First, find your restaurant. This is my first visit to Perth for about 20 years, and things have definitely changed.
Perth’s Chinatown, like many others around Australia and the world, is marked by concrete lions flanking a Chinese archway. Stepping through this arch in Perth is to be confronted with a warren of narrow shopfronts and a confusion of window displays and signs promising many different varieties of Asian cuisine. Uncle Billy’s is the first on the right (when approached from Roe Street) and early on a rainy Saturday’s winter evening, the joint is clearly jumping.
Two large aquarium tanks full of large snow crabs and crayfish, but otherwise starkly bare of decoration, dominate the window display; glance past the tanks and the interior reveals typical ‘cheap and cheerful Chinese’ decor – plastic chairs, tables covered with plastic table clothes, walls plastered with handwritten specials in both English and Chinese. The menu displayed on a stand by the door confirms this impression, promising about 100 or so different dishes ranging from the ordinary (e.g. special fried rice) to the more exotic such as offal hotpots and pig trotter casseroles, presented in a utilitarian list covering several printed pages slotted into plastic display envelopes. But most importantly, step through the door and it smells right and the patrons already dining are clearly having a lively time.
Fortunately there is a table for two available in a corner, but realistically, the customers are turning over quite quickly and it wouldn’t have been necessary to wait for very long.
Ordering for two in a Chinese restaurant is always a challenge – how to balance flavours and variety in just two or (if we are feeling particularly hungry) three dishes. Today, we choose hot and sour soup, beef hotpot with golden mushrooms and dried ear fungus, and squid with snow peas and lotus root, accompanied by steamed rice.
The hot and sour soup appears first, a bit darker than I expect, but full of flavour and thick with goodies such prawn, bamboo shoots, mushrooms and seaweed - an excellent starter with just the right amount of chilli pep.
The beef hotpot is also excellent - a generous helping of very tender sliced beef in a flavourful sauce with just a hint of star anise, on a bed of fine vermicelli.
The squid, stir fried with snow peas and slices of lotus root, baby corn, carrot and champignons, is also fine, but less of a flavour bomb. Rounded off with steamed rice it makes for an excellent meal for two.
Service was quick and polite, but not exactly refined, and the room is very noisy - pretty much exactly what you would expect on a busy night in such an establishment. As we leave happy, only a bit more than an hour after we first entered, we notice that Uncle Billy’s near neighbours are very quiet, while Uncle Billy continues to pack them in – still no queue at the door; Uncle Billy has opened the upstairs dining area.
Verdict: we liked it a lot.
I would definitely go back again. It might not be ideal for an intimate evening romancing your true love, but for groups of friends looking for good, flavourful food, and plenty of it, Uncle Billy’s is highly recommended.