crispier skin. The fish with basil was a great choice, as are the prawn noodles, and they can tweak any order (more chilli! Less pork!) whilst plying you with bottles of Tsing Tao. A real winner, and not just for the neighbourhood.
Metro Palos De La Frontera/Legazpi