Google has Cathays’ Mini Kitchen as part of Fortune House a couple of doors away. Ignore that: it isn’t, and the menu is a world away from chicken balls, pork chow mein and special fried rice topped with scarlet-sauced sliced meat: Chinese food through a British filter. This is something else altogether.
Much of the menu here is typical of North-east China. It’s well named too: is there a smaller restaurant in the city? Malai Thai, I suppose. Don Don Yatai is compact and bijou. But not many, surely: and it’s functional rather than luxurious with plastic chairs under two six-seaters and a couple of smaller tables. It has stood on a busy street for four years.
Mains are divided into rice, noodles and spicy hotpots. One starter isn’t translated, so I summon my rudimentary Mandarin (or use my phone’s translation gizmo. You choose) to find it is ‘shredded ears with red oil/beef with sesame sauce (money belly)’. Pickled chicken feet are popular with Mini Kitchen’s student visitors: Chinese cooking unbowdlerized for more squeamish western tastes.
To start, plump, ruddy-skinned sausages have had their skins slashed to crisp up on the grill, revealing innards which are coarsely ground, slightly sweet and studded with glistening little cubes of fat. Against all that richness, a plate of pickles is just the thing.
I order ‘mixed braised meats’, which also feature among the rice and noodle choices. After a minute, chef comes back through the curtain to ask if I’m sure I want them, as his colleague translates ‘pork ear and beef belly’. ‘In for a penny, in for 9.21 Yuan’, as they say. The intestines are particularly good, so buttery-soft I almost reach for that all-time clunker ‘melt in the mouth’ before slapping myself back to sentience. If they were served incognito, they’d be a delicacy. The gelatinous textures of pigs’ ear might not be to everyone’s taste- I prefer them roasted to a crisp- and the spongier textures of beef tripe and tofu make this a bowl of soft, slippery, brown things, with a little cucumber for contrast relief.
Offal provokes strong reactions from diners, doesn’t it? Some find its provenance and proximities off-putting. Some love it, in the unaffected way they might love anything: black olives perhaps, or oysters, or laverbread. There’s no denying it has an image problem in the UK: even sweetbreads are a tough sell on Cardiff menus.
At the other extreme you have those who see it as some sort of competition, trainspotters who, as a badge of honour have- of course- nibbled every gland and lapped at every crevice known to a butcher (men, men: it’s always men). Those who think their ability to order a spicy curry is somehow proudly representative of the length of their own ‘offal.’
And then there’s the fine line between ‘That’s not for me, thanks’ and queasily xenophobic comments about it being more like dogfood.
The response ‘Or- and bear with me here- a source of cheap, accessible protein every day for hundreds of millions of people in other cultures’ does not appear to occur to them: and spare me wincingly tone-deaf references to ‘mystery meat’ from middle-class white ‘foodies’.
A breaded pork chop, beaten out, nicely crumbed and with a slather of kewpie, tops a rice bowl. It’s a sturdy portion, easily a meal in itself for £9.50 and it’s backed up with more of those pickles, a little bowl of soup and some vegetable curry. The broth is limpid, the sauce lurid.
Beef noodle soup: hearty, wholesome stuff is less about heat, more about a big savoury slap across the chops in a dish which is the equal of any similar I’ve had locally. If you need more of the former, there are pots of chilli oil on hand.
There are some who will go to the stake protesting that the optimum way to ingest carbs is bread and butter. It’s a strong claim. But when you’re face down in this stuff, you’d beg to differ. Or at least stay the flames a few moments longer so you could try to talk them round.
Jianghu on Woodville Road, the city centre’s Chinese Fast Street Food. Two breakout word of mouth success stories this year fuelled by enthusiastic blog reviews, and little corners of regional Chinese cooking in the city. You can choose as adventurously as you like, or stick to the familiar and well-done. There are no medals for either. But as we do so, let’s be careful how we talk about our choices, perhaps.
Mini Kitchen, 47 Salisbury Rd, Cardiff CF24 4AB
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This blog is a very simple thing.
I won’t try to sell you any hand lotion, exercise programmes, coffee syrups or Patagonian nose flutes. You won’t find tips on dating, ‘wellness’ or yoga mats.
I write because I love it (and food, as indicated by my increasing girth). Greed happens to be my Deadly Sin of choice, but at least it is never shy of providing me with subject matter.
A simple thing, then: all you get is me wittering on semi-coherently about places I’ve eaten at; hence a ‘restaurant blog’ rather than a ‘food blog’, although there are a few recipes scattered throughout.
From mezze to Michelin ‘fine dining’ and all points in between.