Her mắm tôm brings all the boys to the yard
I first learned that mắm tôm (purple fermented shrimp paste) was a part of the universe at a pleasant brunch in Go Vap District.
Children scampered around the room. A considerable stack of beer cans lined the floor. A cool breeze filtered through the balcony doors.
One of my colleagues had prepared a delicious meal of chả giò, herbs and rice noodles and I couldn’t have felt more at peace with my surroundings.
When we sat down to eat, everything went wrong.
One of the children has had some sort of terrible gastrointestinal accident somewhere in this room.
The meal took on the feeling of a Twilight Zone episode.
Was I the only one who knew? And how should I let the others know?
It took several minutes for me to understand that the stench was no accident, but, instead the result of careful fermentation. It took several months to understand that mắm tôm had a beautiful complexity to it, a flavor that most people come to love once they give it a proper chance.
If you still haven’t gotten out of the Twilight Zone, then you need to get yourself to Bún Đậu Cô Khàn—the gravelly-throated lady’s tofu noodle place.
The restaurant was the brainchild of a smoky-voiced supermodel from Hanoi who wanted to bring her favorite Northern dishes to Saigon.
If that sounds almost as bad as purple fermented shrimp paste, then consider that after less than a month in business, it may qualify as the best new restaurant of 2012.
Two months ago, she and her cousin (a pale, portly 20 year-old who speaks in a rather high lilt) opened the spot in a one-room building set deep in an alleyway crowded by mediocre hotpot joints.
In spite of its location, they cannot seem to stay open for all the business.
Every night customers fill the alley to bursting and bleed into the restaurants next door.
By 7 p.m. on Monday, they had sold out their entire stock for the day. The cooks redoubled their supplies on Tuesday only to sell everything by 6 p.m.
On Wednesday, she announced on Facebook that she’d be personally serving diners and everything was gone by 5 p.m.—well before I could get there.
When I arrived, her cousin was sitting on a stool deflecting hoards of still hungry customers.
Trang Tran spun through the dining room—a stunning two-meter Amazon with the voice of Tom Waits and the mannerisms of a Marx Brother.
I’ll never forget the first (and, unfortunately, last) time I managed to beat the crowds.
The smell of mắm tôm poured out of the doors and windows like flames while the fryer cauldron in the corner crackled like a furnace full of firecrackers.
Something about the service and the low seats felt distinctly Hanoian.
To keep cool, I ordered a refreshing nước tắc (iced kumquat juice) which was ferried in by a lady down the alley.
My special plate (VND60.000 per person) arrived on a traditional basket atop a banana leaf.
And it was beautiful: tight bundles of bún, a fistful of fresh herbs, boiled pork belly, fried chả cốm (fish pie studded with gooey green rice) and slices of extraterrestrial tofu that maintain the consistency of warm chocolate for the duration of the meal.
The magic ingredient tying all of these things together is
the giant ceramic pot of mắm tôm, sitting next to the cook’s station.
They ladle it out with a little daub of cooking oil to keep it warm and a bowl of fish sauce cut with sweetened kumquat juice.
Blend it all together and it’s pure Hanoi heaven. So much so, that I had to order a second bowl.
Address: 102/1B Cống Quỳnh Street, District 1
Hours: 10 a.m.-When food is all gone (could be as early as 4:30 p.m.!)
Cost: VND60,000 per person for their special platter
By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the November 30th issue of our print edition, Vietweek)