What defines a hole-in-the-wall restaurant? The kind that is cherished by locals and fervently sought out by travelers. Is it the often non-descript (and sometimes slightly inconvenient) location? Is it the small chairs and hand- made tables perched next to a busy roadway, or is it the intoxicating aromas wafting from around an unfamiliar corner? Perhaps it could it be the fact that you’re often served, quite literally, through an opening in a wall. Maybe there is no formula at all, but rather each location is a unique amalgamation of immeasurable elements that add up to a truly remarkable experience giving the guest an immediately familiar feeling, even if they’ve never been there before.
Regardless of what makes a true hole in the wall, San Si Wu Noodle Co. certainly ticks a lot of the boxes. Located on the second floor of a plaza in George Town, Cayman Islands, San Si Wu (which means “Three Four Five” in mandarin, a nod to the country’s area code) is an unlikely eatery in a bustling industrial area; an anomaly against Cayman’s backdrop of coconut trees and white sand beaches. Boasting a footprint equivalent to that of a single space in a standard parking lot, San Si Wu is a modest outfit that focuses on regional Chinese dishes, freshly made noodles and hand-made dumplings catering to their twenty-two-seat outdoor “dining room” and an endless number of takeout and pickup orders. The tables, chairs, and counters are all hand made with reclaimed wood offering a rustic and inviting atmosphere that complements the food. Intense aromas, both exotic and familiar, emanate from the small kitchen where one chef is continuously preparing, tossing, and topping a seemingly unending train of dishes while the other takes orders, answers the phone and delivers food to the hungry customers sat the tables just outside the window.
Owned and operated by the Chef and brother duo of Lucas and Dylan Benoit, San Si Wu was born out of a genuine love and deep appreciation for the regional foods of China and caters to those who long for the bold and balanced flavors of real Chinese cuisine. Signature dishes such as the Dan Dan Mian will set your lips ablaze with the unmistakable tingle of Sichuan peppercorn and the Cumin Goat noodles are a unique play on Xinjiang Cumin Lamb, highlighting the versatility of local goat meat as it’s perfectly balanced between the acidity of the black vinegar and soy sauce, the herbaceous-ness of fresh cilantro and richness of whole toasted cumin seeds. As for dumplings, you can have either pork or vegetable and order them “regular” with dipping sauce on the side or “chili” where they’re topped with dumpling sauce, house made chili oil, fresh garlic and scallion. The latter is a flavor bomb that will have you instantly craving more.
The Cayman Islands are widely known as the culinary capital of the Caribbean; however, there are several cuisines that, for one reason or another, have not yet taken hold in Cayman’s culinary landscape including many Asian cuisines. The Benoit brothers realized there was a large demand for more true Chinese food and a clear void in the market, and while they always aim to keep their dishes as accurate as possible, “authentic” is not a word they like to use often.
“We import many ingredients from China, such as the selection of dried chilis we use in our chili oil” says Lucas, “but being on the other side of the world makes it difficult to source some ingredients that are necessary to truly execute certain dishes authentically. Sometimes, to give a dish it’s characteristic flavor you need ingredients that are unique to a region, such as specific bean pastes or pickled mustard greens, and in a market this small it’s challenging and cost prohibitive to get them here.”
Dylan adds “Our goal is not to be authentic as much as it is to respect the techniques, ingredients and dishes and to take an honest approach to making and serving the best versions of these dishes that we can.”
Sitting down to enjoy a bowl of spicy Dan Dan Mian and a plate of chili pork dumplings with the faint sound of passing cars in the background, you realize that San Si Wu has managed to capture the essence and ambiance of dining streetside in Chengdu; even if only for an hour over your lunch break.