Ju Xiang Yuan is a Chinese restaurant on the eastern fringes of Chinatown. My first visit was a few months ago, when its neighbour, the Mekong, was booked solid. Standing ravenous in the rain, having already plugged the meter, we dashed in.
Since then, we’ve dashed in a few more times, and each time walked out feeling well-fed, well-looked-after, not much poorer and happily burdened with leftovers for lunchboxes.
Though hardly suave, Ju Xian Yuan has taken some pains to pretty up. Here are the iconic red lanterns and paper wall hangings, but here, too, is a bit of glass block, chairs that match, an upholstered banquette and tables draped with gold-braided cloths, covered with clingy sheets of heavy plastic.
The Ju Xiang Yuan menu, contained in a red leathery cover, is a thick photo album of sorts – glossy pictures of a few of the 200 or so dishes accompany the names. You are given a sheet of paper and pen and invited to order by code. It can take hours. And you can sometimes find a photograph that looks just exactly what you want, only to discover it has been deleted from the menu with a swipe of white out.
This is a smorgasbord of mostly northern Chinese food – pickled things feature, as do hot pots, congee and dumplings – but there’s a big range here. There are the dishes my parents would recognize, or you can venture into more traditional offal offerings – stir-fried pork intestine with stomach and kidney, say.
I’m a sap for dumplings – steamed dough wrapped around a little ball of seasoned ground pork – so simple, so moreish. The siu mai arrive in a traditional dim sum steamer, and have a gentle flavour. In the northern-style dumplings we enjoy chunks of shrimp within the minced pork, though we scrape off the icky peanut sauce, gritty with raw sugar.
The noodles, called jar cheung on the menu, are squared, dense and chewy – handmade in house. They’re spread with a nubbly pork and soybean paste sauce, laced with green onions and served with shredded cucumber.
Some might find the fried lamb too oily. I found it perfect, as the fat still clinging to the meat gave the dish its flavour, the cumin and caraway seeds gave it pow and the meat was tender, threaded with onion, garlic, greens and myriad dried red chilies. Not as menacing as you might think.
Menacing arrives next – sizzling kidneys in an iron pot, with chilies competing for the role of main ingredient (and mostly winning). I’m still sweating.
Don’t start with the skewered barbecue beef. I’m still chewing.
Better the barbecue squid, coated with the same chili-cumin rub you find clinging to many things here.
Enormous quantities of minced garlic flavour the deep fried lengths of tofu with peas and enoki mushrooms, as well as a dish of roasted eggplant with pork, peppers, chillies and diced tomato. There is barbecue duck, quite tender, its bronzed skin not as crisp as we’d like, but tasty enough. Chunks of chicken are moist and fragrant in a pot roast plump with mung bean noodles, and flavoured with cilantro, five spice powder, chillies and Chinese mushrooms.
There is a better selection of beer than wine and a wide assortment of fruit shakes. Try the avocado.