Traditional but not cheap
14 Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi
T: (04) 3825 3929
Restaurant Cha Ca La Vong recently featured in the New York Times in an article that talked about how variants of the same-named dish — a mixture of fish, turmeric, dill, shrimp paste, fish sauce, chillies, noodles and other herbs — are appearing on menus in the United States. Author Florence Fabricant notes that, despite her fond memories of a visit to Cha Ca La Vong 10 years ago, “Judging from many blog posts, recent visitors have had a more negative experience: touristy and expensive.”
She may well have read my poor review of the restaurant, which I wrote after my first visit nearly two years ago, but given its recent appearance in the press, and the pedestal upon which the dish and the restaurant are often placed, I went to give it a second chance.
The original, century-old Cha Ca La Vong is on Pho Cha Ca, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. With an unassuming external appearance — that is no fluorescent signage — it would be easy to miss, but for the throngs of customers found near the entrance at busy lunch and dinner periods.
Once inside, diners can head for a downstairs seating area, but are usually ushered up the steep wooden staircase — watch your head — to the main dining area above, which is split across two rooms. Despite attracting diners on the basis of its age and heritage, there’s very little to appreciate in the dining area: it’s just a room with wooden tables and chairs, a large shrine on the wall and a cabinet full of dusty looking bottles of alcohol.
On our first visit it was extremely busy and therefore also noisy, hot and crowded. This time we must have been earlier in the evening as only a few tables were occupied and the ceiling fans kept it pleasantly cool. A good start. As soon as we arrived, a card was tossed onto the table reading: “Only one dish in our restaurant. Grilled fish. Price: 170,000 VND/person (not include drink)”. It certainly leaves no room for doubt.
Neither is there much room for breath — almost immediately after you sit down the serving staff will start to bring over the crockery and the side dishes: fresh herbs, fish sauce with chilli (or shrimp paste if you have the stomach for it) and a pile of rice noodles (bun). Next comes the burner, with a small pan on top containing a carefully measured portion of fish, already frying in oil flavoured with tumeric and other spices. Your server will then tip in some spring onions and fresh dill and give it a good stir, then it’s over to you.
I don’t think there are any set rules in terms of how you eat it. We dished a few noodles into our bowl, put a few pieces of fish and vegetables on top, poured on some fish sauce and scooped it up with chopsticks, interspersing a mouthful of herbs every now and again. Probably not the Vietnamese way, but it worked.
So is it any good? While not bland, I expected some zingy, stand-out flavours, and they’re just not there, which is disappointing. As my dining partner said, “If you put enough of the fish and chilli sauce on, it tastes good.” Not really what you’re paying for though, is it?
The complaints don’t stop there I’m afraid. Firstly, portions are very small: a serving for two could easily be consumed by one hungry backpacker, and if you ask for more, well, you pay for more. Secondly, it really is expensive for what you get, especially when you consider how little the ingredients have cost and the amazing food you can get on the on the street for a lot less (although note that locals pay the same price). And finally, staff are not at all friendly; we didn’t get a single smile back — and we’re smiley people.
So why go at all? It might be a victim of its own fame, but it does still have fame. So if you’re keen to explore Hanoi’s culinary history, and aren’t too bothered about value for money, then give it a try. If you’re on a tight budget and happy with pho and bun cha, skip it and head onto the street.
There are other cha ca and cha ca la vong places in Hanoi, some of which are getting better reviews than this one. Try Cha Ca Thanh Long on Duong Thanh, a short walk to the southwest, or jump in a taxi to Cha Ca Anh Vu, near the exhibition centre. Both are cheaper and we’ve heard good things.
By Sarah Turner
Last updated on 17th September, 2014.