"I can't believe that you have been to Wong Kei," she quipped. She is a full time tour guide for London visitors. We were seated across the table at Singapore Takeout few years back. "The staff are always friendly and remember my name," she carried on, still indignant that I haven't been to her favourite Chinese restaurant in London's Chinatown.
To the uninitiated, I suppose the impression of a Chinese restaurant comes primarily from Chinese movies (mainly Hong Kong productions) since it is such a convenient setting for every plot. A dysfunctional family having dinner around a large round table, two triads negotiating in a private dining room with multiple henchmen ready to bust the place up at a moment's notice, a tired bespectacled salaryman hunching over his bowl of noodles soup before making his way home.
The interesting thing is that regardless of the plot, there are only two extreme restaurant settings - one that is the most opulent with golden dragons and red phoenixes filling the columns and walls (think Phoenix Palace) and one that is comparatively dull with plain tables and faux leather cushion metallic chairs.
Wong Kei, a 500 seater restaurant, has been on Wardour Street almost forever. It is almost an institution and generations of ethnic Chinese students as well as clueless tourists have passed through its doors, falls squarely in the second category.
Walk into Wong Kei you just might be able to catch the eye of a staff. "Two? Three?" he'd ask across the room with his head tilting up a couple of degrees, ascertaining your party size. If you were to turn up alone, like me, he'll beckon you to the nearest empty seat, often seating opposite another loner. The man sharing my table, didn't even look up from his plate of stir fried noodles as he waved his hands signalling no when I asked whether there was anyone occupying that seat.
Few customers order drinks in Wong Kei. There is simply no need to - the staff wades over with a small pot of tea (don't even bother asking whether the tea leaves in the pot is Pu-er or Xiang Pian) and a wet tea cup. Most customers at Wong Kei were regulars that weekend afternoon. None needed the menu and almost everyone placed their orders the moment their pot of tea was presented.
My roast pork rice (£5) came with a huge mound of rice. Just how some other restaurants down the road charge £2.90 (plus service) for a small bowl befuddles me. An oily and starchy barbecue sauce was drizzled over the roast pork and dripped onto the rice beneath. It was nothing extraordinary. Then again, it was not expected to.
One would have thought that Wong Kei's regular clientele would be primarily Chinese. They are in fact the minority. Most are actually middle aged English judging from their accents. Wong Kei is the original Chinese chow house in an era before the fancier regional Chinese cuisines hit London. It is a place where you can have a dish that you have always ordered, fiddle around with the phone, finish up your tea and then leave a fiver on the table before making your way out.
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