Sunday, 20/08/2023 10:30

Sichuan in the city: welcome to flavour town

Easy to miss: This hidden gem is unassuming from the outside. VNS Photos Alex Reeves

Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất Đông Bắc [First-Class Northeastern Dumplings] is more than your average street side eatery. If there was ever proof that looks can be deceiving, this cacophony of flavours available on plastic tables and chairs is it. 

By Alex Reeves 


“How much can I pay you not to write it?” asks Emily, a fellow diner and partner of the equally concerned Javier - owner of a Tây Hồ-based restaurant - who poses me this very question as we get chatting across tables at Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất located in Ba Đình District of Hà Nội. 

Such is the popularity and love for this unassuming foray into the world of Chinese cuisine that regulars would very much prefer the secret wasn’t out. So, for those reading today, mum’s the word: Only tell your friends if they’re as addicted to new and exciting flavour combinations as you are.

You could be forgiven, even as a veteran expatriate here in Hà Nội, of having driven or wandered past Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất a dozen times without having your curiosity get the better of you. Certainly, I only discovered the place off the back of a singular and widely ignored Facebook comment back in 2017. 

Nestled between bia hơi with the same blue plastic tables and chairs we’ve all come to associate with Hà Nội’s signature [draught] beer of the people, the restaurant could be (and often is) all too easily missed. Unless you’ve already been told about it or you genuinely threw a dart at the map, you would never know it existed at all. 

If you have until this point missed the place, then you’ve also been missing out. If (as many before you) you’ve occasionally tired of Việt Nam’s neverending (yet no less delicious) variations of broth and bún [fresh rice vermicelli] - with the same classic accompaniments of lime, chilli, and pickled garlic - this could well be your remedy. 

It is a culinary kickstart to the gastronomic engine which motivates me to eat out, invite friends, and drive more than a kilometre or two for my dinner. Even after the hardest day's work, an invitation here is a welcome one indeed. The only problem? Spacing out my visits thoroughly enough to avoid eating through the menu for my third time. 

Authenticity really is the key: from the menu - of which an English version only became available in recent years - to the tall, cold bottles of Liquan (a light Chinese domestic beer), the place is almost uniquely Chinese in a city of many halfway houses, dumpling spots, and faux Sichuan ventures.

You’re far more likely to knock elbows with a Chinese expatriate hungry for the taste of home than anyone speaking English - or even Vietnamese for that matter. The only people to whom this place is seemingly not a secret is Hà Nội’s Chinese community: Families and groups of friends can be overheard chatting away in Mandarin, adding to the feeling that you could actually be sitting in Chengdu or Guangzhou.

Wok and Roll: All smiles in the kitchen at Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất Đông Bắc.

While the name may lead us to believe this is just another dumpling (sủi cảo) house, we couldn’t be further from the truth. The menu is the perfect length, extensive enough to cater for many tastes and invite future visits, but not so overwhelming as to raise a red flag about the potential care or quality put into each dish.

Visiting with a handful of friends - or, at the very least, a date - best provides the opportunity to get as many dishes on the table as your appetites can handle. During this most recent visit, we started with a combination of steamed pork and scallion dumplings and their fried shrimp and zucchini equivalent. The contrast of textures and distinct difference in flavour between both plates - which can’t always be said of dumplings - was a welcome start.

Next was a medley of dishes, with each chosen by a member of our group. Jasmine tea-infused crunchy chicken, true to its name, was both crunchy and strongly flavoured, whisking your mind further away to a teahouse on the silk road with each bite. The sauces coating both the strips of five-spice pork and braised pig’s ears in fermented soybean had been rendered down to the point they resembled a flavourful glaze. To choose between them? Impossible.

It wouldn’t be a genuine Chinese street food experience without some form of meat on a stick, and this meal was no exception. Pork again, (this time thicker than the five-spice; the skewers were coated in what was only described as “northeastern spices”, cementing my need to visit this corner of China on flavour alone. 

The Sichuan mapo tofu does not disappoint, living up to its reputation with the famed peppercorns of the region providing a strange but welcome numbing sensation for any spice enthusiasts, and perfectly complementing the silky wet chunks of tofu floating around in the iconic red sauce and oil.

Lastly is my top tip: The shredded sour and spicy potato. This is quite literally shredded boiled potato. As simple as this sounds it provides much needed respite from the spice and cleansing of the palate as you move between the abundance of dishes and flavours that keep appearing in front of you. The chilli peppers served with the potato are dangerous: Eat them whole at your own risk.

Feast for five: A succulent Chinese meal.

Starting at VNĐ50,000 (US$2) and not exceeding VNĐ150,000 ($6), everything on the menu felt like excellent value for money and a total bill of seven dishes including beers came in at under VNĐ1,000,000 ($45). It’s fair to say that Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất is a different yet very affordable night.

The origins of the restaurant can be traced back to the northeastern province of Heilongjiang, China, where the owner moved from to live and work in Hà Nội. Here he saw the opportunity to share the flavours of his ancestry with his new home. First opening their doors in 2006, the almost twenty years of service has given them a loyal customer base, and they recently expanded to a second location in Hà Đông District.

The very real worry with writing about restaurants is that the little roadside noodle spot you love will be met with a host of new customers that alters the feeling of the place. If, heaven forbid, your article was popular enough, the restaurant might even go as far as to change things! However, for the readers of Việt Nam News, this one really is just too good not to share.

So, for fellow adventurers of the palate - or simply those with a longing for the taste of China after a difficult few years accessing our northern neighbour - this will not disappoint. Pull up a blue plastic chair. Take in the aroma of spices floating in the air, the chattering of Mandarin, the clashing of wok and roll, and enjoy. VNS


Name: Sủi Cảo Đệ Nhất Đông Bắc

Address: 102/G22 P. Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, Khu tập thể Bắc Thành Công, Ba Đình Dist

Tel: 024 3 773 9020

Price: VNĐ1million or US$43 (for five, including seven dishes and two rounds of beers)

Dining companions: Date night, family and friends, fellow foodies.

Top tip: Get the sweet and spicy shredded potato to cleanse your palate between dishes (but watch out for those chilis!)

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