Bring your own booze to this north London gem
Update 5/08/2018 – corrected spelling error and tweaked the names of some dishes
I’m sometimes asked why I hate anglicised Chinese food so much. It’s not the food that I hate per se, even though I’m certainly no fan of cloying yet dull sweet and sour pork, stodgy chow mein or ‘crispy aromatic’ duck that can never hope to be either. What I really hate about it is its seeming ubiquity on the nation’s high streets and thus the place it occupies in the minds of so many people who seem to think it represents the totality of Chinese cuisine. Given that the Middle Kingdom is the size of a continent, encompasses numerous ethnic groups and is home to several regional culinary traditions dating back centuries, nothing could be further from the truth. I hate anglicised Chinese food because its ubiquity denies those regional cuisines opportunities to flourish and mouthes to feed.
That brings us to Etles, one of only a handful of Uyghur restaurants in London. While describing the Uyghur cuisine of northwest China as a ‘Turkish-Chinese mash-up’ in my deliberately provocative headline is somewhat reductionist, it gets the point across. If the mere thought of spiced kebabs served alongside dumplings and hand-pulled noodles doesn’t get your mouth watering, then we just can’t be friends.
Sizzling sish kebab, threaded on lethal-looking sword-like skewers, made a dramatic entrance. Although the lamb itself was nothing to write home about, it was certainly tender and the peppery smoky crust of chilli and cumin had plenty of crispy mouthfeel to go along with their tingly flavours. That same spiced crust is better appreciated on the plump, bouncy lamb kidneys. Although Veal Smasher found them a bit too tough for his liking, I lapped up every single one.
Thick, doughy soft dumpling skins came stuffed with lamb and sweet, sharp onions. Although these tugur dumplings won’t set the world of dumplings alight, they were perfectly enjoyable in their own right – especially when take with the musky sweet dipping vinegar and the table sauce of minced chilli and garlic.
Although shaped and crimped like tortellini, the slippery ququre dumplings had a wonton like feel to them. The lamb filling wasn’t quite as hearty as I would’ve liked, but that flaw was quickly forgotten as soon as I started slurping the soup that the dumplings came in. Sweet, sharp and peppery, it was lively, fortifying stuff.
Although the lagman noodles initially looked like udon when squinting from a distance, they were subtly different in the mouth. The roughly hewn, flat sided noodles were lightly chewy with a springy firmness – eminently slurpable. Although the practice of pouring the meat, veg and sauce on top of the noodles at tableside seems odd to my eyes, the mouth pleasing effects of the sweet, peppery sauce and wrinkly ear fungus were indisputable. Only the generic pieces of lamb let the side down once again.
Available in medium- and large-sized portions, the lianpi noodles served with chicken and potato transcends its seemingly mundane ingredients and is a feasting dish worth savouring. Thick and wide noodles were delightfully firm and springy, contrasting neatly with the tenderised chunks of potato. Chopped chunks of chicken, still attached to the bone and skin, for once justified their presence – the plain white meat had taken on the delectable moreishness of the sauce. Spicy chillies, numbing Sichuanese pepper corn, fragrant star anise and more besides all came together beautifully, producing a multilayered spice and umami that silenced all of us into awed submission. The only quibble here is that we all wished for a little less chicken and potato and a bit more noodle.
The rarity of Uyghur food in London only serves to emphasise how special Etles is. There are flaws, to be sure. The small dining room is spartan, cards aren’t accepted and the small front of house crew can become overwhelmed when the place is packed out. But the BYOB policy, the chirpy friendliness and, of course, the bold, complex and distinctive flavours make it all worthwhile. This is a side of Chinese food that so many people across the country don’t get to experience and they should. They really, really should.
What to order: Lagman noodles; Big plate chicken noodles; Ququre/chöchürä dumplings; Offal kebabs
What to skip: The Sichuanese dishes needlessly bulking up the menu
Address: 235 Hoe Street, Walthamstow, London E17 9PP
Phone: 020 3620 69787
Opening Hours: seven days a week noon-21.00. 21.00 is last orders AFAICT.
Reservations? highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and tip when shared between five: £20-25 approx.