Is it possible to get quality Vietnamese food in a restaurant in Hanoi? My chances aren’t looking good.
We’re looking for Pho 24, Vietnam’s supposedly ubiquitous pho shop. But my sisters, whom I’m traveling with on this trip (Mom decided to stay at the hotel) and I, can’t find it. There’s a steady downpour, insistent enough to warrant the use of an umbrella. We give up looking for the nowhere 24 and serendipitously enough, wind up at the entrance of Viet Kitchen. It’s a stone’s throw away from the better-known Bobby Chinn, eponymous restaurant of the super chef.
I’ll say now that if it weren’t for Viet Kitchen, I may have left Hanoi with dismal memories of the food. This restaurant resuscitated my belief that good Vietnamese food can be found off the street. And the celadon ceramic tableware that they use is divine. Perhaps it’s the first dish that my sisters and I order, goi buoi tom thit (pomelo salad with prawn) ”“ we don’t know why it is, but it’s just so good and so refreshing, a welcome hug from the rain outside that it awakens our appetites. We proceed to order several more dishes, a sort of last hurrah before we leave Vietnam tomorrow. And thank God I can take decent food photos!
Of course we order pho (say ”˜f-uhh’ as softly and seductively as you can), beef, if we please. A broth so gossamer and light deeply infused with beefiness that it restores our flagging (read: wet from the rain) spirits. Though we normally squabble over the last few spoonfuls of any dish we like, tonight we’re all gracious enough to offer it to the other before gobbling it down.
Charley says that we must order cha ca, Vietnamese ”˜fried fish’ and compare it to the one we have at Cha Ca La Vong (see below). Here, it’s grilled and it comes with a stunning array of shrubs and vermicelli noodles. My sisters have become experts at all this rice wrapper-rolling; I for one, don’t have the patience. The dill-spiked sauce that it comes with marries the somewhat motley components that make up this dish: multi-nuanced yet subtle, it’s edible poetry.
When I spy bun cha on the menu, I order it because I want my sisters to experience the flavors similar to the one that I eat on the street. Similar to the cha ca in coolness of temperature, it’s an example of flavors made consummate by the perfect balance of all five tastes. And every mouthful is different depending on the ratio of meat to noodles to herbs. It’s what Vietnamese cuisine is all about.
But it’s the banh cuon so diep sot thom that blows the three of us away. Diaphanous sheets of rice wrapper similar to the Chinese cheung fan, it’s rice pancakes filled with scallops and bean sprouts napped in a prawn reduction sauce. It’s exquisite, and yes, it’s the dish that my sisters and I argue over. I still dream about going back to Hanoi just for this dish.
- I rarely include personal photos on my website, but I love this (albeit unflattering) one of me and my sisters. The incredible meal we had at Viet Kitchen made the rain and soggy shoes worthwhile on our last night in Hanoi.
24-C Ba Trieu ”“ Hoan Kiem (not too far from the Lake)
Cha Ca La Vong
In Vietnamese, cha ca is fried fish, and there’s no other more famous version of this dish than at a place in downtown Hanoi. A restaurant opened more than 100 years ago by a Mr. Doan, it was first called ”˜La Vong’ after an old statue of a fisherman, and the street that it’s on was called Hang Son. As several decades and even more satisfied customers passed on, the street name was changed to Pho (street) Cha Ca and the restaurant became what it’s now known: Cha Ca La Vong (CCLV).
Unlike perhaps any other restaurant in the world, CCLV serves only one dish, and this is made very clear to diners as they settle into their chairs. A decidedly crumpled sign that cries out for another coat of laminate reads: “Only one dish in our restauran…” (sic). Yes, 90,000.00 VND/person (approximately $5.40, without drinks) will get me a serving of this famed cha ca. Simply, it’s fish fried in a pan whose oil has been steeped in saffron ”“some say turmeric — on a charcoal burner set upon my table. A plate of cold bun (vermicelli noodles), unsalted peanuts, chopped chili and spring onions, a bowl of nuoc mam (fish sauce) and the ubiquitous Vietnamese herb garden-on-a-plate. To complete the show, a waiter dumps a bowl of dill and other unidentified greenery into the frying pan where it quickly shrinks into the waiting yellow abyss below.
While the employees won’t say anything about the recipe, it’s assumed that the fish used here is ca loc, snakehead /serpent head fish which looks like a catfish on steroids. Also, the dish’s delicate, enigmatic flavor is reputed to come from ca cuong, beetle essence. Think of that unlikely additive what you will.
Meantime, this dish is a true contradiction. With all that oil, it isn’t the least bit oily, certainly none of that lip glossy-feeling I get with other deep-fried foods; and the herbal flavors coming from the cilantro and dill and mint seem to culminate together instead of dominate, resulting in one flavor that’s as explosive as it is subtle. In true Vietnamese style, it’s up to me to mix and match the condiments, herbs, and fish at my whim and will. Every bite is different and unexpected.
As can be expected from a place that’s older than most people’s life spans, CCLV is dusty, dirty, and creaky. It’s expensive too, by Vietnamese standards; it must be the ca cuong. But highly recommended.
Cha Ca La Vong
14 Pho Cha Ca
Branch also in Ho Chi Minh.
Quan An Ngon
There’s no getting around the fact that Vietnam eating is all about street food. But for those with sensitive constitutions who just can’t stomach eating in less-than-pristine eating conditions, try Quan An Ngon where street food gets all dressed up. Plastic stools and wooden chopsticks are thankfully set aside, replaced by regular sized tables situated in a courtyard under a large canvas cover, the ambience that of a street market buzz.
Find a table and then browse through the stalls. The dishes don’t have “name tags” so it’d be wise to clutch the sleeve of your server and have him/her follow you as you point to what you’d like. Ordering is done at the table from a menu that’s (thankfully!) in English and Vietnamese. Choose from some of Vietnam’s better-known regional specialties, and more. I recommend the banh hoi chao tom cuon banh trang, ground shrimp wrapped around sugarcane sticks complete with all of the fixings of fruit, vegetables, and rice wrappers for make-your-own spring rolls. Also try banh cuon, North Vietnamese “dumplings” of ground pork and mushrooms wrapped and steamed in rice-flour crepes, drizzled with fried shallots and mint, and accompanied by a bowl of nuoc mam. For dessert, get the Vietnamese halo-halo from the stall nearest the entrance. It’s a coconut milk drenched cooler with assorted fill-ins made of rice flour.
My only regret here is that it’s so dark in the restaurant that I have no light to take photos.
Quan An Ngon
18 Phan Boi Chau, Ha Noi
6:00 am – 10:00pm
Branch also in Ho Chi Minh.
On Monday: Cambodia.