Restaurant review: Monk’s Chinese
By Daisy Jones, 2 July 2019
There are so many reasons to love Chinese take-aways. Firstly, egg noodles – you could start and end there – but also sticky, salty sauce; soft rice with egg and peas; bubbly batter; and strips of meat and veg as tender as each other.
It’s next-level comfort food. Chinese take-aways are ideally suited to the couch. It’s shovelling with chopsticks from that petal-topped box – praise the heavens: a no-condiment situation! – and not just on the couch but on the couch, under a blanket with a hot water bottle on your lap and a cat on top of that.
There’s a strong link between TV and Chinese take-aways. Eating chop suey in front of the TV: obvious, but also Chinese take-aways on TV. There’s Cliff Barnes in Dallas, tearing his hair out over JR Ewing’s latest side swipe, a large whisky in his hand and empty Chinese take-away boxes on the coffee table.
Romantic comedy protagonists – usually male – consume vast quantities of Chinese take-aways as they prepare for the final, heartfelt girl-getting push. Frankly, a loft apartment in Manhattan looks unfurnished without Chinese take-away boxes between the giant leather couch and the giant flat-screen. That scene when the female Hollywood star is to be seen grabbing Chinese take-aways at the door in her dressing gown indicates that she’s just not only fallen off the wagon but the wagon has made it to the next town, a desert trip of several days.
Sometimes, restaurant food is good because it comes at the right moment. It’s less about art and authenticity and more about mood and timing. For me, a Chinese take-away fulfils the desire to indulge slothfulness, greed and a kind of movie-friendly mini-crisis – stormy weather, a minor rejection and lack of sleep, for instance.
Monk’s Chinese is interesting in that it delivers on all the comforting nostalgia – spring rolls, chow mein and even fortune cookies feature on the menu. However, it’s an updated service in that it offers greater menu choice for hipsters – hot sour soup, steamed dumplings and The Creamery salted caramel ice cream are available – along with promises that the eggs and meat are free range, salt or sugar may be omitted from dishes, and so on. Plus, there are numerous ways to order without getting off the couch. These include WhatsApp and online ordering. The packaging has a reassuring recycled look and the logo could be an emoji or a graffiti tag.
To be perfectly honest, when I’m pretending to be Jennifer Aniston on the horns of a dilemma I’m not terribly concerned about tech or trendy menu choices. One never is, when the fantasy of fast food takes hold. However, one is deeply thankful post-order, when the food arrives promptly and doesn’t leave you bloated, thirsty and high on MSG.
So how is the food? Decent ingredients don’t guarantee a good meal. Obviously, as with all take-aways, the eating experience depends on how long the sealed boxes have sat around in the kitchen or in the back of the delivery person’s car. The battered fish in chilli didn’t travel well. The sugary steam wet the batter and turned the whole dish into a fish-studded pudding.
The chicken egg-fried rice seems to benefit from gentle steaming. Moist, salty and deeply comforting, this is nursery food that would make Mary Poppins drift up into the atmosphere under her talking umbrella.
The crispy ginger chicken and crispy beef are show-stoppers. Here are boxes generously stuffed with intensely crispy, intensely flavoured protein crunch strips. There is enough fresh flavour of ginger, garlic, meat and sesame to balance the more-ish flavours of salt, oil and white flour.
The Vegetable Chow Mein was disappointing. I adore noodle dishes and this one was a little starchy. It benefitted from lashings of soy sauce. It’s the kind of mild, carb-heavy dish that is better suited to a sunny afternoon of binge-watching, with a cold bottle of Coke nearby, than it is to a rainy night with a glass of wine.
Udon noodles are fatter and flatter than my beloved, spaghetti-type egg noodles. Of the chicken and beef udon noodle boxes, I preferred the beef. The chicken box comes with pickled ginger, which is nice if you have a passionate relationship with sushi. It also contains a range of virtue-signalling vegetables: red peppers, green beans, onions, bean sprouts, carrots and fresh ginger. On the whole, I found that the dish erred on the gloopy side. Obviously, with Chinese take-aways, there is a certain amount of gloop that should not only be tolerated but embraced. But this dish came with too much cold, flavoured gel at the bottom of the box for me. The chilli beef udon box is darker, hotter and better.
I have ordered from Monk’s many times and have no hesitation in recommending both the chicken and beef with peanuts and dried chilli. These dishes have all the soothing decadence of the crispy chicken and crispy beef, but they’re less oily. The crispy chicken and crispy beef are strong medicines. The peanuts and dried chilli dishes are, by comparison, gentle salves.
The chicken or beef with cashew nuts is delicious but takes you into kiddie food territory.
If you like a vegetable side – and I do – I’d recommend the stir-fried broccoli. The bok choi can be watery and the chilli eggplant is, in my opinion, horrifying. The chunks are large, the texture is alarmingly soft, the sauce is sweet. I couldn’t finish it.
The crispy duck with pancakes and hoisin sauce – listed with sticky ribs and Monk’s kingklip under “Delux Meals” – is a shocker. My pancakes were plastic-y, the duck was as dry as a bone and the hoisin – pale and diluted-tasting – came in the meanest, tiniest plastic tub.
Don’t let the duck put you off. Monk’s is a slick and successful operation that has been attracting rave reviews online since 2012, when it opened. It has kitchens in the southern suburbs and the city. Monk’s in Mowbray has recently started offering sushi take-aways in addition to Chinese food.
Monk’s has pedigree too, one that can be traced back to The Jewel Tavern on the Cape Town docks. Years ago, this restaurant sat alongside the Taiwanese Seaman’s Club where it had a clientele almost exclusively made up of male sailors. The Jewel Tavern moved to Kloof Street for a spell, before all efforts were concentrated on Monk’s Chinese, which only does take-aways, and all by phone or online order.
I ate at The Jewel Tavern more than a decade ago and I remember the spicy, oily crispy beef. I like to think that my preference for Monk’s crispy dishes and the peanut and chilli meals are because these are some of the oldest dishes on the menu – the same dishes enjoyed by the hardest of sailors who, despite their salty pragmatism, understood the universal language of comfort food.
Monk’s Southern Suburbs: 021 200 5773; WhatsApp 076 359 7672
Monk’s City Bowl & Seaboard: 021 424 9162; WhatsApp 079 764-0253
- Daisy Jones has been writing reviews of Cape Town restaurants for ten years. She won The Sunday Times Cookbook of the Year for Starfish in 2014. She was shortlisted for the same prize in 2015 for Real Food, Healthy, Happy Children. Daisy has been a professional writer since 1995, when she started work at The Star newspaper as a court reporter. She is currently completing a novel.