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It is not often that you get a chance to dine in a 100-year old restaurant during your travels. Cha Ca La Vong is a legendary institution in Hanoi, Vietnam, world famous for its one and only dish of grilled fish (which translates to cha ca in Vietnamese), oftentimes served briskly and with little ceremony.
Everything you need to create your own grilled fish masterpiece at Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi, Vietnam
After reading this ode to Cha Ca Va Long’s iconic dish in the NYTimes, I had to visit the restaurant for myself to see what all the fuss was about. There are scores of reviews on Tripadvisor warning visitors about being duped into going to an imposter restaurant named Cha Ca La Lvong which is right across the street from the original one. Notice the extra “L” before Vong in the other restaurant’s name? Sneaky but effective!
This is NOT the real Cha Ca La Vong. The real one is across the street on the second floor.
Stay away from blinky lights and any restaurant which claims to be serving Hanoi’s legendary grilled fish cha ca dish on the ground floor, because the real Cha Ca Va Long is on the other side of the street, where you have to go up a narrow wooden staircase to the second floor.
The real Cha Ca La Vong is at 14 Cha Ca Street in Hanoi, Vietnam
Now that we have the question of “Can the real Cha Ca La Vong please stand up?” answered, we can move on to more important matters. Hopefully you have made your way to the right restaurant at address 14 Cha Ca Street in Hanoi, Vietnam. Walk right in through the doors and go up a narrow wooden staircase on your left.
Simple and homely interiors at Cha Ca La Vong – the original restaurant
When you reach the landing, you will enter a room that should look exactly like the one in the above photo. Lots of locals and visitors will be sitting around communal tables, digging into delicious grilled fish. Smile at the servers so that they point you towards an available table, but do not expect a smile back. That’s alright, you are there for the food. The service gets a bad rep on Tripadvisor, so keep your expectations reasonable. My experience was actually quite pleasant. The servers were friendly enough and one of them even showed me how to mix the ingredients in the skillet and how to operate the stove. I think smiling helped. Read my story about discovering Vietnam through smiles.
The only time I’ve been to a restaurant which had one and only one item on the menu!
It’s ok if you don’t know Vietnamese, because the menu is very easy to read. There’s only one dish on the menu! And it costs 170,000 Vietnamese Dong (approx 8 USD) per person, note: price of drink not included. The server actually hands this laminated menu to you after seating, as you look around with expectation. Just nod your head and put your hand up to show the number of people you are ordering for.
Ingredients for a fish feast
The cooking setup might seem intimidating at first, but do not worry. Grilling fish at the table is far easier than it looks. A server will first bring over all the condiments that go with this unique dish – a plate of soft rice noodles, fresh herbs like mint and cilantro, a bowl of roasted peanuts and a bowl of dipping/fish sauce with fiery red chillies floating in it.
Don’t be afraid of the hot stove in front of your face, at your table. Watch out for the stirring spoon, it gets hot!
From the kitchen appears a lit stove topped with a skillet which is placed in front of you at your table. As the sounds of sizzling fish make music in your ears, your nostrils are filled with the unmistakable aroma of fresh dill and garlic. Inside the skillet are all the delectable and unique ingredients that make this dish so special: fish marinated in turmeric, topped with fresh dill and shrimp paste in garlic oil. It is the dill and turmeric which impart such a unique and rave-worthy taste to the fish. Dill is rarely used in Southeast Asian cuisine, especially Vietnamese, except in the cha ca dish.
Scoop up some still steaming fish from the skillet into your bowl and dig in!
As the dill seasons the fish, the sizzling sounds on the skillet get more intense. Wait a few minutes until the fish is done cooking, then you can add more fresh herbs. Also add a spoonful or two of fish sauce with the chopped red chillies and some peanuts. Feel free to add in the rice noodles to the skillet too, which is what I did, because this will warm them up in the skillet and they get seasoned with all the flavors of the herbs and spices. Now, turn down the heat a bit so that your fish does not burn. A bowl for eating and chopsticks is all you need.
The flavors all meld into a mouth-watering combination when cooking, the fish is seasoned with umami
Surrounded by the aroma of fresh herbs, listening to the comforting sizzling sound of fish fillets being cooked in skillets all around me, I shared my table with another traveler who like me had come from far away, all the way from Japan. He was as excited as me to try this signature dish of Hanoi. We exchanged pleasantries and then gave our undivided attention to the bowls of steaming food in front of us. The combination of freshly grilled fish seasoned with turmeric, tempered with dill, spiced with flavors of shrimp paste and garlic, mixed in with fresh herbs that still have a delicious fresh bite to them, topped with crunchy peanuts is the ultimate umami of flavors. Every mouthful exploded with flavor, the heat (both spice and temperature) was intense since I was picking food right off of the stove. Even with a singed tongue, I could tell that this was going to be one of the best meals I’d ever eaten.
Cha Ca La Vong’s Grilled Fish with turmeric, dill, fresh herbs and more!
Cha Ca La Vong’s grilled fish is a dish for the ages. There may be many other restaurants aspiring to be as good as the original, but there is something to be said for a 100-year old restaurant that is still cooking up magic with their one-dish menu for so many years, inspiring chefs and foodies around the world. I hope Cha Ca La Vong is still serving their signature cha ca (grilled fish) dish for centuries to come.