Good Old Days, Reading: ‘Like finding a chef from the Ritz at your local caff’ - restaurant review

<span>Taste of home: contented customers at Good Old Days Hong Kong Cuisine Ltd.</span><span>Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer</span>
Taste of home: contented customers at Good Old Days Hong Kong Cuisine Ltd.Photograph: Sophia Evans/The Observer

Good Old Days Hong Kong Ltd, 66 George Street, Caversham, Reading RG4 8DH (07840 180080). All dishes £5-£9.80. Unlicensed

Once everything we’d ordered for lunch had arrived, a Chinese man on the next table leaned over and pointed approvingly at the array of steaming bowls: the wok-scorched ho fun, the brashly orange prawn sweet-and-sour, the golden lozenges of deep-fried pork chop with chilli salt and the rest. “I am impressed by what you have chosen,” he said. “It’s the food we would order.” He was part of a quartet of Reading residents, all originally from Hong Kong. I asked him if this was the food of home. He nodded vigorously and grinned. They all nodded vigorously and grinned. “Very much so,” he said. “And look at the amount you have ordered. I couldn’t eat all that.” I tamped down the shame and mumbled something about just trying to get a sense of the menu. But he was right. We had heroically over-ordered. Some of this would be coming back with us in takeaway boxes. That’s never a bad thing.

Good Old Days Hong Kong Cuisine Ltd, to use its full name, was recommended to me by a friend who is blessed to live two minutes’ walk away in Caversham, or Reading’s Latin Quarter as no one has ever called it. Until last August the site, on a quiet residential street of bay-windowed terraces, was a takeaway called Burger Revolution. Slogan: Flavour is Freedom, which is a revolutionary rallying cry I could get behind. Then the Sung family moved in, operating first as a cash-only takeaway, before installing a mighty 14 seats in the spartan, white-tiled space. Two of those seats are side-by-side facing the wall, pulled in against a table of pure wood-effect Formica. There is nothing fancy about these good old days.

Quickly word spread online among members of Reading’s substantial Hong Kong community

Quickly word spread online among members of the town’s substantial Hong Kong community, which apparently has increased in size since 2021, when the government introduced the British National (Overseas) Visas for Hong Kong residents, following China’s security crackdown. The Sung family came here under the scheme to open this restaurant which, the online chatter said, seemed to be the real thing. Not that identifying what that means is straightforward to the untrained eye. It’s simple to spot the dishes of Sichuan or Hunan, courtesy of the relatively recent boom in restaurants from China’s diverse provinces, such as the Hunan Man, which I wrote about recently. Just look for heaps of brilliant red chillies; for steaming chilli oil-slicked broths, intriguing ways with offal, and liberal scatterings of tongue-buzzing Sichuan peppercorns.

The menu of Cantonese classics here looks softer, more comforting and altogether more familiar. Before visiting, I showed it to the writer and cookery teacher Jeremy Pang, whose family is from Hong Kong. “At first glance it just looks like a standard English Chinese restaurant menu, doesn’t it?” he said. “There are black bean sauce dishes, and sweet-and-sour and so on.” It’s the stuff of a thousand suburban takeaways; of the arduous labour of an immigrant community working all hours to create opportunity for the next generation, one spring roll at a time. But item by item, Jeremy started to identify things that reminded him very much of trips back to see the family. It was interesting, he said, that there were two beef ho fun dishes. The lettuce with fermented bean curd was not something he’d seen on a British menu before. Over the water from Hong Kong in Macau, the deep-fried boneless pork chop on offer here would be sold in a bun. He’d always enjoyed eating those as a kid.

And so to the backstory, told to us by Nicola Sung, who takes all the orders and delivers all the dishes. Her dad, Pui, is the chef. He had his own restaurant in Hong Kong for many years, before cooking at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, and then at the city’s gilded Four Seasons Hotel. It feels like finding a senior chef from the Ritz, now doing their own thing in your local caff, and doing it all rather splendidly.

First, a quick note on what there is not. There are no spring rolls. There is no crispy duck with pancakes. Instead, there are pot sticker dumplings and a trio of shredded chicken dishes. We have the chef’s special shredded chicken, the marble-pale breast meat served cool. Underneath is a nest of noodle-sliced cucumber. On top is a vinegary sauce of finely chopped spring onions, coriander, garlic, ginger and chilli. It’s refreshing and awakening; the edible equivalent of splashing your face with a palmful of cold water in the morning.

The bed for the rest of our dishes is a generous dome of egg-fried rice seasoned with salted fish, spring onions and pebbles of chicken. We lubricate it with the thickened, soy-rich liquor from the soft folds of beef with seasonal vegetables, and the sparklingly bright and glossy sauce coating the large sweet-and-sour prawns, which have been flash-fried so they still have a slight crunch on the outside and a squeak between the teeth. It’s a flashback to my childhood: a recollection of that moment in a local Chinese in northwest London when the food on my plate lurched into an astonishing wave of fruity colour for the first time. It’s good to be reminded of just how boisterously thrilling, how completely great, well-made sweet-and-sour can be.

Then there are the flat, slippery ribbons of beef ho fun. They are an encouraging soy-brown with the appropriately smoky breath of wok singe to them. The most unfamiliar dish is the heap of wilted lettuce with the funk of that fermented bean curd, like a salty cheese that’s just about to turn, that’s followed up by a strident burst of chilli. The broth is restorative. The emerald-green leaves are a display of show just how satisfying cooked lettuce can be; how its balanced sweetness comes to the fore.

Good Old Days is a modest place and so are the prices which, with a nod to lucky numbers, generally end in a three or an eight. The vegetable dishes start at £6.30. Only the seafood offering reaches the dizzying height of £9.80. If you want to splash out more, get a £15 jar of their absolutely banging homemade dried shrimp, pork and chilli-boosted XO sauce. Bring your own booze. Or if, like my friend, you happen to live nearby, get the food to go. Because in truth, Good Old Days is a takeaway that just happens to have a few tables. And it’s a damn fine one at that.

News bites

Chris Hicks and Alex Bagner, the couple behind The Rose in Deal, which I much enjoyed in the Autumn of 2022, are launching a Japanese-inspired restaurant and bar in the town towards the end of this month. The Blue Pelican will occupy a townhouse on Deal’s seafront, and will have a 10-seat kitchen counter, plus seating in a downstairs wine cellar. The chef is Luke Green, who ran the kitchen at the Rose under executive chef Nuno Mendes and who previously lived in Tokyo for five years. The menu includes skewers of pork collar with preserved greengages, homemade sesame tofu with daikon tops and crème caramel with kumquat and kinako.

Interesting rumblings in the restaurant food delivery market with the announcement that the Mexican-inspired fast food chain Tortilla, which has more than 70 branches nationwide, has broken off its relationship with Deliveroo, citing commission charges which had ‘challenged margin performance’. In other words, working with Deliveroo was costing them too much. Instead, they will only be working through Uber Eats and Just Eat. Last October, KFC also severed links with the company. Deliveroo responded that it was ‘proud to partner with roughly 60,000 restaurants in the UK and Ireland’, thousands of which are Mexican.

The team behind the much-admired Maison Francois, in London’s St James’s, is to open a more casual sibling in Borough Market. Café Francois, which opens in the autumn, will have an all-day menu of bistro classics including Toulouse sausages with lentils, rotisserie chickens, and steak sandwiches. For more information follow them on Instagram @cafefrancoislondon

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