You deserve to eat real Chinese food to celebrate Chinese New Year but where is best to go?
We asked Birmingham food guru Lap-fai Lee to take us off the beaten path on a tour of his favourite Chinatown restaurants.
Born in Birmingham to Hong Kong immigrants, Lap grew up in Sparkbrook eating classic Hakka/Cantonese dishes.
He has gained rave reviews for pop-ups at Stirchley CANeat, Smoke in the City and the seafood pop-up Stirchley-on-Sea.
Lap's seven picks for the best Chinese food in Birmingham range from the city’s longest-running Cantonese restaurant to a small bakery tucked away in the Arcadian, with delicate dim sum platters, crispy pork and egg tarts to be sampled.
Chung Ying and Chung Ying Garden
A venerable institution from a time before there even was an Arcadian Chinatown in Birmingham.
Chung Ying has been in Ladywell Walk for as long as I can remember.
Its sister restaurant, Chung Ying Garden in Thorpe St, arrived later to bolster the popularity of this restaurant dynasty.
“Chung” 中 means China and “Ying” 英 means England.
This is a classic English Chinese restaurant with the focus on Cantonese cuisine.
Let’s get this straight, when we talk about about Chinese food we need to talk about regions.
To lump all Chinese cuisine together is like jamming all European food into one big stockpot.
Cantonese food is what most Western palates have been used to, so it’s no surprise to see westernised classics like sweet and sour pork and crispy shredded duck on the standard menu.
But if you ask for the other menu and look closer you’ll see what real Cantonese food is all about - gorgeous roast meats, delicately prepared seafood, fresh vegetables and subtle braises.
Lap recommends: Order the dim sum like you would tapas and have fun exploring the menu.
16 – 18 Wrottesley Street and 17 Thorp Street. Tel: 0121 622 5669 and 0121 666 6622.
In a strip of unconventional Chinese restaurants by The Electric cinema, Tasty restaurant sits in the middle. The decor hurts my eyes. Dark surfaces punctuated with bright red flourishes.
The buffet style food at the entrance looks intimidating. But the a la carte dishes are some of the best Mainland Chinese food I've had in town.
The cooking here is a cut above the rest. Evidenced by the dry fried chicken and chilli dish that comes with a mountain chilli and mouth numbing Sichuan pepper but also the daintiest carved sparrow.
To emphasise the skill of the kitchen, Squirrel Mandarin Fish, essentially a sweet and sour deep fried fish is cut in a way that the fish blooms out to resemble a squirrel tail.
Lap recommends "All of the above dishes and their chilli beef tripe is a match for any curry in Brum."
55 Station Street, Digbeth, B5 4DY 0121 643 5723
Next door to the Hippodrome has been a Chinese restaurant for many years.
Even when it was a Japanese restaurant, Tai Pan, it was Chinese run.
Thankfully it no longer has to be in disguise because Ken Ho is unashamedly Cantonese.
With a menu similar to the Chung Ying's you may wonder, why bother? But whisper it, it may be my favourite place to Yum Cha 飲茶 in town.
Yum Cha literally means “drink tea” and have a light meal for breakfast or lunch, usually involving dim sum.
As most Chinese restaurants in the UK open at noon, breakfast becomes brunch and for me there’s no better brunch than yum cha.
Ken Ho’s sheet glass frontage floods the compact room with light and you an easily while away a lazy lunch watching the Hurst Street crowds buzz by.
The dim sum menu here is smaller than Chung Ying and Chung Ying Garden’s but more refined. What they do here they do really well.
Lap recommends: "The most amazing liquid gold buns and char siu puffs Please don’t eat them all before I get there. "
41-43 Hurst Street. Tel: 0121 622 1323.
Red & Hot
Two doors down from Ken Ho is a different prospect altogether, a Sichuan restaurant.
Ignore what seems to be a small travel agents office as you enter (because that’s exactly what it is) and check out the sleek black decor of the restaurant proper.
You’ll find induction plates embedded into the furniture for what is the regional pastime in Sichuan, eating hotpot.
Very popular with the younger mainland Chinese clientele.
For me, though, I like to order from the main menu.
Sichuan cuisine delights in being the most fiery and flavoursome of all.
Lap recommends: "Dry fried chicken with chillies where the amount of chilli is easily double that of chicken on the plate emphasise the point, and classic Mapo tofu."
35 Hurst Street. Tel: 0121 666 6076.
Wah Kee Bakery
This is a small, unassuming bakery tucked into Cathay St in the Arcadian Centre, opposite the more garish Café Chino.
They both sell Hong Kong-style egg tarts but only Wah Kee makes them fresh daily in house (except on Wednesdays when they’re closed).
Forget what you think you know about custard tarts, if you catch these at the right time when still warm from the oven then you’ll eat a little piece of perfection.
Don’t expect artisan sourdough or crusty baguettes in this bakery.
Asians - I’m generalising - prefer a softer whiter crumb. Try the delicate filled buns and the puff pastry triangles packed with sweet char siu pork.
Lap recommends: "Japanese karepan, like a savoury doughnut filled with Japanese style curry. Oishi!
Ladywell Walk. Tel: 0121 622 6162.
Peach Garden and Look in
My ultimate soul food dish is a plate of Cantonese roast meat on fluffy white rice. In Brum we are blessed with several good specialist roast meat cafes. In the dingy alleyway between Chung Ying and the Indoor Market is Peach Garden and on Ladywell Walk is Look In. If you’ve ever walked past these cafes then you will have noticed the burnished ducks and sides of crispy pork pressing against the window luring customers in with the promise of fleshy delights.
They serve exactly the same offering, well they would do because the two brothers who run Look In used to work with a third at Peach Garden. Sibling rivalry for the Birmingham Chinatown roast meat addict, like me, is a very good thing. The standard now is incredible.
The various types of perfectly roasted duck, pork and trays of lurid offal is as good as the best in Hong Kong.
Lap recommends: " Ask for a plate of three roast rice and you’ll get the works: Cantonese style roast duck, crispy skinned belly pork as only the Chinese can do (we’ve had practice as we were the first to domesticate the pig) and sweet sticky char siu BBQ pork on top of a mound of fluffy rice and a few pieces of Chinese leaf to cleanse the palate.
" Don’t forget to dress your plate with chilli oil (eat the bits too) and Chinese tea is free. £7.20 for the best plate of food in town"
If you think that sounds good, go at the start of the week, on Monday or Tuesday, and try the roast suckling pig.
34 Ladywell Walk. Tel: 0121 666 7502