Saigon's version of a northern specialty
3-5 Ho Xuan Huong, District 3
T: (08) 3930 5674
Cha ca, a fish dish of legendary reputation made famous by the Cha Ca La Vong restaurant in Hanoi, has been listed as one of the 1,001 dishes to eat before you die. If you’re in Vietnam though, you don’t have to go all the way to Hanoi to get a taste; a restaurant of the same name and owned and operated by the same people in charge of the Hanoi version is located in Saigon, and dare I risk blasphemy in saying it may be the better of the two.
Cha Ca La Vong in Saigon is a simple but popular restaurant. Much newer than its northern counterpart, it’s also cleaner and more modern, with less in the way of rustic charm. Inside you won’t find much in the way of decoration or ambiance, just dark wooden tables and chairs and a tele on the wall.
The menu at Cha Ca is very simple: cha ca. It’s not a question of what you want when you sit down, but rather how much you want. Cha ca is a simple dish originating from Hanoi; a large pan, in the middle of the table, is filled with chunks of fish fillets, dill and onions. As opposed to Hanoi, where you generally have no say in what fish goes into the pan, in Saigon you get two choices: ca loc, the traditional snakehead fish used up north, or ca tre, a fattier southern fish.
Around the pan you will be presented with several additional items to be used later: cold vermicelli, peanuts, a plate of greens, spring onions and a bowl of mam tom, a strong smelling, purple shrimp paste. Everything fries together, right before your eyes, until the fish turns a golden brown.
Once everything in the pan is ready to eat, like many other Vietnamese dishes, you must follow a specific set of instructions to properly eat the food or you risk being that weird, typical foreigner who doesn’t know how to eat right. First, put in your choice of greens and then bury it with the vermicelli. Next in is the cha ca, which is then garnished with the spring onion and peanuts. Lastly, the whole dish is brought together with the purple shrimp sauce.
Perhaps not quite as popular as the northern version, Cha Ca La Vong still hosts a steady stream of customers throughout the day, particularly during the lunch and dinner rush. It’s a family-style restaurant and large groups of locals pop in at random. The restaurant can quickly go from mostly empty to mostly crowded but stopping by at off hours will likely have you missing the masses.
If it’s too busy to get a seat, or you’d rather not have fish, you are still relatively close to a number of options. If you’re craving local food, you’re a five-minute taxi ride from some of the best pho in town at Pho Anh on Ky Dong. If you’re into the idea of cooking your own food at the table but would prefer red meat options, you’re not too far from Barbecue Garden. Or for a fancier dining experience, take a short ride to Monsoon.
By Max Murta
Last updated on 6th July, 2014.