Chef Pon’s Asian Kitchen is central to the story of Asian food at the Cape. More pertinently, its owner Larry Chung sits at the heart of the local Asian industry like a smiling, genial ringmaster, ever watchful of standards and his customers’ happiness.
Chung is Hong Kong Chinese, although he is also very much a modern Londoner thanks to his many years in the British capital from his arrival there as a very young man in the early Seventies to the day he pitched up in Cape Town to bring his expertise as a London Thai restaurateur to the Mother City.
He began with Sukhothai, just behind the Mount Nelson Hotel in Gardens, which he later moved to 50 Orange Street, which is home now to Societi Bistro. Much earlier, he had imported a young chef from Bangkok, always known to all only as Pon, who ran his kitchen and became a key part of Sukhothai’s success. When the time came to move on from Sukhothai, we next encountered them at the helm of a restaurant in Pon’s name, Chef Pon’s Asian Kitchen, which built a large and loyal local customer base which remains all these years later.
Along the way, Pon and Chung parted ways, Pon opening his own Thai restaurant and sushi bar, Sawaddee, just down the road. The men remain friends, and Pon’s name is still – perhaps oddly – on Chung’s restaurant. Even after a revamp which recently became necessary very suddenly because, as Chung says quite frankly, the name is a known local brand now and it would be stupid to change it.
A fire broke out in the kitchen of Chef Pon’s earlier this year, on a Friday night and with a full house. A scary evacuation was followed by a refurbishment from floor to ceiling, and Chef Pon’s has emerged from the chrysalis a sleek, modern version of what it used to be, without losing its friendly, warm ambience.
The kitchen has been moved to the rear, out of sight, which gets rid of the one factor that was always a small problem at the old Chef Pon’s, an ambient smokiness. In the place of the old open-plan kitchen is a striking bar. A second archway has been built to the adjacent smoking dining room. Where the enormous fish tank was – Chung was able to save the fish from the fire – is a wall with a gorgeous painting of a red kimono as a centrepiece. This red is picked up in the new ceiling lights Chung has installed. Like a contemporary take on a traditional Chinese lantern, they hang down in tassles of bold red and are an immediate talking point.
In the windows are latticework wooden decorations made locally, and the windows themselves have been sandblasted, so that when a 4×4 pulls onto the pavement outside, facing your table – something any regular at Chef Pon’s will recognise – you will no longer notice.
That’s all great, but here are two of the best things about the new Chef Pon’s: the menu is largely unchanged, with only a handful of extra dishes added. And the prices, amazingly, have been left as before. This must be a first. Most restaurateurs would grab any opportunity to raise prices, but not Larry Chung. He has always believed in taking a lower profit and keeping more people happy
On the (redesigned) menu you’ll find the usual range of Asian tapas, soups, salads, poultry, beef, lamb, vegetarian and seafood, but there’s also a new section – Szechuan style dishes. And that’s just great, because Szechuan is the most delightfully spicy of Chinese cuisines, packed with flavour and interest. There are just six Szechuan choices, of which we tried two – the orange beef (with orange zest, cinnamon, SiChuan pepper, sesame seeds), and the spicy chicken (with peanuts, goji berry, green beans, Chinese mushroom and SiChuan spicy sauce).
Both dishes, especially the orange beef, immediately became menu favourites for us – others on earlier visits often including the Mandarin duck (with ‘secret Chinese” herbs), Thai jungle duck curry (when we’re feeling brave, it’s insanely hot), sizzling Mongolian lamb, and Imperial duck (with Chinese mushrooms, cashew and lychee).
There’s also a new duck dish – Angry Duck, a classic with mushrooms, garlic and ginger.
As well as the usual Asian tapas to start with – chicken or beef satay, Vietnamese spring rolls, deep-fried chicken in seaweed (a favourite), deep-fried Thai sausage (which we ordered, as good as ever), and calamari or prawn tempura, there’s also dim sum and deep-fried wontons. Starter prices range from R30 to R35, with the option of a platter of Asian mixed starters for two at R64.
There’s plenty at Pon’s, too, for the fishy palate, from stir-fried prawns with coconut sauce to prawns with garlic and black pepper (another favourite) and ‘sizzling mixed seafood”.
As for those friendly prices, the Szechuan orange beef and spicy chicken both cost R68, duck dishes R87, all other beef dishes R66, seafood from R66 to R80. There are vegetarian choices too, and rice and noodles are ordered separately.
The menu as ever sports a chilli heat code, one to three chillies denoting the strength of the spicing. In its resurrected state, with its gorgeous new looks, Chef Pon’s Asian Kitchen is a searing hot three-chilli winner.
Chef Pons Asian Kitchen
12 Mill Steet, Gardens, Cape Town
021 465 5846