Egg Fu Jew

Three alternatives for a Chinese Christmas.

Growing up, there were the kids who celebrated Christmas and the kids who celebrated
Hanukkah – and the lucky ducks who did both. For the temple-going crowd, Christmas
generally means one thing: Chinese food. While the goyim open Santa’s presents
and celebrate the baby Jesus, Jewish families around the world go out for Chinese.

If you’re an expat celebrating Christmas in Prague this year, consider making
yourself an honorary member of the tribe for a day. When the entire Czech nation
goes to Grandma’s and pretends to enjoy fried carp (I’ve yet to meet a Czech
who actually likes the traditional Christmas dish), get a group of likeminded
lonely foreigners together and bring on a wholesome winter buffet of fried rice,
wonton soup, egg foo yung and the MSG-laden works.

A few words about Činské jidlo: As with other Czech hybrid cuisines such as
Czech-Mex, it’s not quite the same as what you’ll find in Western Europe or
North America. Czech Chinese is a lowbrow and greasy commodity; hence its bad
reputation with the expat crowd. Understand that the natives approach things
differently than those of us who hail from further West. Here, Chinese is not
considered food for gourmands; it’s simply a low-cost, comparatively healthy
alternative to everyday pub fare. (Remember, it’s all relative.)

Prague probably has more than one-hundred Chinese restaurants, many of them
assumed to be fronts for money laundering. Long-time Prague residents, Czech
or foreign, have their favorites. Most of them are outside the center proper.
The following is a selection – by no means exhaustive – of Sino-Czech establishments
that stand above the crowd.

One thing: If you’re planning on doing a Chinese Christmas, call ahead. Many
of the places we visited planned to close their doors on the 24th and 25th.
Others said they still hadn’t made up their minds, and seemed open to persuasion
by the idea of a crowd of free-spending foreigners.

If you’re lucky, you might even find yourself serenaded, like young Peter Billingsley
in the classic yuletide film A Christmas Story, with a chorus of “Tra-ra-ra-ra-ra,

Čajovna Lotos

Havelská 9, P1

Tel. 221 111 811

Open daily 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.

Talk about a diamond in the rough. Lotos is hidden downstairs from a neglected
pasá? off the Havelská fruit and vegetable market, and few local foodies are
even aware of its existence. The atmosphere is that of a humble neighborhood
booze and grub joint, but don’t let the modest surroundings fool you. This is
not your father’s Chinese restaurant: It’s an authentic home-style kitchen,
and you’ll find items here that genuinely pique the palate, like the shredded
kelp, served cold and embellished with sesame seeds, raw garlic, and bits of
hot pepper. Or try the pickled pigs’ ear shreds in piquant oil, and let us know
how it all goes down.

Meat and vegetable dumplings are surprisingly light, although it’s best to order
bok choy or something from the extensive and dirt-cheap cabbage and vegetable
menu to cut the oil of heavier dishes, such as the fish-flavored eggplant in
ginger sauce. Or sample one of the excellent bowls of noodles steeped in spicy
broth. In the miserable depths of the Prague flu season, here’s a place that’ll
really clean the pipes.

A lively crowd is often found drinking beer and watching kung-fu videos in the
evening. Come here with a group and order a spate of smaller dishes to share.
With main courses topping out at 160 Kč, it’s nothing less than a steal, and
you’ll have plenty of leftovers for much-needed nourishment in the run-up to
New Year’s.

Be warned, though: Availability of menu items is spotty. If the staff tells
you you’ve ordered the wrong thing, just go with the flow. They probably know
what they’re doing.

As of press date, the owners of Lotos still hadn’t decided if they would remain
open Christmas Eve and Day. Call and convince them you’ll be most gracious guests.

Huang He

Vrovická 1, 10

Tel. 271 746 651

Open daily 11 a.m.-11 p.m.

Frequented by Asian diplomats and business people, Letna’s Hong Kong is one
of Prague’s more posh Chinese restaurants – and according to some, bar-none
the best. The name is an irony, since the focus is on food from northern China,
not Canton, with a smattering of Korean and Japanese thrown in for good measure.
The décor is lavish, with etched mirrors and soothing Oriental music, but prices
are only a smidgen higher than average. A nine-course meal for five people costs
1,488 Kč.

For a quasi-vegetarian like myself, Hong Kong is heavy on the meat, with rabbit
and lamb specialties and a Peking duck for two or three for 899 Kč, and offers
few vegetable-based dishes. To be fair, the mixed vegetables are exactly what
you’d find at a good Chinese restaurant in points West, and probably Shanghai
as well. Service is quick and solicitous, albeit curt.

I asked my friend Peter Magurean – one-time trade representative of the Hong
Kong government and founder of the Czech-Chinese Chamber of Commerce – his recommendation
for best Chinese food in Prague. Magurean lived and worked in Asia for 25 years
and has strong opinions about Chinese restaurants here.

“Hong Kong is head and shoulders above most other [Chinese] restaurants,” he
told me. “There are some that come close, but they have a haughty or arrogant
approach to service, or the food is inconsistent. I have never had a bad dish
at the Hong Kong in ten years.”

Unfortunately, Hong Kong will be closed Christmas Eve, but they say they’ll
be open again on the 25th.

Hong Kong

Letenské náměstí 5, P7

Tel. 233 376 209

Open daily 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-11 p.m.

Down south in Vrovice (trams 6, 7 and 24) sits Huang He, one of Prague’s more
respected venues for Chinese. Reservations are essential: A recent Friday night
found its coffin-shaped dining hall packed wall to wall. Amuse yourself with
the menu mistranslations, some of them bordering on priceless, such as “baked
chicken aileron.” (Aileron is an aviation term for the metal flap on the wing
of an aircraft, used for banking in turns.)

Huang He’s menu offerings come recommended, with many a liberal lacing of ginger,
as in the lightly fried Hunan chicken (with ginger and leek) or octopus Zha-Chi
(with ginger and Chinese vegetables). Also try the heaping desert of fried bananas
and ice cream. It scores well on value for money, with almost every dish under
200 Kč, and a single serving of fried rice generous enough for two.

But where Huang He flops, it flops hard: Service and atmosphere. Come here with
a large group, not a pair or threesome, as the mood is that of a beer hall,
and the staff is likely to shove smaller groups into a corner and ignore them.
And then there’s the irksome gnat infestation.

They’ll be open on Christmas Day, and they were at least open to the idea of
serving on Christmas Eve – provided you’ve got a crowd. Call and make your case.

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