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Panic in the kitchen, bliss on the palate

Update: November, 28/2012 - 10:58

 

Strong staples: Crowned with a golden fried egg, Hanoi Panic's pad thai matches up to any of the city's more elegant noodle plates.

Ha Noi Panic

Address: Alley 6b, Trang Thi St

Tel.: 0163 950 2574

Price Range: VND35,000 – 85,000

Comment: Sensational Thai food hidden in a tiny alley. Dishes to try: chicken coconut soup, Pad Thai with chicken and fried egg, red curry

 
Bringing forth the fiery flavours of Chiang Mai, via Philadelphia, Ha Noi Panic's unlikely inception is just a small part of what makes this back-street bolthole one of the hottest street food joints in town, Elisabeth Rosen reports.Smashed on top: a crunchy fried egg, yolk running golden over a generous heap of noodles – proper noodles, thin ribbons of rice flour, tangy sauce clinging to their caramelized edges – hurled around a searing wok with fork-tender chicken. Lime bursts from below. A thread of chilli powder weaves its way through grainy sugar, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts that crunch raw between soft strands.

It's easy to get carried away by the food at Ha Noi Panic. Mon, a Philadelphia-raised chef born to Thai immigrant parents, has a casual, DIY approach to cooking that puts the tiny restaurant in a different orbit from the city's more formal Thai establishments. You wouldn't find servers at Gusto, just a few blocks away, bringing out orders ten minutes apart with no warning or apology. But nor would Gusto serve up anything like Mon's pad thai (VND70,000) which could compete with any Bangkok food stall and is certainly the best in Ha Noi.

Marked only by a red placard half-hidden by a dusty camera repair shop sign, the place might also be Ha Noi's best-kept secret. Pick your way around parked motorbikes to the back of the dim alley, where you'll find Mon bent over a tiny stove. He named the restaurant after his former punk band – which also doesn't bode well for its gourmet credentials.

But Ha Noi Panic thrives on such unlikely contrasts. The punk rock ethos, after all, is in keeping with the frenetic spirit of Thai cuisine, which creates balance by throwing together extremes: spicy and sweet, light and rich. Mon's red curry (VND70,000 chicken, 55,000 vegetarian) hits that balance spot on. The curry arrives in a bowl of coconut milk spiked with chilli and a subtle sweetness, stacked to the brim with so much red pepper and cilantro it nearly overflows. Spooned over a mound of warm sticky rice, the dish – earthier in colour than a typical bright red curry – feels soothingly homemade.

This casual approach to cooking is firmly rooted in the chef's family background. After moving to America from Chiang Mai, his parents opened a restaurant in Philadelphia, where he spent years learning in the kitchen. Here, he replicates the dishes he grew up with, down to the "Thai spicy" level on the menu. (One server: "I cry when I eat it.")

You'll find only one stir-fry on the printed menu. Described simply as "fried with Thai basil" (VND50,000 vegetarian; also available with chicken, beef and prawn), it's far more exciting than its name implies. Leaves of Thai basil are thrown with abandon into a wok, where they lend their sweet, sharp flavour to a rainbow of vegetables and shreds of collapsing fried tofu, almost like chicken in texture.

 

Casual concoction: Delicate chicken coconut soup is one of the chef's favorite dishes.
But the real magic happens off the menu. One night, the unofficial special was a stir-fry with ginger; another night, when the kitchen was out of green curry, chicken hit the wok with lemongrass and basil, resulting in a heady sauce.

There are more delicate options, too. Chicken coconut soup (VND35,000) proves that Thai food doesn't have to be heavy. Floating in a luminescent coconut broth, raw ingredients – hunks of galangal, imported Thai Kafir lime leaves and basil leaves, green twigs of lemongrass – suggest the transformation process that melts chicken into unbelievably soft strips and lends crisp, pale onion a delicate sweetness.

This is, for the most part, a one-man kitchen, so don't go with any time constraints. Dishes emerge one by one, often several minutes apart. Sometimes you will place an order, only to be told several minutes later that the kitchen doesn't actually have a key ingredient.

Yet these are only logistical flaws, and with time, one hopes they will be resolved. Far more important is the enthusiasm that pervades each dish, the gleeful ebullience with which Mon tosses around flavours and textures. It's impossible to predict where Ha Noi Panic will go next. But it's thrilling to be along for the ride. — VNS

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