Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

Soul Food is the cooking of the poor American South, the food of slaves, with its roots in Africa and its branches now covering many US regional cuisines. Collard greens, cornbread, gumbo, jambalaya you get the picture. Now when I say Cantonese roast meat is Soul Food I don’t mean it in that respect. What I mean is the other definition; simple food that represents the very heart of your food culture. Food that above all others you keep turning back to because it’s food that you know will satisfy your soul.  三 燒 飯 Triple Roast Rice – a plate of sweet slightly charred char-siu, crispy tender pork belly, a succulent roasted duck leg sitting atop perfectly steamed Jasmine rice. A few greens, a drizzle of sweet gravy, some spiky chilli oil to dip your meat into and a cup of tea – that is the food of my soul. Huh, get down!

Most Cantonese people would never roast their own meat as a) they don’t have ovens and b) it will never be as good as they can buy it. Now I do have an oven and I’ve practised enough that actually yes my roast meat is as nice as they make in Chinatown. But I can only roast one duck at a time so if I want a Triple Roast Rice then I do what every Cantonese person does and visit the specialist roast meat shop to get my fix. For years, I’ve been going to Peach Garden in the little alley behind China Court restaurant. They know me, I know them, their duck is always good, their pork can be temperamental. The place itself is a little cramped and grubby but authentic in that Hong Kong back street way. But I thought it was time to test my loyalty, I was going to be in Chinatown for three lunches in a row. I will ask for a Triple Roast Rice at The Village Café, Peach Garden and New Sum Ye and see who wins my mini Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!

The Village Café, 6 Ladywell walk

First up is The Village Café on the main road next to Malaysian Delight.  Years ago these two units used to be one shop, the only roast meat joint in the whole city, run by the rudest, angriest old Chinese lady you would ever likely to meet. So there’s an attachment to this location, a link to a time before the Arcadian centre opposite was built, when Chinatown consisted of just the Chung Ying restaurant and here. In all three cafés I asked for the triple roast rice with a duck leg and was I pleasantly surprised that they didn’t charge extra for the leg here. You see if you don’t specifically ask for a leg or a breast then you may get a very bony portion of duck. As the legs are the most popular cut, most places will charge extra if you ask for it.  In all three places the duck leg is very good, succulent, tender, slipping off the bone easily. The fat fully rendered, the skin thin and melting. The Char Siu (bbq roast pork) is also good here, the balance of sweet and savoury just right with a proper charred glaze covering the moist meat and unusually a little of the glaze was smeared on the meat after chopping. Siu Yuk (crispy belly pork) was sadly very tired and tough, the crackling not at all crispy. The rice I found to be a little claggy and the Chinese leaf hiding under the meat was but a token gesture.  Not enough of the sweet gravy had been poured over the meat..

Char Siu – 4 (out of 5), Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 3,

Overall 14 (out of 20)    Cost £6.50 (free tea)

Peach Garden, Unit 3 Wrottesley Street

In the grubby little alley behind the China Court building there is a hairdresser and three cafés. It would be the dankest smelliest alley in the whole city if it wasn’t for the perfume of roasting duck and pork that lingers in the air. Peach Garden hang their wares in the window, like in Amsterdam you can see the flesh before you buy it, glistening carcasses of roasted duck and sides of belly pork dripping their juicy goodness onto trays of offal. It is somewhat of an institution as it’s the only place I know where you can order a whole roasted suckling pig for celebrations. In that respect it’s held dear by the Chinese community in Birmingham. I sit near the front and order my usual triple roast and ask for a duck leg which is an extra £1. They chop up the meat neatly and efficiently, lay it on the rice with a generous amount of Chinese leaf. Then shock, horror, they microwave the whole plate. I wonder why they have done this at lunch when the meat should have been freshly roasted, have they always done this? The duck leg survives this treatment the best, it’s still juicy but the crackling on the belly pork is not crispy at all now. I’ve always found the char siu to be poor here and this portion lived up to expectation. Scrappy pieces of over-dyed meat with not much flavour. Nice sauce and the rice was good. They’ve had another bad pork day though.

Char Siu – 2, Siu Yuk – 2.5, Duck – 4, Other – 4,

Overall 12.5    Cost £7.30 (free tea)

New Sum Ye, B105 Arcadian Centre

The New Sum Ye has had another refurbishment, the signage juts out now in parabolic tribute. The interior has been jiggled, there’s a lot more room and the counter position makes more sense. Like Peach Garden, the burnished duck breasts press against the glass luring you inside. I don’t come here often, maybe once every couple of years, I’ve been pretty faithful to Peach Garden. But everytime I walk past I’ve been tempted, the meat looks delectable. It always looks busy which is a good thing as holding meat at these temperatures dries them out. I order the holy trinity, again the duck leg adds £1 to the price of the dish. This is the most generous portion of the three, each meat has been chopped with great skill and care. They’ve been laid at a jaunty angle across the biggest mound of perfectly cooked rice. Draped across the meat are two small heads of pak choy and everything is well dressed with the sweet savoury gravy. The char siu is wonderfully tender with a great sweetly charred exterior, it’s meaty too, they’ve roasted larger strips of pork neck. The duck leg is in top condition and slips down easily. But above all else it’s the Siu Yuk that is the revelation. It’s perfect, the crackling is so thin and crispy, the meat solid but moist. The chilli oil here is different from the other two places. It has a deeper flavour from the dried shrimp. I wolf this dish down.

Char Siu – 4, Siu Yuk – 5, Duck – 4.5, Other – 4.5,

Overall 18    Cost  £7.30 (tea is £1)


So it’s pretty obvious which one wins my BCRMB – New Sum Ye. I’ve been back half a dozen times, the excellent quality is consistent, the place is clean and spacious. The Peach Garden could tempt me back with their special Pi-Pa roast duck if I’m in the mood but after thinking for so many years that it was the best, I have now seen the light – New Sum Ye has saved my soul.

New Sum Ye on Urbanspoon

Peach Garden on Urbanspoon

15 thoughts on “Birmingham Chinatown Roast Meat Battle!”

  1. Barbara I would be delighted to take you there, as long as you don’t mind slumming it! Alas the best chippie in town closed a couple of months ago, we were gutted.

  2. Great post, making me so hungry, but it’s definitely very useful too! A chum has very fond memories of Alex Cafe which used to be in the Arcadian, doing simple dishes like this and also in particular a dish with noodles, some broth and veg in the bottom, and some roast meat placed on top (like a Japanese Ramen but not as huge on the broth front). Is there anywhere like the above three places you’d recommend for that dish?

    1. Yes all three places will do you a big bowl of soupy noodles with whatever roast meat on top or on the side. Ask them to drop some veg in, my wife has this all the time

      1. What in particular would I ask for, or find it under in the menu? Don’t recall seeing something like that in Sum Ye but I think they’ve changed their menu since I was last in. Just wondered if there was a way to guarantee ‘slightly soupy noodles’ rather than stir-fry noodles. Cheers!

        1. We always order off-menu in Cantonese, have you got this and that etc, I don’t think i’ve ever read the menu there! Scan the menu and if in doubt ask for soup noodles, I promise they won’t fry your noodles if you ask for them soupy.

  3. A good read. I’d have to agree with you after today’s visit but they need to sort out their portion control!

    1. Aye, it’s usually the lady doing the chopping. The bloke the other day massacred it and he skanked you! Gave me a lovely duck leg for free though so can’t be all evil. Maybe another example of positive discrimination!?

    1. I was there last night too, did we cross paths?! They’d run out of char siu around 7pm but the duck and crispy belly was still top notch. Hope you enjoyed it.

  4. Hello there,

    I’m Chinese and to be perfectly honest to give peach garden the lowest score is an absolute offence. I tired the Char siu at New Sum Ye which you said was really nice and it was so floury and had been dyed with red powder to give it that colour, there is no aroma as we Chinese always expect from dishes. Can I ask if the meat’s at the other 2 places you had were cold? As it is tradition that the meats are cold as they are roasted in the morning as it is impossible to roast to order, it is usually microwaved because most English people like it hot, all Chinese people always have the cold meat served on the hot rice – this is what it is like in Hong Kong as well. Peach Garden’s standards may have dropped slightly but I do highly disagree that they would get the lowest score out of the 3. The reason why people go to New Sum Ye now is because it’s cheap.
    This is not to offend you in any way, I just wanted to explain some misunderstandings.

    Good day!

    1. Hi thanks for your comments, i am the guest author of this article on Nick’s blog. I think most of the misunderstandings are from you as I think you believe this was written by a ‘Westerner’. Let me make it clear that I am Cantonese and have been eating in these places all my life. I know how to roasts these meats and I know how they should taste. You also misunderstand how these scores work. These are given on the day I ate those dishes, so unless you were sitting next to me eating from my plate then how can you dispute? I have given clear descriptions of what I ate and why I thought they were good or bad. Read my Peach Garden review again, if you as Chinese were served a microwaved plate of roast meat that wasn’t very nice – what score would you give it?

      Of course, the scores only apply to the dishes I ate that day and standards can vary over time. Having eaten at Peach Garden for so long I found that this was the case there. Now it seems regular eaters at New Sum Ye have been bemoaning the quality there. A lot of the blame seems to have been laid on the review by international food critic and all-round good guy Jay Rayner in the Observer. This is very worrying, trusted people have told me that they have had awful triple-roast rice there recently. So I had to carry out an emergency roast meat inspection today at lunchtime. I have to say that it may not be fair to judge it at lunch on a busy Friday because the meats are going to be at their freshest, and they were. The triple roast rice that I had today was unimpeachable. Every component was at their best I couldn’t fault any of it. Now I know a lot of the problems come in the evening so the question is consistency. I think another emergency roast meat inspection is required in the evening! But not this evening, i’m still stuffed.

  5. Forced to try Peach Garden tonight as New Sum Ye – our usual 4 roasted meat haunt was out of meat! – we were pleasantly surprised. Lovely food and plenty of it. Excellent value too. I branched out and tried the aubergine, minced pork with salt fish and rice which was excellent. Well worth a go. Taiwan bubble tea and HK egg tarts to finish off. Thoroughly stuffed.

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