15:26 | Posted by Nim Headland | Category

The Budget Gastronomer's Restaurant Guide.

I've been in Reading this weekend visiting Steviant, so not much blogging got done. Spending time in a city with hundreds of great little everyday restaurants did give me an idea though. Food critics write reviews about fancy and expensive London-based restaurants. Hundreds of them. Trouble is, most people might go to one of these eateries maybe once a year for a special occasion. Unless you have a huge time and cash budget, the majority of mainstream restaurant reviews are useless. So I'm going to join the independent internet reviewer masses and comment on my little corner of the world, or at least the great little everyday restaurants that inhabit it.
I don't eat out a lot in Devon, despite there being lots of great places to eat. Trouble is, they're all a journey away. Reading is another story. There are literally hundreds of restaurants in the city and surrounding area. Hardly any are obscenely expensive and lots of them are fantastic. When I visit I try to eat out as much as I can afford. I love the spontaneity of being able to dive into a place just cus you're passing, peckish and like the look of it.

Just before leaving for this trip, I was told that one of my favourite Reading restaurants had reopened following a fire that had kept it shut for nearly 18 months.

The Beijing Noodle House does not look like anyone's favourite restaurant, but if you mention it to 20-something Readingites you will be met with sighs of nostalgia. This is a restaurant were everybody's money is the same. It is one of the few places where a large group of half-drunk 18 year olds can spend two hours sharing a couple of starters and Mrs Chen will just smile indulgently and shovel a few extra prawn crackers in their direction. Apparently you can sleep in there. There are loads of stories about it here: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=13066849857 which illustrate the unusual sentimentality the Noodle House's patron's have towards the odd little Chinese place at the arse-end of Reading. I'm putting mine here.

Since the revamp I was a bit worried that the Noodle House would lose some of it's endearing wierdness, but it hasn't at all. There are about 5 other Chinese places in this corner of town, and the quality of food is about the same in all of them. What sets the Noodle House apart is it's quirkiness and the price. It is super cheap. Steviant and I ate there this Saturday and enjoyed a shared starter, 2 mains and 2 cokes, and emerged about £20 lighter in pocket. The decor has got a little better, with wooden chairs and tables replacing the tatty plastic cafe style seating that it had pre-fire. In fact there is an awful lot of wood going on now. Wooden walls too. The decor is actually pretty horrendous, but I kind of like it. It makes a change from the ubiquitous red and yellow lanterns and dodgy art-prints in all the other value Chinese places locally. The new Noodle House has plastic place mats in varying styles of oddness. Ours had pictures of cartoon cups of steaming coffee on them. There are also place mats depicting chickens and french phrases, cartoon knives and forks, and country houses. I find them illogically hilarious. The food was completely unchanged which is a blessed relief. That's the real beauty of the Noodle House - consistently average and totally moreish. I've never had a bad meal there and while the food could never be described as brilliant it is consistent and exactly right for those days when you've drunk a little too much the night before and crave something fried, super spicy or sweet. There are a few dishes that are fantastic however, the singapore laksa is amazing and easily surpasses any I've eaten in fancier places.
Steviant and I started with a couple of spring rolls which were stuffed full of bits and bobs, super crispy and not at all greasy. They had slivers of red cabbage in them which turned everything a slightly purple colour which might have surprised Noodle House noobs, but not us. I followed with my usual; sweet and sour chicken and egg fried rice. Too much green pepper in this, but the sauce was perfect and the portion generous. My only complaint was the rice being slightly overcooked, but this is not a restaurant to get picky with. Steviant's singapore fried noodles were great. Less curry-spice than the version you get in a takeaway, they had a clean, almost Thai sort of heat and were generously studded with different meats and prawns, shredded veggies and spring onion.
The service was, as usual, the sort you would normally find in a much more expensive restaurant. The waiters are always the perfect mix of smily but silent, replacing dropped napkins (awful, one ply, like primary school loo paper) and topping up drinks rapidly and unobtrusively. The food arrived quickly but you feel so comfortable lingering over the last few grains of rice that it is not uncommon to arrive for a late lunch and not leave till it's dark.

I adore the Noodle House but am quite prepared to admit it's not for everyone. The usual clientele consists of 20 something groups and couples, Manly-man suited business lunches, and Chinese families (always a good sign). It's not a place I'd take someone on a special occasion, and I'd be unimpressed with it on a first date, but for a quick dinner before the pub, or a Saturday shopping-break lunch, it's great. Mostly this is a place for people that have known and loved its easy atmosphere and bizarre decor for years. Noodle House, good to have you back.


joyknitt said...

I almost want to go to reading, just to try it, it sounds great

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