Sunday, 24/03/2024 10:00

Restaurant keeps the North Korean flame alive

By Alex Reeves


As the Hà Nội food scene potentially severs the last of its culinary ties with its mysterious neighbours, I feel obliged to write an article that never came to pass. Cold noodles, brazenly expensive lager, dancing shows and, strictly, no photography allowed. North Korean restaurants were a visceral simulator for territory that the vast majority of world foodies will never chart. 

Last in town: Koryo is purported to be the last of the North Korean restaurants left in Hà Nội.  Photos courtesy of Alex Reeves

Rewind to 2019, and I’m sitting discussing the variety of rumours swirling around the inventively named ‘Pyongyang’ restaurant, a North Korean-owned and run eatery that has outlets in capital cities all over the world. This isn’t a rare diplomatic lend by the powers that be. North Korea has, or rather ‘had’ a niche contemporary food presence from Amsterdam to Vladivostok. 

Sadly, by the time I got the opportunity to write about Việt Nam’s never-ending food scene for Việt Nam News, the gates of Pyongyang were closed and so were my hopes of a brief glimpse behind the culinary 'iron curtain'. Or so I thought. Step forward; ‘Koryo’. An alive but not-exactly-kicking successor, maintaining our curious neighbours' presence in town. 

Absent of the disarming etiquette that North Korean restaurants are known for, the cutesy demeanour of their small and quite literal bands of staff members, is Koryo.

Instead of a musical performance as part of the service, is a grave and stone-faced set of servers who answer all questions directly, with as little emotion as possible. In some way, shape or form, this feels right, less gimmicky and more dignified than the showgirl-style alternative.

The Must try: Pyeongyang Naengmyeon is the first dish to be recommended and seems to be a staple.

The front of the restaurant, name aside, markets itself as a café with signs indicating coffee and snacks, but inside is anything but. A rudimentary and plain interior with tables designed similarly to more common South Korean style BBQ or hotpot spots, it has scatterings of TV’s playing North Korean state news, adding to the surreal experience. 

Naturally, we asked to be guided through a surprisingly broad menu towards what our North Korean hosts deemed to be the most authentic and typically eaten dishes from the secretive state they call home. The dishes pointed out certainly weren’t what I would order in any of the usual Korean ventures in town, and for that they deserve credit.

The Pyeongyang Naengmyeon is the number one dish to try and if ice-cold noodles are for you, then there’s plenty about it to enjoy. The broth is clearer and lighter than that of their Southern neighbours and notably more peppery. Radish seems to be the underlying flavour of the broth, and the beef included was tender and fresh. At approaching VNĐ500,000 it was a little on the pricey side but, hey, this is North Korea, right? 

A variety of options: Taking the advice of our server gave us access to dishes we’d never heard of before.

Alongside came kimchi-filled dumplings, which were less spicy than usual but had a refreshing effect, almost as though they were less pickled than the kimchi most of us are used to, surrounded by a soft and sticky casing. I would be lying if I knew if this was by design, but everything that made the food and the experience more atypical was appreciated.

Again, the dumplings at VNĐ200,000 and the side kimchi at VNĐ120,000 were a little more than expected but again, North Korea. 

The trend continued when we found our Taedonggang beers rolled in at a less than tepid VNĐ300,000 a bottle, and we were almost scared off by the after-dinner prospect of North Korean cigars and a ‘medicine’ that we were reliably informed was “good for man!” 

The bizarrely enjoyable yet stoic nature of the experience even extended to the in-house feline, who sat and stared judgingly at customers but was more than grateful for a spot of fuss on our way out. 

CHAIRMAN MEOW:The restaurant has a feline friend sitting in silent judgement as you enjoy your meal.

With a little bit of digging online, this restaurant somehow manages to be just as, if not more mysterious, than its origins and is worth an interesting evening of your time. Unfortunately, it now keeps unusual and inconsistent hours and rumour has it, it might even be closed, so calling ahead is strongly advised.  VNS

Koryo Restaurant

Address: 61 Trung Hòa Street, Trung Hòa Ward, Cầu Giấy District, Hà Nội

Tel:  0336 409 415

Price: VNĐ500,000-1 million or US$40 (for 2 to 3 dishes)

Dining companions: The most curious friends you can find.

Top tip: Call ahead, this mysterious spot is currently inconsistent with opening hours.


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