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Ngõ Nooks: Okachan Shokudo, a Comforting Japanese ‘Cơm Bình Dân’ in Hanoi

If there is a restaurant that is the antithesis of the biting cold of Hanoi, it is Okachan Shokudo.

The interior of Okachan Shokudo is cozy with yellow light.

I came here on an evening in December, and the first order of business was to take off the many layers of winter clothing. The cozy place with its amber light and yellow furniture seemed to radiate warmth. There was space just enough for five tables, and the hulking presence of Oka-chan made the room feel even snugger.

Oka-chan is as warm and friendly as his smile.

Takumi Okazaki, or Oka-chan, was twice my size, so he can seem a little intimidating at first. But when he smiled, he turned into a fluffy teddy bear; and he did smile, a lot. He speaks little English or Vietnamese, and I speak no Japanese at all, so communication between us was difficult. However, I did gather that he had learned to cook at a restaurant in Tokyo for 10 years before he came to Hanoi and opened this shokudo, or eatery, in 2016.

When thinking of Japanese food, my uninitiated mind always goes directly to sushi, which this shokudo doesn’t serve at all. Oka-chan told me that sushi is like a fancy dish that people eat in upscale restaurants. “Here is like cơm bình dân,” he said. Okachan Shokudo offers home-cooked Japanese meals with fresh seasonal ingredients.

Oka-chan honed his craft at a Tokyo restaurant for 10 years.

“So what is a good dish for a winter night like this?” I asked. “Nabe,” he responded with no hesitation. “Sake kasu nabe.”

Nabe means hotpot, while sake kasu is a cooking ingredient made from the residual yeast left over in sake production. I came here with a party of four, so a hotpot seemed ideal. I also liked the idea of getting a buzz from a hotpot, but Oka-chan broke that dream when he informed me that there was no alcohol in sake kasu. However, he did recommend a sake, out of the 50 brands that they carried, that was ideal when served hot, perfect for a cold night. 

Kampai!

When the nabe came out, we saw that, unlike its Vietnamese counterpart, all the ingredients were already in the pot. It smelled amazing, but we had to wait for the pot to boil. The wait made us kinda hangry, so our eyes got bigger than our stomachs, and we ended up ordering the set menu, which had seven courses that are changed weekly.

The nabe with silky tofu blocks.

The pot started boiling even before the first course came out. One taste and we were sold. The broth was so rich with umami; it warmed us from the inside out. My wife called it the best hotpot she had ever had in Hanoi, which was quite high praise since she loves hotpot. The beef was tender, the mushroom flavorful. And though I am a meat lover at heart, the real star of the hotpot, in my opinion, was the tofu. Never before had I eaten such silky-soft tofu. I was told that the Japanese are quite proud of their tofu.

Our platter of appetizers.

While we were slurping away at the hotpot, the first course arrived. It was an appetizer with four dishes: cheese on a cracker, cold noodles, raw squid, and mantis shrimp. Next came a salad with the same tofu that I loved. As we were happily eating, a waitress came to our table. “Excuse me,” she said, “the next dish on the set menu is raw beef liver. Are you able to eat that or would you like to change to something else?”

Some items on the set.

We looked at each other. Did she really just say "raw liver"? In any other setting, the answer would have been a no. But this was Oka-chan. We trusted him and we loved everything so far, so why not give it a try? The waitress returned with a small plate and four pieces of liver, and I enjoyed it way more than I thought I would. It was fresh and tasted better than most sashimi I had eaten.

Nothing is as perfect for the Hanoi winter as hotpots.

Periodically, Oka-chan came to our table to check how we were doing. And every time we just looked up, said "Oishi!" with full mouths, then went back to our bowls. Oka-chan would then smile happily and go to other customers. The eatery was getting full, too. Aside from us, all other guests were Japanese, who looked like they came straight from the office to find comfort food.

Turning the leftover broth into a porridge.

At this point, we all but finished with the hotpot. Oka-chan took the pot away, only to return it later filled with porridge. Instead of eating the leftover broth with noodles, the Japanese put in rice to soak up all that flavor, which I thought was such a smart way to end a hotpot.

"Hmm what should we get?"

I was getting so full, but could not stop eating. And yet more food came: juicy fried chicken, savory fish soup, steamy rice and miso soup, and a piece of mango for dessert. It was a struggle, but we did manage to eat everything. It would have been a great crime to waste such delicious food.

Once a sake bottle is finished, its label ends up here.

The set menu was priced at VND500,000 per person, which was way more expensive than a typical cơm bình dân. But the quality and freshness of the food made it more than worth it. We left the place full and happy, knowing full well that we would come back, just to see what surprises Oka-chan had in store next time.

It's really easy to miss Okachan Shokudo's humble signage.

Okachan Shokudo is open from 11:30am to 1:30pm and 6pm to 10pm every day except Sunday.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 5/5 — The place is kinda hidden. When you enter alley 20A off of Núi Trúc Street, look for the place on your right. The wooden sign may be easily missed, but you’ll see soft yellow light coming from within.

Okachan Shokudo / 岡ちゃん食堂

Ngõ 20A, Núi Trúc Street, Giảng Võ Ward, Ba Đình District, Hanoi

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