FAMOUS restaurants are famous because their kitchen is fired up with celebrated chefs. Restaurant-goers frequent them, and food critics praise them. They get to be awarded by highly prestigious and credible award-giving bodies like the S. Pellegrino, Santé and James Beard. Restaurants of these stature do not know the word ‘walk-ins’ in their vocabulary. Go ahead and try to inquire and most likely, the closest available date they can give you is in the next 6 months (if you’re lucky) to 1 year (did I hear you say ‘ridiculous’?). And most likely, too, they will advise you to make a reservation a year in advance of your desired date. And most likely again, they will ask from you a written request sent by fax or email (with your contact number) the way reservations are usually made (at least with them).
But wait, we are not going to talk about any of those restaurants. Not this time.
Right now, let’s put the spotlight on a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in an underground parking space of Madrid’s Plaza de España. Yes, you’re reading it right. Hole-in-the-Wall. Underground. Parking Space.
When my husband and I were in Madrid, my sister-in-law Rochelle had been raving about it for weeks. She said this restaurant was not to be missed (and by the way she said it, she seemed determined not to let us leave the country without trying this one out). We were warned though not to expect anything except a long queue of people waiting to be seated and delicious Chinese food.
To get to the restaurant, we had to access the stairs to the underground parking garage of Plaza de España (warning: not equipped with handicap ramps). The hallway was well-lit and clean. Immediately I noticed the “Cafeteria” sign with a red arrow pointing to the door. Fortunately I saw no one standing in line but that did not mean we could easily get a table. The hostess greeted us at the door and handed us a one-page 8” x 11” plastic-laminated menu card and asked us to wait for the next available table. As soon as I turned around, about 15 to 20 people flocked the end of our line.
Fifteen agonizing minutes later, we were ushered in to a table against the wall. There were only 10 tables inside yet the place was totally cramp. We literally tiptoed our way to avoid hitting other people with our bags. The server took our orders straightaway. No time to ponder and second guess. That was the reason we were handed the menu while waiting in line. About 5 minutes and 10 blinks later, we got our noodles (soup and stir-fried), steamed buns and dumplings piping hot. The soup noodle was very tasty. I particularly liked the fresh noodles that they used. The steamed potstickers were very moist and came with a dipping sauce that enhanced the flavors of the dumplings. The steamed buns’ pork filling was so generous and the buns, although not really white, were fluffy and mildly sweet. Our check totaled a little over €20. That’s an average of €3 per person (we were 5 ½ adults)! Where on earth can you find a dinner like that?
This restaurant may not have an award-winning chef, it may not get the privilege of being published in a magazine or newspaper, but its food certainly has restaurant-goers talking. Never mind the substandard location, never mind the pathetic décor (or the lack of it), never mind the haphazard service, oh, never mind that it falls short of what is expected of a restaurant.
Let’s give them credit for the fast service, quick turnover of tables, incredibly cheap price, and heavenly delicious food. Plus, no reservation required. And let us not forget how good their chefs are. They definitely deserve to get all the credit.
This unassuming restaurant’s objective is mainly to feed its clients with authentic, delicious and inexpensive Chinese food sans the drumroll, whimsical attention and drama.
Note: In case you’re wondering, the name of the restaurant is not “Cafeteria” as I thought it was. While the signage is written in Chinese character, it is pronounced Jia Xiang Xiao Chi in Latin alphabet. But for me, I’ll just call it “The Underground Restaurant.”