There’s a restaurant in Hanoi, Cha Ca La Vong, that’s been serving up the same turmeric grilled fish since the 1870s. Some say it’s touristy and overdone nowadays, but it’s still considered one of the national dishes of Vietnam and is available in a variety of iterations all over Hanoi. When I read the description, I couldn’t resist. Freshly grilled fish prepared tableside with fresh greens? Yes, please.
Clockwise, from top left: no one spoke English, but this laminated sign explained everything we needed to know; a sizzling pan of fish filets arrived tableside on a burner with rice vermicelli and fresh greens; the greens get a nice little oil bath, wilting them slightly; the whole spread included peanuts, chilies and garlic in fish sauce to top the meal off
Even though the hubby and I weren’t forging any new territory by frequenting a must-eat on the Hanoi food tour, I found the experience still charmingly rustic. When we arrived, an adorable elderly Vietnamese lady gestured up a dark flight of creaky stairs, a practice we came to discover as common in Hanoi. Popular restaurants in the Old Quarter probably had nowhere to expand but upwards, as shopfronts are narrow and generally comprised of one room per floor. Plus, despite the restaurant’s clear popularity with tourists, not one person spoke English, and we were handed a sign that clearly emphasized the restaurant’s only dish — cha ca.
The whole process was efficient. Within minutes of sitting down, a tabletop gas burner appeared with a pan of oil, followed quickly by rice vermicelli, blanched peanuts, chilis and garlic in fish sauce, and a variety of fresh greens. Once the oil was hot, our server gingerly placed pieces of lightly seasoned fish, emitting a reassuring sizzle. After turning the fish once, she then dumped a whole pile of fresh greens on top and turned the oil over onto them, wilting them slightly. Turning to us, she gestured to all of the other components on the table to explain that everything should be eaten together. And boy, once we put all the pieces together, what seemed like it was an almost too-basic meal became a complete symphony: crunchy greens, soft rice noodles, and crispy fish topped with spicy chilies.
I can totally understand why this dish has been around for more than a hundred years.
Cha Ca La Vong | 14 Cha Ca Street | Hanoi, Vietnam