Thursday, 8 August 2019

Mr Wong's, Holborn

Mr Wong's describes itself as a "Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil". Having walked past it dozens of times on the way to work, it always confused me, and having now eaten there I can't say I'm much the wiser. Surely you can have a traditional Malatang hot pot restaurant, and a Louisiana boil restaurant, but there's nothing traditional about the smashing together of Sichuan/Beijing hot pot and Southern USA cajun cooking. Perhaps it can be done - never say never - but if it does ever happen, it would struggle to attract the adjective "traditional".

As it turns out, Mr Wong's is a traditional - if somewhat eccentric - hot pot restaurant, the kind of which have sprung up in the dozens in the Bloomsbury area over the past few years. And this is all perfectly fine - there's absolutely no such thing as too many hot pot restaurants - I just wondered where the idea of attaching the words "Louisiana boil" came from, given they weren't serving any crayfish or corn or sausages or Old Bay seasoning or anything like that at all. Perhaps the words "Louisiana Boil" accidentally fell out of the Mandarin - English dictionary in the same way as the foot-high "EXTRA SITTING[sic] UPSTAIRS" text somehow accidentally found itself glazed into the windows of Mr Wongs, as we soon discovered said "extra sitting" proved just as elusive as crayfish and corn bread. With the grand total of 9 downstairs seats already taken we asked about overflow accommodation. "No, just here" was the firm reply. I thought about gesturing towards the promise of "extra sitting", hovering in reversed text just in our eye line, but decided against it.

We didn't wait long, anyway, and were soon sat down waiting for a menu. A short while after that, it turned out there wasn't one, and we were instead given a small plastic laundry basket and told to fill it full of anything, from the refrigerated shelving at the end of the room, that we wanted to form part of our Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil. Now, I don't know if you've ever loaded raw chicken into a laundry basket, and I hope very much that you haven't outside of the context of a hot pot restaurant, but I'm here to report it feels very strange, like being asked to pour gravy directly onto the dinner table.

To accompany my chicken I chose wood ear fungus, glass noodles, bak choi, enoki mushrooms, spinach and finally a large helping of tripe, because if I was going to construct myself a complete disaster of a hot pot I may as well fail in style. My order was weighed - £17 worth - and whisked off in the dumb waiter to be (presumably) stir-fried and added to broth. Having noticed that all of the drink options - milk tea, iced tea, Coca Cola - contained caffeine, I asked if I could just have some tap water.

"We don't have any cups," came the confident response, clearly indended to be the end of the matter. After clocking my stunned expression, though, they helpfully added, "but you can use one of those?", nodding towards a pile of small metal bowls on the shelf above the trays of "beef aeorta". Politely declining their kind offer to lap tap water out of a metal bowl like a dog, I slunk back to my window seat and hoped things wouldn't get any more weird.

In the end, though, the food was quite lovely. It turns out that even if you haven't got a scoobie what you're doing when selecting hot pot ingredients, by the time it's all fried up together and drowned in Sichuan peppercorn broth you end up with something that looks remarkably edible. It's actually quite flattering. With a definite punch of chilli and dressed in fresh coriander and spring onion it was, if not quite worth £17 then at least a damn sight better I was expecting given everything that had led up to it. I would even come back, to have a better stab at filling my laundry basket, remembering of course to bring my own bottled water.

More than anything, I'm glad Mr Wong's exists. There are surely better hot pot restaurants, and there are definitely better Louisiana Boil restaurants (try Plaquemine Lock in crayfish season, it's great) but what kind of city would this be if we didn't allow the odd expression of confusion-fusion madness, of putting raw meat in a laundry basket, and of drinking water from a bowl. Such is life's rich tapestry, and there's enough room in this old town for it all. Maybe one day, in this city of innovators and entrepreneurs there will indeed open a Traditional Malatang Louisiana Seafood Boil and if there is, you can be damn sure I'll be first in the line to try it.



Kavey said...

In curious oh they copied their labelling from another restaurant that both had an upstairs and offered Louisiana boil?!🤣

Alex said...

I pass almost every day on my commute and have always been a bit perplexed by this place, but not enough to try it. I'm grateful for your honest review, gives me answers to some of my questions without having to ask myself!

CGibbs said...

I've been following your blog for about three years now, and I think this is my favorite ever of your entries. Thank you.

PT said...

The red awning and "extra sitting upstairs" etched windows are left over from Tandoori Raj that used to be here.
I pass here on my way to work too and have scratched my head about what cuisine was inside. I'm not sure I'll be venturing inside, but thanks for the review!

Caglar said...

Simply a traditional old Chinese cheating restaurant

Anonymous said...

Definitely not worth the money. Visited out of curiosity but was very disappointed. There was no English labelling on what anything was (is that even legal?), no opportunity to weigh or return any ingredients before buying (hence overpricing). And yes, no cups or glasses and I was asked to pour my own water from their somewhat grubby tap. Sole waiter was on phone the entire time and her English was terrible. She ended up taking my bowl away mid-meal after I leaned back to let her remove disk of person sat next to me. Food was OK, if very very spicy. Be warned.

Nick said...

I go regularly and it’s great!! Spicy soups with every ingredient you could possibly want! Just like Szechuan Hot Pot! They just did a bit of a weird job with the branding / Louisana bit!