We met up with a Malaysian friend of ours (who has pointed us to some good eats previously) two weeks back and took the opportunity to ask her for more recommendations.
“Have you tried Hunan Xiang Cai Guan at Golders Green?” she asked. No actually. In fact, other than passing through the Northern Line station, I don’t believe we have even been to Golders Green, which is in Zone 3, before. “It’s just opposite Golders Green Tube station,” she continued, “you can’t miss it.”
While there are a number of Sichuan restaurants in central London (see Empress of Sichuan, Chilli Cool and Bar Shu), there are not many Hunanese restaurants around. Intrigued, we headed there that very afternoon.
Well, we found out later that Hunan Xiang Cai Guan is better known by its more dubious name “Local Friends”. While its façade isn’t that prominent, it’s the only Chinese restaurant among the row of shops along North End Road across the road from Golders Green Tube station.
Local Friends (let’s call it that for now) also boosts a set lunch that offers three courses for £6.95. Interestingly, the waitress brushed it off and muttering the likes of “the set meal consists of just normal Chinese dishes, not Hunanese at all” when we enquired about it later on. There is a church right opposite Local Friends and I suspect the set meal is meant to cater to the churchgoers. I was proven right; the church service ended towards the end of our lunch and many just walked in and ordered the set meal thereafter.
The interior of Local Friends relatively subdued and reminded me of a better version of Alisan with pleasant Chinese pop songs playing in the background. But unlike Alisan, the service at Local Friends was at best cold bordering on rude; there was absolutely no acknowledgement whatsoever when we thank them whenever dishes were served. Nope, it didn’t work in both English and Mandarin. There was not even a blank stare. It was as if we weren’t there. It was, for the lack of a better word, eerie.
There was some refreshing choices in Local Friends’ menu though. Wife has got a weakness for roasted peanuts (£1.90), something to do with the nasi lemak that we grew up eating. I went for sliced pigs’ ears (£2.80). The nuts while not freshly prepared remained crunchy. It would be perfect if they could just heat it up a bit. Pigs’ ears has a nice cartilage texture and the slightly spicy sauce that it was tossed in helped as well.
Mao shi hong shao rou (£7.20) or stewed pork belly came highly recommended. While it didn’t exactly “melt in the mouth” type, the dish was aromatic. But we thought that they overdid it with loads of cabbage beneath the layer of pork belly. A substantial portion for the price, rice is a must if you are going for this.
I never liked bitter gourd and have never understood why people would go for something that taste so unpleasant. For some reason, Wife went for this that afternoon. At £6.80, I thought it was a bit overpriced. That said, it had a clean aftertaste, which I took it as a sign that Local Friends did the dish pretty well.
We ordered some dumplings (£4.80) to top it up. By the time the dumplings arrived, it was quite clear that we had overdone it and were struggling to finish the meal. I blamed it on the rice really. But that didn’t prevent me from clearing the dumplings. Less starchy than Jen Café’s, Local Friends’ dumplings went well with the spicy vinegar dip that came with it. A stomach filler definitely and a tasty one at that.
Local Friends does its dishes competently. But I am not sure whether it is worth the Tube ride to Zone 3 just for it. However, if you are heading there, avoid the lunch set and go for ala carte instead to avoid ending up with some ‘normal Chinese dishes’.
The Toby Carvery, South Croydon
9 hours ago