Navigating Chinese restaurants in London can be a minefield. Despite being smaller than counterparts in New York or San Francisco, our ickle Chinatown still manages to baffle visitors with its offering of mostly Cantonese food and sadly mediocre fare. But venture beyond Gerrard Street and you’ll find London’s Chinese food scene is on fire.
There are regional nuances of this complex cuisine, catering to the scores of international Chinese students after their authentic native food fix, as well as globetrotting Chow Hound-ers who know the difference between a xiao long bao and a Taiwanese bao.
Here’s a run-down of the London Chinese food spots, thankfully devoid of Chinese “seaweed” or chips ‘n’ curry sauce.
Unless you’re an Arsenal season ticket holder, there isn’t much reason to venture up to Holloway Road. But a trek to N7 is worth it for a few Xi’an specialities that are hard to find elsewhere. The signature liang pi (cold skin) dish is a perfect harmony of cold wheatstarch noodles, cucumber and tofu submerged in an addictive chilli oil. In colder weather, try the rou pao mo, a stew of soaked bread and beef. For an alternative snack at the footie stands, get a Xi’an “hamburger” – flatbreads stuffed with a spicy pulled pork or beef. 117 Benwell Rd, London N7 7BW
Xinjiang cuisine is well-represented by this Camberwell hole-in-the-wall – even if the menu does also veer into Sichuan and Dongbei territory. Come here with a group and you’ll have a chance at finishing off the gigantic portion of the “big plate chicken”- a stew of cut-up chicken on the bone in a spicy broth, with hand pulled belt-like noodles to mop up the juices. The lamb skewers are also ridiculously good. A pile of these coupled with a few beers and the semantics of whether it’s Xinjiang or not go out of the window. 49 Camberwell Church St, Camberwell, London SE5 8TR
Zhengzong Lanzhou Noodle Bar
Ignore the buffet-style hot plate in the window of this rough-looking hole-in-the-wall off Leicester Square. There is only one thing you want from this no-frills joint and that’s the hand-cut noodles. Get the la mein for a ramen-esque pulled noodle or the hand-cut noodles that resemble stretched-out fat tagliatelle and choose to have them fried or in a soup (the beef soup is the best). Then you’ll be having yourself one of the most authentic noodle experiences in all of London. 33 Cranbourne Street, London WC2H 7A
There are so many dim sum institutions in London, but after weighing up atmospheric hustle and taste, Phoenix Palace in Marylebone comes up trumps. Queueing up on a Sunday to sit amongst tables of loud-taking Cantonese folk in a kitschy décor of dragons, lanterns and aquariums is all part of the fun of that yum cha experience. Their dim sum isn’t necessarily THE best in London but their well-stuffed har kow (that never scrimp on prawns), their non-claggy cheung fun and their freshly fried taro puffs give indication that there is still a legit dim sum chef working in the kitchen (beware of the MANY places that buy their dim sum in frozen). 5 Glentworth St, Marylebone, London NW1 5PG
Sichuan food is perhaps the most well-known of Chinese cuisines in London after Cantonese, thanks to its addictive “ma-la” (numbing heat) flavour profile. The Sichuan is the newest kid on the block, with considerable pedigree as the head Chef Zhang was one of the founders of Bar Shu and former chef of Hutong. All the Sichuan faves like ‘dan dan’ noodles, ma-po tofu and water-cooked beef are present and correct. Their grilled whole fish cooked in a vat of chilli oil that comes with a selection of Chinese funghi and tofu is the main draw though. It’s a trayful of explosive taste sensations. 14 City Rd, London EC1Y 2AA
The Bamboo Flute
There’s nothing showy about The Bamboo Flute, given that it’s in a sleepy bit of Fitzrovia and only has six tables inside. But there’s plenty of charm as the owner Guo Yue (who happens to be an internationally renowned musician) woos you with great chat, Chinese classical music and a menu that mixes familiar Cantonese fare with dishes of his Beijing upbringing. Slow braised pork is a winter warming dish to be scarfed with plenty of rice, which they serve in bamboo tubes. The stuffed aubergine is another winner. This is the Chinese neighbourhood restaurant you wished all Chinese local joints were like. 145 Cleveland St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 6QH
My Neighbours the Dumplings
Hackney is a little short of Chinese eats unless you count the borough’s sweet ‘n’ sour ridden Chinese takeaways, so My Neighbours the Dumplings is a welcome addition to E5. The menu is compact, amalgamating a few Cantonese dim sum classics together with Beijing style pot stickers as well as crowd pleasers like crispy pork belly and an unorthodox chocolate dumpling (the Chinese notoriously don’t really do desserts). What they lack in variety or tradition they make up for in fun vibes. 165 Lower Clapton Rd, London E5 8EQ
Tourists love snapping pictures of roast ducks hanging in the windows of Chinatown’s restaurants but if you’re going to indulge in that beautiful alchemy between perfectly lacquered crispy skin, juicy layer of fat and succulent meat, then head over to Gold Mine in Queensway Bayswater, which almost resembles a secondary Chinatown in itself. One roast duck with rice will suffice as a meal, but do also try the roast belly pork and char siu pork to round off the Canto roast meat-a-thon. Some will say the more well-known Four Seasons just down the road is better, but why choose? Eat in at one, and take away at the other – roast meats are great eaten cold. 102 Queensway, Paddington, London W2 3RR
It doesn’t get much fancier than this daddy-O of fancy Chinese dining establishments. Yes, the prices are exorbitant. Yes, it’s balls-out flashy (if you’re a man you’ll literally be peeing out onto the London skyline in the epic urinals). And yes you need to take two lifts to get up to Hutong on the 33rd floor of The Shard. But the food is sublime enough to take on the accompanying dizzying view of London with special shout-outs to the show-stopping roasted duck, eaten in two stages and carved at your table with flamboyant theatre. That and the Red Lantern soft shell crab, buried in a bucketful of dried chillis. Iberico pork dumplings and ma la crispy eel are surprising twists on classics. Every dish is punchier and more generous in flavour (perhaps enhanced by the vertigo induced by sitting this high up in the sky). Hutong welcomes a new chef Fei Wang from Chengdu, who will be bringing a more Sichuan-centric kick to a menu that has already left its indelible mark on Chinese fine dining in the capital. Level 33, The Shard, 31 Saint Thomas Street, London SE1 9RY
Bang Bang Oriental
Colindale in North London will forever be associated with Oriental City, which housed a much-loved Asian food court – the only one of its kind in London. It closed in 2008 but has now reopened under new ownership as Bang Bang Oriental. The food court is much bigger and comprises a carefully chosen selection of vendors with more shops on the way. Technically, this is pan-Asian, since you can also sample Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese and Malaysian cuisine. But add to that chilli-drenched Sichuan noodles, Hakka specialities, juicy pan-fried pork-filled sheng jian bao from Shanghai and Hong Kong caff staples and you can have yourself a feast of a variety of regional Chinese specialties just by hopping from stall to stall. There have been some teething issues with the soft opening of this new venture but it’s still worth a visit to get a whiff of that Asian food court experience. 399 Edgware Rd, London NW9 0AS