This do-it-yourself grillery, located on a busy sidewalk, doesn't have an extensive menu beyond basic meat, seafood and a few vegetables. But what the restaurant lacks in formality, it more than makes up for in atmosphere.
|Welcome addition: The sweet potato fries serve as a perfect accompaniment to the platters of meat on offer.
by Elisabeth Rosen
You smell 61 Quan Su before you spot the address, printed on brand-new white placards tacked to the side of an old building. The aroma of grilling meat wafts across the whole block. Customers leaving the elegant dim sum restaurant across the street glance over to see what they're missing.
They're missing a lot. First, there is the food: strips of beef marinated in a rich glaze, pork belly that chars into creamy morsels, crusty bread streaked with honey. But the experience, too, is something to savour. The tabletop barbecue joint sums up the simple joys of street eating in Ha Noi, where limited technology and ingredients make crafting something from not much a recurring theme.
Forget high-tech grilling. Here, plastic tables come with holes for blocks of coal, which are topped with thin metal racks. Raw meat and vegetables - mostly meat, although you can easily commandeer nubs of okra and slices of sweet potato - arrive on tin plates, each serving about the size of a small fist. You scatter all this over the rack, commissioning one of your group members to hover with a watchful pair of chopsticks.
|Hot to trot: The tender marinated beef works perfectly over the grill, locking in the powerful flavours, while sizzled seafood makes for a surprisingly tasty treat.
When the restaurant opened in 1998, it only served bread. Crusty rolls still line a display case at the front of the restaurant, and they make a fitting beginning to the meal. Cut into thick slabs, daubed with a golden butter-honey concoction and heated over the coals, the bread caramelises into the best toast you ever had (banh my bo mat ong, VND10,000).
There's a printed menu, rare for a sidewalk establishment, but it's all in Vietnamese and the servers speak little to English. No matter: just ask for beef (bo nuong, VND40,000). Marinated in a sweet-salty glaze and cut into bite-size pieces, it always disappeared so quickly we had to put in multiple orders. Our table also gobbled up generous lengths of octopus (bach tuoc nuong, VND45,000) and creamy pork belly (ba chi nuong, VND40,000), washing it all down with cold local beer and iced green tea (tra da).
Sometimes the meat is cut too small to have any taste. Dissected into miniscule slivers, hickory chicken (ga nuong sot hickory, VND30,000) lacked not only hickory flavour but any flavour at all. Ribs (suon nuong, VND40,000) were presented in tiny nuggets, with barely a shred of meat clinging to each hunk of bone.
|Sharing is caring: The al fresco eatery's inclusive dining experience makes it the perfect location for a date or pleasant catch-up with friends. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
There isn't much in the way of sides, though chunky cucumber wedges and pickled greens come gratis. Fling the pile of basil that comes with the cucumber onto the grill, and you'll have a warm salad. For a more substantial accompaniment, ask for sweet potato fries, cut into rough strips (khoai lang chien, VND20,000).
The mother of the original owner (replaced by Nhu Lan, whose name now occupies pride of place on the signage)gained fame as one of Viet Nam's first TV chefs, starring in cooking shows in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Although you won't see her around the restaurant, you'll still find her Southern-style sweet and sour sauce (nuoc sot me), a mouth-puckering blend of tamarind sauce and fish sauce.
Five years ago, when the restaurant started serving do nuong, it was the only one in the area to do so. Today, imitators line the nearby streets. No one knows where the trend came from, but given the crowds that fill the plastic tables night after night, it might be here to stay. — VNS
Nha Hang Nhu Lan
Address: 61 Quan Su
Price Range: VND50,000 - 150,000
Comment: Straightforward tabletop barbecue. Dishes to try: bo nuong, banh my bo mat ong, khoai lang chien