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Do it yourself at Xuan Xuan barbecue

Update: September, 27/2010 - 16:13
Bustling: Xuan Xuan is an interesting venue for a group of friends to enjoy a nice, affordable meal. — VNS Photos Nguyen Le Hung
Delicious: Grilled goat udder is one of Ha Noi's specialities and goes well with bread and fired shrimp chips.

Xuan Xuan

47 Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District, Ha Noi

Phone: 04 3828 4881

Opening hours: 11am-11pm

Price per person: VND 90,000-100,000 (US$4.5-5)

Comments: Social, interesting style of dining, reasonably priced but very limited menu.

Xuan Xuan is a street food restaurant that offers only average ingredients, yet it's always packed with diners of all nationalities, which proves the owners must be doing something right. Nguyen Le Hung reports.

Xuan Xuan, a five-year-old barbecue joint on Ma May Street, Hoan Kiem District, appears no different from any of the other surrounding restaurants, except for the fact that it doesn't scream for attention or have pushy managers trying to pull people in off the street.

The two things that immediately struck me upon arrival were that it was filthy and crowded. It had been raining so the floors were sticky with shoeprints everywhere. And the crowd, mostly dressed in shorts and tee shirts, filled almost every single table on both floors and even outside. Everyone was talking loudly over their tiny tables, which were also quite sticky, whilst tearing into their meals. Amazingly it didn't smell bad; the faint scent of butter and grilled beef consumed the entire place.

To say the food is good might be a tad presumptuous. The food isn't cooked for you. You are provided with the raw ingredients to cook on a barbecue at your table, which is an interesting experience. Each table has a burner fuelled by a piece of dry ethanol. On top of the burner is a Teflon tray on which you cook your meal. You can order specific size portions of meat which are normally prime cuts, with optional nam (goat udders), onion, tomato, spring onion and aubergine. Ask for some pineapple and taro, which are only available seasonally, but go really well with everything else. You can also order some slices of bread and butter, and a small bag of fried shrimp chips, which work wonderfully as fillers. My friend and I went for the small portion for two, which filled us up nicely. After the burner is fired up, the fun begins.

I hadn't tried this form of cuisine before so I let my friend guide me through it, just like the first time I had hotpot. First my friend poured an appropriate amount of cooking oil onto the tray, then she laid a dish of vegetables on it "for an aromatic effect", she said. When the vegetables were almost done, she made room on the tray for the beef, which had already been sliced up. The staff provide diners with two sets of chopsticks, one to prepare the raw meat with and one to enjoy the meal.

The cooking process requires attention if you don't want the whole thing to go up in flames, but not too much attention, which allows you to chat with friends. After three minutes, the food was ready to be served. We both piled up our bowls and got stuck in. There was a small dish of tasty sauce that goes really well with everything. The sauce is made of salt, pepper, a bit of shrimp flavouring powder, chilli and a bit of lime juice to blend all of the ingredients together.

While enjoying the bowl full of grilled meat and vegetables, you must remember to add more fresh ingredients to the tray. This time we opted for the bread and butter, so I helped my friend tear the bread into little pieces, then after spooning some butter onto the cooking tray, we threw it all on. After a while, the smell became irresistible which gave me the urge to dig in right away, but my friend said it would be much better if we waited for a little longer. So we did. After five minutes or so, the bread became crisp and buttery, crunchy on the outside but still soft on the inside, beautiful toast. It was like enjoying fondue, but with an Asian twist.

It is also good to put some of the beef and vegetables onto the fried shrimp chips and then enjoy the layers of deliciousness. The chips are already crunchy and tasty on their own, but with a layer of hot beef, they are even better.

The goat udder, which is one of Ha Noi's favourite BBQ dishes, is definitely worth a try. It must be cooked rare at a high heat, just like the beef, or else the crunchy treat will turn rubbery and unpleasant.

There are a few drink options such as Ha Noi beer, Pepsi and ice tea which are all very reasonably priced. Also on offer are grapefruit and various other tropical fruits for dessert, which was nice after all the cholesterol we had just consumed.

Forewarned is forearmed: You need to avoid this place if you're bothered about getting a little bit dirty. It helps if don't leave your mobile phone on the table and tape paper napkins from neck to knee because the splattering is terrible. You have to keep the fire big in order to cook a decent meal and that also means cooking oil (and a lot of other stuff) spitting everywhere.

Other than that, the service is tolerable. You will have to yell "Em oi!" now and then, but you expect that in a busy barbecue house in the Old Quarter. Also, they don't take reservations and takeaway seems bizarre since they only sell raw ingredients.

Anyhow, Xuan Xuan is an interesting venue for a group of friends to enjoy a nice, affordable meal and just have a good time. — VNS

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