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Cha Ca La Vong, an old Ha Noi favourite

Update: September, 25/2005 - 00:00

Dining Out

(25-09-2005)

Cha Ca La Vong, an old Ha Noi favourite

Fishing for one last morsel: Diners enjoy a meal at Cha Ca La Vong. — VNS Photos Truong Vi

Cha ca La Vong

Address: 14 Cha Ca Street

Tel: 04-8253929

Hours: 10am - 2pm, 5.15 - 9pm

Comments: Authentic Vietnamese grilled fish in a casual setting.

Cha Ca La Vong has been serving the same grilled fish recipe for over a century. Sara Schapiro decides to see what all the fuss is about.

Right as I was getting on the plane to leave for Ha Noi my mom handed me a small, wrapped present, which I opened as soon as I sat down in my seat. It was the book 1000 Places to See Before You Die by Patricia Schultz and on the card accompanying the book she wrote, "A little inspiration for your trip. Love, Mom".

I had about 26 hours to peruse the contents of this little book and of course the first thing I flipped to was the section about Ha Noi. Schultz chose the Old Quarter as of one her picks, and intriguingly devoted another coveted spot to Cha Ca La Vong, a restaurant that is famous for just one dish, grilled fish or cha ca. As a seasoned chowhound who spent the last two years obsessively trying new restaurants in New York City, I knew Cha Ca La Vong would have to be one of my first destinations upon arriving in Ha Noi.

What the book said was true: Cha Ca La Vong is a veritable Ha Noi institution. Everyone seems to have eaten there. I got rave reviews from friends and work colleagues. In fact, it even has a street named after it, Cha Ca Street, which means, you guessed it, "grilled fish" street. The Doan family, who is said to have originated the dish, has been churning out cha ca at 14 Cha Ca Street for more than a century.

So, for my first restaurant review I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to try an old Ha Noi favourite. I recruited a panel of tasters and we climbed on our bicycles and motorbikes and headed for 14 Cha Ca Street. Easier said than done. We got completely lost. Between the winding, one-way streets and the incessant traffic, a trip that should have taken five minutes took 25. At least we had worked up an appetite.

Cha Ca La Vong is an unassuming, two-story restaurant that I would have passed right by had it not been for a slew of motorbikes and a huge statue of an old fisherman marking the entrance. I later learned that the statue is called La Vong, named after a historic Chinese fisherman who now lends his name to the restaurant.

The four of us walked in and were told to go up to the second-floor dining room. The staircase is old and rickety, the kind that gives you a feeling of vertigo when you walk up and down it. The upstairs dining room isn’t much better and is in drastic need of a makeover. The fact that the room is kind of dingy actually bolstered my confidence because it meant that people have been coming to Cha Ca La Vong for the last century for the food, not for the aesthetics of the place.

We were seated at a table by the window and immediately given cool towels to mop up the characteristic Ha Noi sweat. Our waiter also brought over a laminated card that simply stated that the meal would cost VND70,000 and that the restaurant only served fish". It was an effective tool – a table of English women next to us got up and left after reading it – and once we nodded our head to her, indicating that we were on board, the food started coming.

We were each given a plate of vermicelli rice noodles, a bowl and a set of chopsticks and in the middle of the table they placed platters of scallions, grilled peanuts, Vietnamese coriander, and bowls of shrimp sauce called mam tom which were garnished with slices of chilli pepper.

When we were there, we only had a choice of beer or water. Apparently Cha Ca La Vong isn’t big on options, but clearly they are onto something. All of us opted for the beer and it ended up being the perfect counterpoint to the oily fish.

What’s cookin’?: Our waiter stirs the fish, dill and scallion mixture for the table. — VNS Photo Sara Schapiro

Then a few minutes later, our waiter brought a charcoal-fed brazier to our table and placed a pan filled with oil and small, yellow morsels of grilled fish on top. To the oil he added the scallions and a large bowl of freshly cut dill. Communicating with us using a combination of Vietnamese and sign language he instructed us to put a portion of the vermicelli noodles in our bowls. Then he stirred the fish and greens together in the oily broth and served us each a heaping portion of the mixture on top of our noodles. He motioned that we should add the peanuts, mam tom, and coriander to the dish and he left us to enjoy our individual creations.

I added everything to the fish, scallion and dill mixture – lots of peanuts, a few sprigs of coriander, and a large spoonful of the mam tom – stirred it all together and took a bite. It was piping hot and I had to wait until my mouth cooled down in order to appreciate the delicate balance of the flavours. The flaky, white fish was perfectly seasoned with what one of my dining companions thought must be turmeric or saffron, the fresh dill and coriander gave it an earthy taste, and the crunchy peanuts gave the dish some texture.

I noticed that the lively conversation at my table had completely stopped. We were all completely focused on our bowls of cha ca. I had seconds and thirds and maybe even fourths because they came with a new pan of fish and another large bowl of dill after just a few minutes. Though the fish is oily, the combination is not overwhelmingly heavy, especially when washed down with swigs of Halida, the light beer they serve.

After we finished our second pan of fish and polished off all of the trimmings, we sat back completely satisfied. According to Schultz’s book, the secret ingredient is rumoured to be "two drops of an essence extracted from the perfume gland of the ca cuong beetle". I was not able to confirm whether that is true or not but maybe it was that special ingredient which has made the Doan family’s cha ca recipe such a success for more than a century, and what had us lapping up every last bite.

I got up from the table feeling like I had had an authentic Ha Noi experience and on the way out, I stopped to pick up a business card and noticed that they had cards in English, French and Vietnamese. So, maybe it’s not the authentic experience it was years ago, but it was delicious nonetheless. — VNS

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