Looking for the best Chinese restaurant with vegetarian food in London’s Chinatown? Zsófi has done her rounds of Chinatown over the last couple of weeks to give you the best places to eat, from mock meats to vegetarian dumplings, you can find it all here in her vegetarian’s guide to chinatown restaurants.
Given that I haven’t been able to shut up about it for months now, many of you probably know of my recent move to London. Yes, you heard that right, I now live in the city of the most confusing underground transport system, inumerous opportunities for brunch, and an estimated 1.500 galleries (so… heaven?). And as a food writer, this is my more than 89 different cuisine-filled paradise. However, exploring a city that is more populated than the whole of Hungary… Well, it is overwhelming. Where do I go? What should I visit? How can I get there? And what do I eat?
While I am still clueless about most London restaurants, there is an area that has seen me back a total of eight times since my move six weeks ago (according to my super smart Maths Phd flatmate, that is an average of 1.33 per week, which is interestingly also the rate at which I buy books – anyway, back to the article). I am not sure if it’s the four beautifully decorated gates at its borders that keep me coming back. Or if it’s the delicious aromas lingering around its streets. Or its ever-bustling nature, even the tiniest alleyways always full of locals and tourists alike. Maybe it’s the sheer abundance of restaurants and eateries, packed on top of the other, next to the other, inside the other.
No matter the reason, merely five hours after my plane landed, I found myself wandering the streets of London’s historical Chinatown, camera in one hand, fish ice cream in the other (I will explain this later). Yes, stepping into Chinatown London is a culinary and an aesthetic experience. Walking under the red lanterns that give the cold winter nights a warm hue, and distract away from the noise of the guy with the electric guitar singing only, and I stress, only Bon Jovi songs, and the constant barrage of people seem to only want to head past and never in the same direction is a real London experience, one that is worth all the Instagram posts and gastronomic splurging. These streets are not only full of buskers and people, but a wide variety of East Asian supermarkets, sit-down or takeaway Chinese restaurants, bakeries, dessert parlours, and really, anything that a Chinese food enthusiast dreams of.
Prior to my move, I enjoyed Chinese food casually, you could say, I dabbled, much like an amateur baker with a macaron recipe or a linguist with the Python programming language. While I still don’t claim to be an expert in the cuisine, my enthusiasm has definitely more than doubled, and I have made it my mission to learn as much as possible about these four streets that make up Chinatown London.
The Vibrant History of Chinatown
Today, London’s Chinatown sits in Central London nestled between Piccadilly Circus and Leicester Square. It covers the area of four streets arranged in a square-like shape: Gerrard Street, Newport Street, Lisle Street, and Wardour Street. However, it did not begin its life in quite such a prime location.
When the first Chinese immigrants travelled to the UK in the 18th century, they chose Limehouse in the East End to set up their homes and start new businesses. Over the centuries, a sort of mini Chinatown was born where communities nurtured their connections to their home countries and where hungry sailors got ready for another trip out to the sea with a large plate of Ma Po Tofu.
Following the Second World War, however, the Chinese community, much like many other communities in the country, was left without a place to live or to make a living from. At the time, Soho in Central London was a newly built area with a thriving nightlife and (nobody right now will believe this, but I swear it’s true…) cheap rent. As more and more Chinese families decided to move across the city to settle in the Chinatown we know today, they also quite luckily found that there is a huge demand for restaurants, supermarkets, and just Chinese food in any shape or form, mainly due to the numerous soldiers in the area who have just returned from service in East Asia having developed a newfound taste for Chinese food.
Chinatown grew in popularity immensely over the decades, and attracted huge crowds to the area, whether to open new businesses or to stuff one’s stomach. Huge investments were made into developing its exterior around the 1980s and it is thanks to those years that we can now wonder at and pose in front of the imposing gates or warm red lanterns.
Vegetarian Dining in Chinatown London
Chinatown boasts an impressive total of 150 restaurants, most highly acclaimed and all immensely popular. Below is a list of my personal favourites over the last few weeks. These are not specifically veggie restaurants; they are London restaurants in Chinatown where I have found the best vegetarian dishes.
It is important to note, however, that this list is purposefully unfinished. My story with Chinatown has just begun and I intend to continue going there, eating there, and hopefully, discovering new places there. So definitely look out for a few more articles on the jewels of Chinatown!
Known originally for its khm… wonky (get it?) service, Wong Kei has become a real Chinatown icon. Its three-story building stands humbly on the intricately decorated streets, but this does not stop it from being absolutely packed with diners day in and day out. The truth is in Wong Kei, the food does the talking.
Their menu is extensive, specialising in Cantonese cuisine. There are lots of veggie options, and they will kindly prepare a non-veggie dish meat-free if asked. As our indecisiveness couldn’t land on just one or two dishes we wanted to try, we decided to order a little mix: we started with a Vegetarian Starter Platter which included Veggie Spring Rolls, Chilli-fried Tofu, and seaweed. We followed this up with a vegetarian Hot and Sour Soup, and as at this point we were really quite full already, we ordered a main of Stewed Mushrooms with Chinese Greens with a side of wonderful noodles. This ended up being a very wise decision as their portion sizes are absolutely massive and the dishes are made to be shared. All the food was absolutely incredible, providing a lovely experience for me and my now flatmate to enjoy our first day in London together, and setting a positive tone.
Also, considering the sheer amount of food that Wong Kei happily serves you, it is amazing value for money. A whole platter, two soups, a main, and a noodle dish amounted to just under 20 pounds each – now imagine how cheap a lunch would be if you didn’t try and order the whole menu! Oh, and they greeted us with complimentary jasmine tea upon entry – how lovely.
One thing to remember, however, if you ever find yourself in Wong Kei, have some notes on you as it is a strictly cash-only place.
I knew from the first day that I wanted to try Gerrard’s Corner as it stands on the corner of Gerrard Street (who would have guessed) and Wardour Street, just in your periphery when you look out of the window in Wong Kei, and well, I spent a lot of time looking out that window. First, it was the lovely outdoor seating area that grabbed my attention where you can enjoy your meals while taking in the absolute buzz of the street.
This is exactly what me and my friend did as we waited for our delicious-sounding orders. Gerrard’s Corner, much like Wong Kei and numerous other famous Chinatown spots due to the high rate of immigration from Hong Kong, serves Cantonese food. This time, we opted for one main each and I really don’t think either of us regrets that choice. My Monk’s Vegetables with Beancurd in a Claypot was an absolutely beautiful medley of greens with rice noodles prepared in a clay pot and served scorching hot. Ten out of ten.
One thing to keep in mind is that while this is still an affordable place, it is on the pricier side of affordable. I ended up paying about 20 pounds for my (arguably huge) main and a Coke.
This one was a bit of a rogue one for me. I ended up here after just one of *those* days where nothing seems to go right and you just need a bit of a pick-me-up. I was in the process of my daily commute home when Piccadilly Circus was announced on the tube tannoy and I just jumped off, with a sudden resolve to cheer myself up with some Chinese food and fresh air. This is how I first found New China Restaurant, which, as I’ve only learnt later, is an absolute staple for anybody interested in authentic Chinese cooking.
In contrast to the other two restaurants listed above, this one cannot be categorised simply as a Cantonese or a Hunan or a Sichuan restaurant. Rather, their menu covers all of mainland China, offering traditional dishes from Sichuan on the same page as famous specialties from Guangdong. The restaurant also prides themselves on refusing to cater to Western taste buds and maintaining their authentic Chinese techniques in the kitchen – as their website advertises.
In short, I was very lucky that day to have accidentally received an introduction to Chinese cuisine in the place most suitable for it. And I had a fantastic time. Sitting in a restaurant alone can sometimes feel daunting, but the servers were absolutely lovely, offering small talk, good advice, and quick service. I ordered a Water Spinach with Fermented Beancurd and Chili which was the exact amount of saucy and spicy that I wanted and I paired this rather clumsily with some Mixed Vegetable Fried Noodles (I’ll be honest, I was just really craving noodles, I would recommend having this dish with some rice for anybody else).
Vegetarian Desserts in Chinatown London
The thing is… life doesn’t stop in Chinatown London as soon as dinner ends. Instead, having finished their fantastic meal, people flock to one (or more) of the many dessert parlours for a Taiwanese bubble tea or a Filipino Halo-Halo. Really, Chinatown London has everything that a sweet tooth may desire. Below are my three favourite places to go to for a sweet treat and if you find any new ones, please let me know, I am on the hunt.
Aptly named, Chinatown Bakery is a fantastic bakery and patisserie at the heart of Chinatown, offering a range of savoury but mostly sweet dough-based pastries and cakes such as Black Sesame Rolls or Custard Filled Taiyaki. It’s hard to pick out one treat as their crowning jewel, but I will do exactly that because this is my article and I can.
If you ever stumble across Chinatown Bakery, it would be remiss if you didn’t try their Ice Cream Taiyaki. These fish-shaped pastries, known as taiyaki after the Japanese word for red sea bream or tai, are usually sold filled with red bean paste or custard. Not here though. In Chinatown Bakery, beside the traditional taiyaki, you will have an opportunity to try this waffle-like dough filled with vanilla or green tea ice cream, or even a mix of the two. This is absolutely the perfect combination as the ice cream adds the sweetness to the dough that otherwise lacks gaiety. The ideal snack for a long day in London.
If I may make a bold statement, Candy Café is my best discovery since arriving in London. It is also my hardest one. The café has an almost unnoticeable entrance on Macclesfield Street, peering through which all you see is a staircase leading upwards. But if you’re brave enough to climb those stairs, you will enter into a warm and cosy space that is Candy Café. Their menu is almost entirely dedicated to sweets, whether that be one of the best bubble teas you’ve had in London (genuinely) or a large bowl of dessert full of ice cream and fruits.
This was the first place I had tried the Korean Pat-Bing-Su, a shaved ice dessert topped with jelly, fresh fruit, azuki beans, and a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But I am also eyeing their Crystal Snow Ice, doesn’ it sound magical? Candy Café is an absolute recommendation and I hope it doesn’t go undiscovered by visitors to London.
I have never seen Mamasons Dirty Ice Cream empty and no wonder. A Filipino dessert place, it serves the most delicious delicacies from Halo-Halo, the unofficial national dessert of the Philippines to Bilog, a pandesal milk bun filled with ice cream and coated in sugar. For those craving a simpler after-dinner sweet treat, they also serve scoops of ice cream in a wide range of flavours: from the chocolatey Milo to the sweet potato-like yam Ube. On my visit, I tasted a Bilog filled with Milo ice cream, and well, I’ve been dreaming of it ever since.
The best thing is, if Chinatown is too far for you, you can find Mamasons on two other locations in London, in Kentish Town in the north and in Westfield in the west.