Here’s what might happen when you walk into Islamabad’s curious new food joint on Hilal Road, F-11.
You’ll find a grand total of two tables bathed in yellow light, in a space enclosed within quirky green, neo-oriental wallpaper. Both of these tables are occupied by Chinese patrons.
One of the parties may immediately vacate their seats on seeing you, and offer you their table. You realise that these are the owners and operators of this proud family business.
Seated at the table, which is neither lavish nor comfortable, you may ask to see a menu. There is no menu. The Chinese owner/chef/waiter, in a faded green tank top may struggle to explain this to you, or may be assisted by his Urdu-speaking Pakistani friend.
You’ll learn that this restaurant serves just one dish, which is also the name of the restaurant: Hong Du Noodles.
The owner/chef/waiter is the friendliest of people from Lanzhou, China. His lack of fluency in English and Urdu will not keep him from being chatty. He appears eager to share with you details of his traditional cuisine.
You’ll be served traditional green tea in not cups but China bowls, and you’ll love the aroma; what a delightful way to prepare the gut for the one-dish feast that’s headed your way.
Thankfully, the culinary mastery behind this feast will be on full display in front of you, as you’ll be able to see right into the kitchen through a glass separator. Put your mind at ease. There’s nothing remotely related to a donkey in this pristine kitchen.
As a young family restaurant that is still experimenting with its menu and business model, you may be invited from time to time to try out a new item. While your noodle soup is being prepared in the kitchen by another Chinese friend or family member, your host might encourage you to try some of the salad at the kitchen counter. His excitement is palpable, as he’s not just selling you a product; he’s inviting you to his own family table to sample a lovingly-prepared dish in which he takes genuine pride.
The salad made from spaghettified tofu, spicy peanuts, cucumber and papaya, may or may not be to your liking. But for some reason, you’ll feel privileged simply for being allowed to experience this novelty.
Then the beef noodles arrive, with a pair of chopsticks. You wouldn’t dare embarrass yourself by asking for a fork. If you lack enough motivation to start learning how to use chopsticks, remind yourself that China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is coming. Your host will be happy to assist you in wrapping your fingers around these utensils.
The hearty bowl of Hong Du Noodles is a sight to behold. For a meal that costs less than Rs500 per head, you notice that your hosts aren’t being stingy with the meat. Large slices of well-cooked beef float inside a mouth-watering bowl of soupy noodles. Depending on your chopstick skills, this bowl may take somewhere between 15 to 60 minutes to clear, but you’re unlikely to leave the table feeling unsatisfied with this treat.
As you exit the restaurant with a full stomach, and a wallet nearly as heavy as it was when you came in, you realise that you have not just discovered a great authentic Chinese restaurant; you have also learned to hate every other pretentious, hoity-toity restaurant in Islamabad that’s been ripping you off for the last three years.
Is this what good food is supposed to look and taste like? Is this really all it takes?
Where are the gimmicks? Where’s the cheap-looking but expensive desi artwork? Where are the exploding chocolate cakes? Where is all the pretence and showmanship that unhinged capitalism has trained us to value?
Hong Du Noodle’s greatest strength is its unimposing and intimate atmosphere that makes you feel like a guest in the home of a friendly Chinese family. It’s a restaurant so visibly disinterested in chasing Islamabad’s elitist food trends that is stands out through the sheer force of its simplicity.
Finally, a restaurant in Islamabad that this Rawalpindi-based critic is more than pleased to recommend.