Ok, ok. I understand that if I had set a list of rules for this blog, I would probably have broken them with C because a. I had been to this restaurant before and b. having lived in China for 2 years, I feel pretty comfortable with my knowledge of Chinese cuisine.
However, after scouring the internet for London’s best Chinese food and then having the restaurant confirmed as the best by 10 Chinese expats, I deemed it worthy of a post.
Lao Difang (“Old Place” in Mandarin, but translated to “My Old Place” for it’s foreign clientele), isn’t in Chinatown. But, Chinatown here is as touristy but nowhere near as sprawling as in Manhattan (I’m appalled I’ve never visited the Flushing, Queens Chinatown…), so it makes sense that there are some outliers.
The first time I went to Lao Difang was with Pete and our friends Amy and Jonny, a couple we were friends with in Shanghai. Unfortunately, four people (including one vegetarian) isn’t enough to get a good picture of a Chinese restaurant since all dishes are served communally and the portions at Lao Difang are huge (so you can’t order too many.)
That’s why I arranged to revisit with my Chinese friends two Sundays ago- for the sake of power in numbers and utter confidence in selection!
Pete and I were joined by seven other London Met students from all over “China” (Tibet, Sichuan, Guangxi, Henan, and one Vietnamese guy who studied in China) and immediately instructed them to do the ordering. According to legend (ok, the Internet), the Chinese menu at Lao Difang is four times the size of the English version.
We were treated to some staples, such as mapo doufu (spicy tofu), Sichuan green beans with ground pork, cold tofu with hundred-year egg (which I only started liking towards of the end of my stay in China, and now love), Xinjiang lamb chuanr (Pete’s favorite), guo bao rou (fried sweet and sour pork, Pete’s other favorite), and my favorite starter- suàn ní huáng guā (cold cucumber and garlic).
Though I’ve eaten these things more times than I can count, they were just as tasty, and I took pleasure in knowing I had apparently been ordering “authentic” food while in China, not just foreigner-friendly gōng bǎo jī dīng (Kung Pao chicken.)
But, more importantly, I got to try frog for the first time! Of all the weird things I tried in China, frog wasn’t one of them. Let’s be clear- I was never presented with a frog I didn’t taste, the situation just never came up. And I definitely wasn’t going to order one on my own after seeing them struggle to survive in way-t00-shallow water with various other sea creatures in the tanks that are so common outside of restaurants in China.
Turns out frog does, in fact, taste like chicken. A pretty anti-climatic new food discovery. I savored my food to the nostalgic background noise of my Chinese friends’ shameless lipsmacking. We washed everything down with Tsingtao, something I can’t say I’ve missed since moving to England.
Unfortunately (Sorry, Dad!), I’m still really shy and didn’t practice as much Mandarin as I should have, though I wooed them by understanding the word for “cucumber”, when they struggled to remember it’s English name. If they were impressed with that, I clearly am not speaking enough Mandarin with them. Even Pete impressed them with his limited vocabulary- “yes,” “beer”, and “kebab.”
Being able to get authentic, delicious Chinese food in London is great. However, what reminded me the most of China, was the bathroom. Though definitely not clean, it wasn’t foul, but what seemed the most “Chinese” were the stack of brown paper towels piled on top of the toilet paper dispenser in place of toilet paper. This may seem insignificant, but was a solid reminder of the Chinese haphazard way of doing things and lack of emphasis on cleanliness- two things I, strangely, miss.
Hopefully, I can make this into a regular occurance, though next time I want to try the Hot Pot (huǒ guō) restaurant they were raving about. Although it can’t be better than the home-made version I ate with them a few weeks ago…
Lao Di Fang / My Old Place
88-90 Middlesex Street
London E1 7EZ, near Liverpool Street Tube Station
020 7247 2200
about 12-25 pounds per person (including drinks) depending on appetite.