China: A taste of Wai Po Jia

Posted on June 14, 2011

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Wai Po Jia, have you heard of it? No, it’s not a city or province in China so perhaps that’s why you’re scratching your head. It’s actually a restaurant franchise translated as ‘The Grandma’s’ with venues across most of north eastern and central China and it will be clear very soon why it deserves its own post.

I know what you’re thinking…a franchise, how good can it be? Well, it is by far the best franchise food I’ve ever eaten, and would easily compete with more upscale restaurants both in quality and taste. A big call I know, but read on and your eyes shall be opened. And value for money wise, it was outstanding with dishes averaging at the low $20s to $30RMB mark.

Wai Po Jia was a somewhat accidental find in Hangzhou. Strolling down the main dining strip of the city and we were confronted with a massive line outside a little shop front. When I say massive line, I mean there really was a lot of people. I have never seen a crowd like that waiting in front of any Australian restaurant/cafe/bakery or food place. There was well over 50 people loitering around outside waiting for a seat. What the? Granted China’s population is many times the number of ours, but this was just madness!

Just to paint a picture. The shop front was actually rather small, probably only 2-3m wide and 5m deep. It was literally spilling with people. Two staffers work the front desk distributing little tickets for people wanting a table. There were three types of tickets, seating for 2 in group A, seating for 4 in group B and seating for 5-8 in group C. We picked up ticket number A234 and they were only calling up to A154. Yup, there was 80 tables (or 160 people) in front of us, that’s not even counting those waiting for bigger tables! Either this restaurant has to be very big or it has an extremely fast turn over rate.

To appease the hungry hoards desperately wanting a feed, there was a free tea stand and staffers kept refreshing the plates of hot popcorn. Oh a note on the ticketing system, when your table number is up, it will be on a lit display in front of the counter or you could listen to the rather annoying recording of a high pitched child yelling out the equivalent of “A164, Grandma is calling you to eat!” It was cute the first time I heard it, but very quickly became rather tiresome.

It took the third try, and the morning that we were leaving Hangzhou before we succeeded in securing a table at Wai Po Jia. The previous two nights we gave up when hunger pains kicked in after an hour of waiting. Having finally eaten there, I can safely say, it was worth our effort and time.

The venue is huge. From the shop front, we climbed stairs to the third floor to a huge palour. Giddily seated at table A72 we were given a menu list where we were to mark out our orders. The menu selection was large, perhaps not as exhaustive as some Chinese restaurants back in Melbourne, but more than enough to require a good few minutes to mull over. Each small sector was also allocated 2 full colour menu books. Being as busy as they were meant that there was even a wait for the pictorial menu! But we wanted the full experience and waited ever so patiently for Grandma’s food bible.

Again, well worth the wait. The pictures were pure food porn. We was salivating with each page turn and it was becoming increasingly hard to confirm our order. We settled for 5 dishes, which we knew would be too much, but it was too hard to restrain ourselves and in all fairness we had a somewhat warped sense of hunger after a 45 minute wait! But as fate would have it, our fifth dish never arrived because they’d ran out. Ha!

The longan (a tropical fruit with sweet transparent flesh and small round pip in the center covered in thin brown skin) ice was more of a dessert than drink. It was served as a small mountain of shaved flavoured ice. The flavour was true to the fruit, but in all honesty, it was just too much to have with a meal.

First up was the pork barbeque. It was just cooked, still a bit pink on the inside and so very juicy. A little sprinkling of spice powder and I was a very happy girl. The next three dishes also happened to be meaty (of all the luck, our fifth unavailable dish was the veggie one!): a black pepper beef, braised pork belly and steamed soy duck on sticky rice. All the dishes were rather heavy and when we were holding onto our stomachs groaning from too much food, that’s when I seriously doubted our ordering strategy.

BUT in saying that…it was so so worth it. The beef was just cooked, so it was still tender and the soft cooked gooey egg coating on the beef gave it a lovely creamy texture in the mouth.

The pork belly was even better, it was just divine. It was cooked with bits of fish and many spices which gave the sauce such a lovely complex flavour profile. And the pork; slow cooked pork belly, really, need I say more? Definitely winning dish of the day.

The soy duck was quite nice although a bit salty when eaten with the also soy infused sticky rice underneath. It was still tasty, but a bit much for two people to share.

I was rather disappointed that we had no luck with the vegetables order. We actually attempted to order two different things, the first was unavailable, and then the replacement order was forgotten so we just gave up since there was too much food already and we got over the waiting. I know it would appear that we had a mixed experience. The waiting time and the not-so-attentive service was a little annoying. The food though (despite a somewhat strange ordering strategy of pork, beef, pork and duck) really was fantastic, and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat. So if ever in China, this is one franchise not to skip!

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