By Duncan Gordon
After eventually finding the entrance to Susu, hidden at the very end of a tiny alley that turns off a hutong, you would be forgiven thinking you had got the wrong address. “Is this the right place?” many customers must have thought. There is no sign to to indicate the entrance is that of a raved about Vietnamese restaurant. The red doorway on grey brick wall looks exactly the same as all the other entrances to courtyard homes in the narrow little lane.
Susu’s Chinese manager Sonny Sun explains the secluded location. “The owner, Jonathan, is American. In the US there is a lot of Vietnamese food. But he wanted to make this place more homely than other Vietnamese restaurants and give it a unique Beijing style.”
There are not many more homely and typically Beijing locations than this hidden hutong. After tentatively opening the door to Susu, I entered another world. The design is modern but cosy, all wooden tables and white painted walls. The dining area stretches along two sides of a traditional Beijing siheyuan, a four-sided courtyard. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows allowed the early evening light to add to the otherwise dim but warmly lit room. Diners can look out onto the well-kept courtyard, which serves as an outdoor dining area, tables positioned around a Chinese toon tree. A staircase in the corner leads to a rooftop dining area. It’s not quite warm enough for that yet, we’ll have to wait until spring really gets going.
Despite being regarded as one of the top Southeast Asian restaurants in Beijing, the atmosphere is very relaxed. Sun says that this is the kind of environment that Jonathan and his wife, who is Chinese, hoped to create. There are no table cloths to be found and the service is attentive but definitely not overbearing.
“They just wanted a laid-back, hutong style restaurant that serves delicious Vietnamese food.”
They have certainly managed to achieve those goals. We shared starters of fried banana prawn rolls – sweet and savoury, crunchy and soft all at the same time – as well as a seared salmon and cucumber salad. Both starters were really fresh, the rolls were not greasy and the salad was not drowning in dressing. The salmon gave it enough flavour on its own. For the main I went for a Vietnamese classic – Pho. The slow-cooked noodle soup was really flavoursome, crisp and refreshing. The sliced beef and pork makes it look similar to Chinese beef noodles but the soup itself was unmistakably Vietnamese.
Sun says that is a key difference between Chinese and Vietnamese food, “I think Vietnamese food is more healthy and less oily than our food,” he says. That lack of oil and lightness was noticeable after the meal. I felt full but not overly so. The same can’t always be said after a Chinese meal of similar proportions.
Susu relies on four Vietnamese chefs to provide the know-how and skill to produce their great dishes. The best way to enjoy food from anywhere is by enjoying it prepared by locals. People who have grown up eating these dishes and will put their heart into making them are the best cooks. The head chef came out to the dining area to ask some customers how they were enjoying the food and discuss his dishes with them. Many of the ingredients themselves, such as meat and most vegetables can be bought locally in Beijing but Sun says the special ingredients that are unique to Vietnamese cuisine are imported from there.
This restaurant in the heart of Beijing, which opened in 2011, is one of a number of Vietnamese restaurants in the capital. Sun believes that Chinese people are warming to Vietnamese food more and more: “Thai food was the first Southeast Asian cuisine to gain popularity in Beijing. Now Vietnamese food is heading the same way, through people telling their friends to give it a try.”
Susu was busy for the duration of our meal and if Sun is right about China’s growing appetite for Vietnamese food, it should continue to attract customers. Perhaps we will see more Vietnamese restaurants spring up around the capital, and after that, which Southeast Asian cuisine will be next in line to find a home in China?