Wong Kei, 41-43 Wardour Street, London W1D 6PY
Wong Kei, possibly one of the most amusing names for a restaurant ever.
As soon as I mentioned we were going there I was inundated with stories of friends’ visits – looks like Wong Kei holds some very fond memories. One colleague, who for the sake of her reputation I shall call Julia, even managed to get herself banned back in 1989. Something involving a lot of alcohol and a scuffle with a video camera…
Famed for its rude staff, abrupt service but great budget food, we were intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. When I was younger my dad used to tell me tales of a Chinatown restaurant with extraordinarily bad mannered staff. I won’t repeat their catchphrase but it was pretty bad. I presumed Wong Kei to be the restaurant he talked of so much, but it was actually another.
We’d heard the food was as close to authentic Cantonese cuisine as London’s Chinatown has to offer. But we’ve never been on any holidays to China and to be honest, our knowledge of Chinese food is limited to an occasional takeaway, usually when inebriated, and the odd restaurant visit staggered over the years.
My first experience of eating out as a child was at the Golden Palace in Cranleigh, Surrey. Which happens to be the same name as the takeaway that sits just across the road from Ade & I’s house in Kent. It was a restaurant with a dance floor in the centre. My dad would whisk my brother and I off there spontaneously and teach me how to use chopsticks, although crispy seaweed and prawn crackers was as adventurous as it got for me at the time. But those memories are much treasured and appreciated, perhaps even igniting my love for eating out. The evening would always end with my dad spinning me around the dance floor.
So back to the here and now, we headed down to Wong Kei on a Friday night, aiming to catch them at their most busy and grumpy – wrong. We were met with a lot of pointing, and depending on how many people you’re with, you get directed (some say ordered) to sit on a certain floor (there are a staggering four of them). We were ushered in the direction of the lower floor, past the poorest attempt at a waterfall I have ever seen, really should have taken a picture. Things like this really tug at my heartstrings.
A waiter with ‘downstairs’ emblazoned on the back of his t-shirt, possibly worn to remind the elderly waiter where he was, rushed us over to a table. Within seconds he delivered some bottomless and complimentary Green tea in a greasy spoon style silver teapot, along with the laminated menus. The traditional Chinese plate on which the condiments stood was another blast of nostalgia. I have no idea why we had them at my mum’s house, we rarely even ate Chinese food there.
We sat at our sticky table alongside a couple of well-to-do westerners, the rest of the clientele were Chinese, which we took to be a reassuring sign. That’s what they say isn’t it? Feeling nervous about doing anything to annoy the staff, we hurriedly went through the menu. Firstly we ordered a couple of beers, the waiter seemed chuffed that I ordered a Tsingtao £2.80, a more authentic Chinese beer than the bottle of Tiger £3 that Ade ordered (which the waiter pointed out was from Singapore). Loved that Smirnoff Ice and Bacardi Breezer were noted as aperitifs on the drinks menu.
Wanting to try out as many things as our stomachs could accommodate, we started ordering a lot of food. When we came to the last dish we were told by our waiter to stop ‘too much, too much food!’
Along with tales of Wong Kei from friends, we also were instructed to try certain dishes. The Wun Tun noodle soup £3.80 being one of them. Alarmed at the size of it I then knew what he meant when we were told to stop ordering earlier on. The name wun tun (or wonton to you and me) means ‘swallowing a cloud’, and the wontons floating in the soup are said to resemble clouds. The broth was very light, a good job really as the massive bowl was packed full of noodles and at least eight steamed dumplings. I gave mine a spicy blast with a dollop of the homemade super hot chilli sauce.
Crispy chicken wings £4.20 for six, and Spare ribs with chilli and salt £7.20 were great, golden and glorious, although we made an error and chose the sauceless ribs by mistake. We didn’t feel this was the place to send something back to the kitchen, especially when they tasted so good.
Hong Kong style sweet and sour chicken £7.20, yet another recommendation was perfect, glistening sweet battered chicken, am now a convert, I usually avoid the battered kind of Chinese food. Egg fried rice £2.40 was so-so, we probably should have gone for a more exciting rice dish, of which there were many.
A wonderful plate piled high with Crispy belly pork £7.20 (served cold) confused my senses, although it tasted delicious. I don’t like to mix hot and cold, it just feels wrong. Which is a shame, as they are known for their barbecued cold meats on hot rice economy dishes. I left this to Ade to devour, he slumped back in his seat absolutely stuffed. He didn’t even have room for a dessert, not that Wong Kei offered any. I was tempted by a further dish, if only the waiter had let us order the Braised pork with preserved vegetables in a hot pot £8.50.
A trip to the toilet wasn’t as horrendous as I expected, pretty clean and well maintained considering the feel of the rest of the place. The room we dined in was described by Ade as a run-down hospital cafeteria. I was amused by scrawlings on the back of the cubicle door regarding the service, such as ‘they are so rude, why do you keep coming back?’
To be honest, we felt pretty let down by the lack of the famed ‘rude staff’, we were charmed by one sweet old waiter humming to himself as he walked the restaurant floor making sure everyone was looked after. They were all quick to deliver and seemed more eager to please than countless other more high-end restaurants we’ve visited.
As we paid the old-school handwritten bill (cash only, no cards or cheques), the table next to us was cleaned ready for the next set of diners. And when I say cleaned, a splash of green tea was poured from the remains of the silver teapot and rubbed across the surface. That explains my sticky elbows then.
This review was sponsored by Cox and Kings as part of their Chinatown review challenge.
41-43 Wardour Street, London W1D 6PY
Telephone: 020 7437 8408
Opening hours: Monday to Saturday: 12:00–11:30pm
Sunday: 12:00–10:30 pm
Nearest tube: Piccadilly Circus