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The Great Wall, Chinatown, Reviewed

Jonathan Schofield gets angry, feels insulted and is inspired over a tale of two menus

Published on July 31st 2012.


The Great Wall, Chinatown, Reviewed

OFTEN it feels as if there's something wrong with Chinatown. It's as if time stood still.

It feels like 1987. 

But lift the lid and bubblling away in the stockpot there are secrets, hidden agendas.

Look more closely and it feels like the most exciting place to dine in the city. So bear with me for a few paragraphs...

There are always rumours of The Two Menus.

One of the menus is for 'us', the Westerners and the rest, who are given what we're supposed to like, and the other menu is for 'them', the folk of Chinese origin. It's as though restaurateurs in Chinatown feel we can't take their food in its true form.

One for 'them'One for 'them'

Maybe they think the gweilo are too unsophisticated or, on weekend evenings, too pissed after a night out in low-down bars to go for the complex staples of the mother country.

They may have a point. 

One for 'us'One for 'us'

But the restaurants pay a price for their caution. For those who like variety, world cuisine, something new, the British Chinese restaurant has become a place to avoid. It's become a sort of sit-down street corner take-away with higher prices.

Thus Chinatown has found itself in a cycle of diminishing returns, pitching low when by pitching high they could appeal across markets. Chinatown has lost its allure for the creatives, the leaders of the Manchester food field. The area is stagnating and the 'us' part of the market is wondering why we're still reading the same menus twenty-five years after we first sampled them. 

So I walk into the Great Wall on Faulkner Street.

I do it twice. First time is with the family and the three boys.

"The Great Wall is the only restaurant you can see from space," I say.

"Good one dad," says the fifteen year old, "I bet that's never been said before."

The place has been around for 17 years on Faulkner Street. For some reason it's one of the few Chinatown places I've never entered - not that I go to Chinatown much these days because of the reasons stated above. Maybe the basement location on the narrow street has put me off, the modest doorway passed before you pause, the momentum taking you on to other destinations.

This time I deviate and with the family, descend. The interior is tired, and very typical, with of course, a large fantasy print of the Great Wall, and good luck banners in red.

The 'Westerner' menu tip toes between Peking and Cantonese food.

The Great Wall's use of the title Peking rather than Beijing is curious: then again loads of Brits still talk in feet and yards almost forty years since decimalisation; and lots of Persian restaurants refuse to call themselves Iranian. I ask about this and apparently the Chinese themselves have no problem with the word Peking, especially when used in relation to cuisine. 

Inside, nothing unusual hereInside, nothing unusual here

We start with, from an insider tip-off, Peking style dim sum pan-fried pork and vegetable dumplings (£3.30) and the Peking pan-fried onion pancake (£2.50). 

The dumplings don't disappoint. These are gloriously robust, solid little buggers, more physical than the Cantonese version, and filled with bursting meat and veggie flavours. They are juicy too, and after a brief bath of soy, appreciated by all the family, which frankly doesn't leave me with enough for myself. 

Dumpling delightDumpling delight

This is annoying as the three boys have already devoured a plate of deep-fried salt and pepper ribs, (£5.50), again leaving me with just the one. My singleton rib is excellent though, a good amount of meat left moist through the frying and given edge by the salt and the peppers.

The one remaining rib left after the scrambleThe one remaining rib left after the scramble

The pan-fried onion pancake (£2.50) is not my favourite thing. It's sort of interesting and feels worthy. It might be a food you'd wrap up and nibble during a long journey. It's not a thing to fall in love with. But it feels unusual and authentic and for that, welcome.

Spring onion pancakeSpring onion pancake

My main - just mine all mine, and another tip off - is braised oyster with roast bellypork and beancurd casserole (£9.50). Yum, yum, this is a beauty, big and bounteous, with loads of oysters sans shell, fat black mushrooms with the consistency of ribeye steak, beancurd in bundles and slurp-me-up stock. It works well with the rice.

Oyster casserole - three tiimes a week pleaseOyster casserole - three tiimes a week please

Also rans, not a patch as thrilling as the oyster casserole, are the spicy beef Szechuan style (£7.50) and the stir fried pork with curry (£7.50). Both could be on any menu in any of the restaurants nearby. 

Pork curryPork curry

The handmade Peking noodles with sliced chicken are much better. This comes in a big £8 portion and with those, typical of the region, fat, floury noodles - Beijing area uses much more wheat than the tropical south. The twelve year old attempts the dish and gets about 37.5% of the way through before it's distributed amongst the other males. 

Noodle mountainNoodle mountain

The twenty-year-old is presented with the Cantonese roast half-duck on the bone for (£7.50), and as a lad who likes his food exclaims, "Yeeeees!" when it comes into view. Again there is a fine juiciness to the bird, nothing frazzled and dry and mean about it. I get a fatty forkful and love it.

Quack, quack of joyQuack, quack of joy

But something is nagging away.

Why does it feel that there is much more somewhere, bubbling under and around? Why does it feel that the more unusual menu items are the best?

So I go back the following day with a friend from the community and this time get a glimpse behind the curtain. 

And what damned riches we are being denied on the 'Westerner' menu.

First up is a cold jellyfish dish with translucent grean bean noodle, chicken strips, coriander and chilli (about £7.50 I presume, as the bill wasn't broken down).

My friend mixes it all up, so that in the stock and through the dish there is that coriander lift. Indeed the whole thing is like a gazpacho of gentle but stubborn flavour. It's perfect for summer. The chewy jellyfish component creates texture, it's a dish that is a complete delight.

Jellyfish marvelJellyfish marvel

Next there comes lush chicken and wood ear fungus, probably the same price as the jellyfish. This again is light, floaty, excellent, with the key being that fungus. This is a bracket fungus that grows off tree trunks and feels, well, er, perfect with a chicken. And it also feels very genuine. And sophisticated, almost elegant. 

The best fungus in the landThe best fungus in the land

That's all I have time for on a Monday lunch.

But it feels exciting. I can't wait for a return to The Great Wall for some of this off-menu, what-the-Chinese-eat food.

It gets me thinking too.

The restaurants in Chinatown really need to take a look at themselves.

No other food community does this 'us' and 'them' thing. As a Mancunian I feel insulted that I don't have the opportunity to try this food as standard.

If restaurants are afraid that they may put off the average British diner then all it takes is a simple insert in the 'Westerner' menu with ten or fifteen of these dishes. 

Frankly though, I feel their concerns are twenty years out of date. 

Yes there are the pissed-up Saturday night people but Britain and its tastebuds have generally moved on, adapted, become more adventurous.

It's time Chinatown caught up, and gave itself a shot in the arm, time it got people talking again.

The best method of achieving this would be through the food. And the good news is they don't even have to change much as they are already cooking the exciting stuff.

But just not for 'us'.

You can follow Jonathan Schofield on Twitter here @JonathSchofield

ALL SCORED CONFIDENTIAL REVIEWS ARE IMPARTIAL AND PAID FOR BY THE MAGAZINE. 

Great Wall, 52 Faulkner Street  Manchester, M1 4FH 

Rating: 15/20 (when the off-menu food was eaten)

Food: 8/10
Service: 4/5
Ambience: 3/5

PLEASE NOTE: Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20, we get carried away.


Pork and veg dumplingsPork and veg dumplings

Duck displayDuck display

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48 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

I seem to recall making the same complaint on this very site around 4 years ago, the whole issue is really frustrating. I've had words with staff at Tai pan and Glamorous on this subject but to no avail. The jellyfish dish used to be served at Yang Sing many years ago when it was a good place to eat, along with a braised tripe dish with turnip that was truly wondrous. Both of these dishes were never on the westerner menu and had to be requested. On the plus side...the Red Chilli does an excellent cold jellyfish and chicken. The problem is how we go about making these restaurants sit up and take notice...please make it your mission in life JS!

Craven CottagerJuly 31st 2012.

This is a very interesting article, and highlights how Chinatown could be made exciting again. I'd love to eat regularly off-piste.

Jonathan Schofield - editorJuly 31st 2012.

As a little extra to the above, I also had on the second visit the boiled Peking veggie dim sum dumplings packed with a thousand little gems including bamboo shoots. Every vegetarian in the city should run to the Great Wall and snaffle these.

SmittyJuly 31st 2012.

"No other food community does this 'us' and 'them' thing."

You've clearly never asked for the under-the-counter Geordie menu in Greggs. Stotties, mince beef pies (sans onion), all washed down with a gallon of Broon.

Or Wetherspoons' secret menu, created by Robert Owen Brown and Simon Rimmer.

Jonathan SchofieldJuly 31st 2012.

That's true. And if you twist that innocuous looking napkin dispenser in McDs on Oxford Road a wall slides back to reveal a three star Michelin restaurant based purely on the Big Mac.

DaniJuly 31st 2012.

Got to agree completely with you here JS! Also, it's not just Mancunian Chinatown that does it - being a Geordie, I can tell you conclusively that ours does it as well! When I first moved here, I heard that Chinatown was supposedly amazing (from a friend in the community) and I've only once been anything less than underwhelmed by it, and that was last week, when I checked out Red Chilli, and really enjoyed the westerner menu. I'm happy and willing to try Chinese food in its normal form and not the bastardised version we get given - I spent a month there a couple of years ago and, horror of horrors, survived. Please, please JS, get the guys at Chinatown serving us the amazing food we know they're capable of!!

Alan WharrierJuly 31st 2012.

I say it now and will say it again .. The New Hong Kong is the jewel in the crown of China Town.

1 Response: Reply To This...
Huw ThomasJuly 31st 2012.

Shhhhhh!!!! don't tell everyone!!!! ;-)

pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

For me Red and Hot has the edge over Red Chilli at the moment as favourite restaurant in chinatown

Phil GentJuly 31st 2012.

Philco

This used to drive me up the wall over 10 years ago , when we would go to the New Emperor for Sunday lunch. We were given the padded navy blue leatherett menu ,the locals got a paper tick box menu .
Two totaly different menus

Lorraine ByrneJuly 31st 2012.

London do the them and us as well - and its cheaper with a person from the community!!!

lukeunabomberJuly 31st 2012.

totally agree with you sir. great honest piece.same for rusholme too sadly with some obvious exceptions

AnonymousJuly 31st 2012.

Slightly off topic - is Tai Wu reopening the Dum Sum part or will it just be another horrible buffet?

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

Just a buffet I've heard....better proit margins!

AnonymousJuly 31st 2012.

The main reason I stick with red chilli is the menu is full of authentic dishes.

shabob1July 31st 2012.

I thought Indian restaurants do the same, make westernised rubbish that they think will please our pallet but 'real' authentic indian food is denied menu space.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

Try Dilli in Altrincham..real Indian food.....Rusholme is full of cheap same old crap type places imo....unless anyone knows of any gems I have missed?

AnonymousJuly 31st 2012.

Rusholme is a great place to find hidden gems (as long as you steer away from the Indian restaurants!). Middle Eastern food is great from Jaffa and Hadramout... more fast foody but cheap and much better than paying restaurant prices for awful food!

shabob1July 31st 2012.

palette, sorry

2 Responses: Reply To This...
pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

palate!!

shabob1August 3rd 2012.

Ha ha ha third time lucky, I was tired!!

Hero
Swiss JamesJuly 31st 2012.

Red'n'Hot, the Hunan restaurant on Faulkner street both do authentic versions of Sichuan and Hunanese food. The english menus have most of the food that I used to eat in China.

Trouble is, you have to convince the waiters to tell the kitchen staff you want the food Chinese style. If you do that at Red'n'Hot, you'll see "Customer type: Chinese" at the top of the bill, and get all of the chilli and peppercorns that are meant to be in the dishes.

1 Response: Reply To This...
pollolocoJuly 31st 2012.

Not tried the Hunan place..used to be woo sang....anyone been?...menu looks good.

SteJuly 31st 2012.

You're absolutely right!
However, we once ventured a meal in New York's Chinatown and were borderline out of our depth; barely even a translation, and staff who spoke little English, but I guess this is what it SHOULD be like eh?!

AnonymousJuly 31st 2012.

As a person 'from the community' I have to recommend people go to Glamerous on Sunday afternoons (above the Wing Yip Chinese supermarket on Oldham Street) for authentic Hong Kong style dim sum that is accessible for all. It is pushed around in steaming hot trolleys and the contents of each trolley come with a description in English and Chinese. If the descriptions are a little dubious or confusing, you can always to point to the dishes you want to try. The restaurant is always full of extended Chinese families on Sundays going for the traditional Sunday lunch. It always makes me so sad to see white British people eating chicken and sweetcorn soup and prawn crackers there when they are surrounded by such tasty and authentic food under their noses!

2 Responses: Reply To This...
pollolocoAugust 1st 2012.

I agree anon...love the dim sum there....however they still have a seperate menu thing going on for other stuff....I have to point at other people's and ask!

shabob1August 3rd 2012.

It makes me sad that we are not told about the lovely dim sum in the first place so that we can actually order it!! I would expect to be told about the food that restaurant serves and recommends not to catch a glance at another table and point depsperately in the hope that I pick something 'authentic' its ridiculous!!

NorthernGeezerJuly 31st 2012.

I agree with those who mentioned Red Chilli.
Its menu is just enough 'off-centre' to keep you interested.
I work with an indian guy who occasionally brings in a dish from home for us all to share.
Either his wifes a fantastic cook or the indian restaurants have been serving us shyte for years!

NeilAugust 1st 2012.

Fu's Cafe (upstairs from the Great Wall) has a 'two menu' choice as well. And the weird thing is that the staff look quite pleased when you ask for the other menu. I'm busy making my way through it. It's strange as the westernised food is all fatty and quite unappetising and the Chinese one is fresh and full of herbs and colour.

Indian retaurants tend to have a 'staff curry' on that is often worth asking for. The Saajan in Rusholme normally has one and I had chicken (on the bone of course) and chick pea the other week and it was a taste sensation.

Kat ParneyAugust 1st 2012.

Food Apartheid...

Burt CodeineAugust 1st 2012.

Excellent article. Perhaps the collective kick up the arse Castlefield is getting can be applied to our Chinatown too. It should be a Manchester gem, but instead it's a quick photo shoot under the arch before heading elsewhere. Around 10-15 years ago, it felt as if it was ripe for a burgeoning new dawn...but it's slowly worn itself down since then. Red N Hot and Red Chilli (maybe one or two more) stand out, but in one of Europe's largest Chinatown it simply isn't good enough.
I feel for those who've seen it promoted in the tourist bibles to find a couple of supermarkets (which in all fairness I love) and staid 'Chinese' restaurants. They could start with sanctioning development on that car park for a start....afterall, they're building enough stuff in China. It's missing a decent bar there anyway....

Come on Schofield, round up the troops to rebuild our Chinatown...

AnonymousAugust 1st 2012.

Perhaps mancon could provide an english - cantonese food dictionary with phrase number one being. I'd like the chinese menu. we could all print it out and take it with us?

AnonymousAugust 1st 2012.

To be honest, I don't entirely blame them. I love Chinese food, so I took a group of friends who said the same to one of the better restaurants and asked for various authentic dishes. The Szechuan pepper was far too overwhelming for them (cue a very funny scene in which they asked why there was so much lemon in everything, the waiter insisting there wasn't any, then them looking up 'Szechuan pepper' online and finding it being defined as 'a cross between lemon washing up liquid and licking a 9v battery', which to be honest is pretty bang on) and one guest was confused as to how he was expected to eat any of his, being as it was entirely made up of small pieces of bone with bits of chicken on. They very kindly gave us a discount, but you can imagine them thinking they wish they just served us sweet and sour chicken.

5 Responses: Reply To This...
pollolocoAugust 2nd 2012.

this kind of reaction is exactly why the chinese just want to serve us sweet and sour etc! As with any dish of any cuisine...one has to try it first and it might not be to your taste. This is no reason to request a discount though. As for small peices of chicken on the bone....doesn't your friend have any teeth??

AnonymousAugust 2nd 2012.

I don't think there's anything wrong with requesting a discount if you genuinely think something is inedible. But then I agree that's the problem with authenticity, where's the line? Hence why I said I could empathise with restaurants having a Westerner menu (I think most people would get a surprise if they actually went to China). As for the chicken on the bone comment, I think you'd be surprised if you'd ordered it. Try it. It's a Szechuan version and called (simply enough) fried chicken pieces on the bone. You can order it from Szchuan specials menus like at Red Hot.

pollolocoAugust 2nd 2012.

What's "inedible" for some is "delicious" for others. Personall I woulod only request a discount if it was badly cooked/bad ingredients. On the subject of the chicken, my colleague and I had it at red and hot last week...bloody lovely! Not much different from eating a spare rib...it's just a mattter of it being "different" for some people. Then again..I love the chickens feet at Glamorous...try and find the meat on those:)

AnonymousAugust 2nd 2012.

Absolutely. But that's my point. Where's the line between the customer arguing that this is inedible, and the restaurant arguing this is authentic? And to me, the article only hints at the real issue: catering to Western palates doesn't mean you should be served sweet and sour or beef in black bean all the time and the alternative isn't the authentic extreme that many won't be able to deal with. There is an middle ground. They have all those wonderful ingredients, so be adventurous with them. Create a new menu to appeal to English audiences. Don't just draw a lazy line dividing "what the English will expect from a Chinese" and "what the communities expect" and leave us looking at the table next door wondering what the hell that is that smells so good. Oh and I think we're talking different dishes - the one I'm describing is small nuggets of bone, with equally small bits of chicken, all deep fried, like someone has diced a chicken carcus whole into very small pieces. You can't pick it off or eat it like a rib. And chicken feet are great!

pollolocoAugust 3rd 2012.

It's more simple than that really....just provide us with the full menu, with adequate descriptions of what to expect and let us, the punter make an infomed choice of what we would like to order. If you then order something you don't like...tough. yes, the dish was also loaded with dried red chillis....chew the little buggers and spit out the bones...simples

AnonymousAugust 1st 2012.

Oh, Thanks Gordo! - This has been our favourite Chinese restaurant for years - and have converted family and friends. Now you have opened it up to the masses!

Great Wall always recognises us and serves us well with our favourite dishes from the regular 'Us' menus and our likes from the 'Them' menu. Some times we even combine this with being somewhat p***ed on a Saturday night. Nonetheless we are welcomed and well-fed. (Actually - 'porked -out' is more like it! Even if we haven't had pork).
Always good value compared to the local offerings - even allowing for the 16 mile round trip and tram fare.
Now, after your review, will we have to book? Even if we do, the GW deserves your praises. It's very good. Try it.

Charlie ButterworthAugust 2nd 2012.

Gordo didn't write this. Jonathan Schofield did.

Kris CullineyAugust 2nd 2012.

I agree with most of what has been said, although I also blame the majority. You know the ones that think that its all about quantity and low prices and your stereotypical Chinese Italian, Indian dishes like sweet and sour, spaghetti bolognese, and Tikka Masala respectively. They fuel the demand and the restaurants deliver what customers want.

DavidAugust 2nd 2012.

There is no such thing as authentic Chinese food.The chinese have spread so widely around the word,that even Chinese food in Majority Chinese Singapore bears no relation to what you would see in most restaurants in mainland China.Hainanese chicken rice for instance is everywhere in Singapore,but you won't find it in a Chinese city.
Also an English or Irish pub in China is nothing like one here in Manchester.Any business has to alter its products to the tastes and climate of the market in which it is operating.
For the best insider view of the Chinese view of selling Chinese food to the English,read Timothy Mo novel 'Sour Sweet'.
Chinese food is changing now in Manchester to be less Hong Kong dominated because the demographics of the Chinese community is changing,because of the huge numbers of students from mainland China.

2 Responses: Reply To This...
Hero
Swiss JamesAugust 3rd 2012.

"Hainanese chicken rice for instance is everywhere in Singapore,but you won't find it in a Chinese city"

Well you will, but in a Singaporean restaurant! I used to live opposite this one for example:
www.cityweekend.com.cn/…/…

AnonymousAugust 3rd 2012.

China has more than one cuisine, each school of cooking can be authentic and its perfectly sensible to say so. how many hot pot recipies are there? variations? but hot pot is still authentic lancashire cuisine

Hero
Swiss JamesAugust 3rd 2012.

Here's a bit of backup that the chefs are cooking two different styles- check out the "Customer type" on the top right.

myblogshame.com/…/chinese-food-order-form.jpg…

Took a lot of bad chinese and pleading to get them to serve us that way....

(full description of what happened here http://myblogshame.com/wordpress/blog/2010/10/aha/)

pollolocoAugust 3rd 2012.

Just been to Tai Pan for a spot of lunch...decided to try their Szechuan menu for a change from usual dim sum....big mistake....utter shite!!!

VickyAugust 3rd 2012.

Red Chilli on Portland Street have an authentic menu that they are very happy to advise you on and are very friendly. I recommend the tempura soft shell crab, salt and pepper squid, cod with minced pork in black bean sauce and a big plate of dumplings..lovely.

Jemma FieldingAugust 7th 2012.

This is why i only ever go to red chilli!

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