It was the kind of place where you can order by pointing to the photographs on the wall or by pointing to the numbers on the menu. The photographs show steaming bowls of broth with noodles or dumplings; steamed white fish fillets on huge plates of rice; delicate spring rolls on crisp lettuce beds; roast duck with rice; grilled eel, pork ribs, prawns in chilli and garlic, fried stuffed tofu. Some of the photos are fading but you can still see what they are.
It was also the kind of place where the tables and chairs are functional but comfortable, there are jars of chilli, vinegar and soy sauce on each table and, on a cold day, the windows get all steamed up.
It was a cold day and the clouds hung low and black which meant it would be raining soon. We pushed open the door and went inside out of the weather and sat on the functional but comfortable chairs. An old man in a corner was reading a newspaper over a plate of steamed chicken on rice and, over near the window, a family group. The grandmother was feeding soup to a child while its parents ate their noodles hungrily, as if they'd been too busy to eat for a week.
We ordered by the numbers and just looked at the photos on the wall for appetite appeal. Coming out of the kitchen were all the usual theatrical noises off - the chop-chop-chop of cleaver on block and the explosive sizzling of fluids hitting hot woks, a soundtrack to the garlic-laden bursts of aroma that surfed out of the kitchen and hit your nose like an unexpected left hook.
After a while our lunch came out. There was a huge bowl in which floated so many fat dumplings that they looked like boats in a crowded harbour after a storm. The dumplings rode on a sea of steaming broth and they were glistening and translucent. Below sea level there were enough noodles to reach from here to Ballarat if you laid them end to end, which would be difficult, because they are slippery. The dumplings were stuffed with spinach and prawn and they were delicious.
Then there was a large plate of Chinese broccoli, the full stalk with crunchy stem and wilted leaf, quickly steamed and coated in oyster sauce, fragrant and delicious, a perfection of simple brilliance.
Last, to contrast the heat of the soup and the simplicity of the broccoli, there was a cold salad of very finely shredded meat infused with delicate but complex eastern flavours and just a flush of chilli. This dish was listed under the appetiser heading but the serving was almost as large as some main courses I've eaten. I would love to do this at home and serve it to unsuspecting guests because they would love it and they would ask me what the meat was and I would say: Tripe and then they would scream.
Because you wouldn't know it was tripe. It was just a delicious melange of tasty strands and flavours. (I've eaten tripe in Vietnamese pho in which it was difficult to distinguish between the fine strands of the white meat and the actual noodles. So I say to tripe avoiders: Eat your Tripe. You may not even notice it and then you might become a Tripe Convert.)
We finished our meals and watched the windows steaming up and then we drank the place out of tea and I paid the bill: $16.10. (That is not a printing error, or whatever the equivalent error is in blogwriting. By contrast, I paid more than $150 for a meal at Mask of China a couple of weeks ago, the difference being at Mask of China there's about 85 waiters to every customer. They just about eat your meal for you. That's not a criticism, it's just different, and it suits people who like being fawned on, mainly power-laughing executives trying to impress other executives.)
But here, there's only one waiting person and she brings out the tea and talks to the customers and admires their babies and then clears away the plates as well. Come to think of it, I didn't actually see her when the noises off were happening so she might even have been the chef as well.
Outside, the rain was coming down in sheets and it was already as dark as it usually is about six o'clock at this time of year but it was only half past two in the afternoon.
Shanghai City, High Street, Preston. Near the market.