Remember the opening of Bladerunner: those moody shots of street-food shacks dishing out dumplings and noodles amidst the rain-drenched, post-industrial squalor that give the film its essential neo-noir quality? Zhonghua Traditional Snacks, located not in a future Los Angeles or Hong Kong but here and now in Cambridge (no noir films set here to my knowledge), exudes that same decaying, urban, fast food spirit. You enter, sit down, order soup, dumplings or buns - there's no rice or sweet-and-sour anything - slap on the homemade chilli oil, and chow down before moving on. The Guardian afforded it great critical acclaim only a couple of months after its opening last summer, and it is becoming something of a cult hit among those in the know.
Homestyle cooking is Zhonghua's mission: comfort food packed with flavours and memories. The delightful owner points out the Chinese etchings on the wall depicting a typical Chinese take-away, soya beans being ground by a traditional stone, steaming cauldrons and yards of handmade noodles. This, she says, is the food they aim to reproduce: hand-made dumplings laced with herbs, pillowy char sui buns with an almost brioche flavour, and home-made silken tofu (yes, really), a dish of delicate, cloud-like curds topped with an intense fungi sauce.
It's remarkable value and is evidently a popular destination for young Chinese students who come in large gatherings and surround themselves with piles of steaming dumplings while slurping hot noodles from soup bowls.
We manage a final steamed bun filled with a sweet sesame and peanut filling (leaving the prawn noodles, chilli chicken and hot cucumber salad for the future) and walk out into the dark, damp, neon-reflecting mean streets of Cambridge.