Cha Ca La
Vong, an old Ha Noi favourite
for one last morsel: Diners
enjoy a meal at Cha Ca La Vong. — VNS Photos Truong Vi
ca La Vong
14 Cha Ca Street
10am - 2pm, 5.15 - 9pm
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
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.
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