By Brian Spencer
In Vietnam, culinary success often breeds shameless imitation, though you might instead simply call it “targeted entrepreneurial spirit”. Guidebooks with exact addresses and names of restaurants are perhaps a more valuable tool than in any neighboring countries, at least when you’re in search of somewhere specific.
It’s not uncommon to see a handful of restaurants with the same or very similar name, each advertising an identical specialty, all of them lined up along the same road, the imitators riding the coattails of the well-known original by staking their lot on confusion with the real thing. And confusion does happen: on my first visit to Saigon, in fact, I mistook one vegetarian restaurant I’d read about with its copycat, located right next door, their addresses distinct only by a letter tacked on after the numerals.
So it is with Cha Ca La Vong, one of Hanoi’s oldest restaurants with a history dating back more than 100 years. Located on aptly named Chả Cá in the heart of the Hoan Kiem district, Cha Ca La Vong has a handful of competitors next door and across the street also peddling versions of their one-and-only signature dish. I’m sure the cha ca (grilled fish) at each one is delicious. When I have more time in Hanoi I’d like to compare and contrast, but if you’re only passing through and count the number of meals you can squeeze in on your hands, put this praised eating house near the top of your to-eat list–and, of course, make sure you’re at the right place.
You’ll know you’re there if it’s closed in the afternoon and, during high season, if there’s a line to get in when it’s open. A host will likely direct you left of the entrance and up a narrow staircase, opening into a plain, somewhat cramped second-floor dining room with aqua-colored walls, bare wooden tables, and five-paned balcony windows. Two old wooden cabinets crammed with liquor bottles, glasses, and sundry bric-a-brac occupy one corner of the room, while a household altar laden with offerings of fruits and flowers is mounted on the wall above a small Carlsberg beer placard.
On your table, Cha Ca La Vong’s laminated menu, which really is little more than informational courtesy: you’ll be having the grilled fish.
First a plate of peanuts and heaping bowls of rice vermicelli and fresh greens are brought to the table, all essential ingredients for what follows next. Presented in a weathered, fired metal pan flavored with juices from hundreds of prior servings, lean hunks of white fish sizzle in a buttery turmeric base. Add copious amounts of the greens to the bubbling vat, leeks and dill and coriander and spring onion, the lilting aromas teasing an orchestra of flavor. When you’re ready, when you can’t wait any longer, scoop the fish and sauce and now forest-colored greens over the vermicelli, season to taste with peanuts, chili peppers, and chili sauce, and dig in. This is the stuff good dreams are made of.
Like in so many Vietnamese delicacies, the cha ca here is a delicate balance of light, simple, satisfying ingredients that as a whole smell and taste every bit as bright and happy as the individual parts.
I’ve read a number of criticisms, most of them having to do with the price and the service, some of them with the portion size. (I don’t understand the latter.) At VND170,000 per person, it’s certainly (much) more expensive than the food served at many of Hanoi’s fantastic street stalls and shops, though for perspective that works out to about US$8–not exactly blind robbery. We all have our own budgets, but in Southeast Asia price comparison for price comparison’s sake generally irks me, particularly when it comes to cheap vs. cheaper. Overpaying for low-quality foods or goods is one thing; paying a slightly inflated price for a world-famous dish at a historic restaurant is another one entirely.
Service is indifferent, though I wouldn’t say unfriendly, but this is something easily overlooked given the limited interaction you’ll have with the staff–remember, the only thing you’ll need to order is a beverage, unless you want a second serving (and you very well might).
One thing is certainly true: Cha Ca La Vong is a one-dish pony, though that’s more badge of triumph than stumbling block. Here, when you do one thing so well for more than a century, there’s no point in doing anything else at all.
Cha Ca La Vong is located at 14 Chả Cá in Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem district. +84 4 3825 3929.