“An institution, and whoever did the decor deserves to be in one. Sit upstairs and get a pan of hot oil to cook your fish and herbs in. Delish, but avoid the loos.”
That’s a verbatim quote from our Luxe City Guides for the city of Hanoi. Cha Ca La Vong is the name for a small restaurant operated by five generations plus of the same family for 100+ years, serving only ONE dish, Cha Ca La Vong (fried fish in turmeric with herbs). It got a thumbs up from the New York Times writer, here, but don’t get your expectations up too high or you might be disappointed. The bottom line? Mrs. MM, the Teen and I enjoyed our dish of Cha Ca La Vong a lot, and while a bit pricey by Hanoi standards, and certainly in less than thrilling surroundings, this is one dish that I can say, been there, tasted that, and it’s fairly easy to replicate to about 90% of the original, so stay tuned for the MM version, up next…
Located in a small two-storey walk-up in the old district of Hanoi, the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, only takes cash and has no menu since you have no choice besides their signature dish.
We sat down in a crowded room after a short wait, and the description of the Luxe guide was spot on. It’s the kind of place most of you probably wouldn’t venture into alone, nor stay when you saw how some of the food was being handled. :( We quickly took our places at a table for 4, the server hand communicated with us that we wanted three orders of the specialty, two waters and a Coke Zero and waited a minute or two. An individual burner was put in the middle of our table, a bowl filled with shredded green onions, dill and other herbs, a plate of mint/basil, and two bowls of fresh rice noodles, a small plate of peanuts and some chopped chilies was provided. Watching the other locals, we noticed you could get some of their version of bagoong as well if you knew how to ask for it, or if you pointed a bit rudely at a neighboring table…
I was futzing around with my camera and before you could take off a cap and turn it on, the server arrive with a hot pan of oil and sizzling fish then dumped in the herbs and started stirring, pointing at us to start munching away. I nearly missed the whole thing that took just a few seconds! At any rate, this yellowy fish (the turmeric) and herbs turned into a fragrant and oily mass and we turned the heat down so as not to overcook it all.
The idea is to take a bit of fish (perhaps just 100 grams of less of it per person(!) some of the oil and herbs and mix it with your very plain noodles and eat that all up with some herbs and chilies or fish sauce/lime sauce. It was delicious! Intentionally oily, but a real palate awakener, and a bit out of the ordinary for us. I really liked the combination of flavors and the way it was quickly prepared. The volume of herbs might turn off a few people, but I was totally into this. The dill, in particular, probably a vestige of French colonialism, gave this a very refreshing, tasty twist. Mrs. MM and the Teen found it a bit too oily for their liking, but we managed to polish off the entire pan without much difficulty. We only ate a third of the noodles they provided, however. Lunch was done in less than 20 minutes, and we paid a bill of roughly $24 (quite pricey by Hanoi standards) but I thought the experience and the dish was worth the money.
I am sure there are lots of other places that do this dish well, but it’s always nice to head to the place that is generally considered to be the best, or the oldest, if only for your first experience.