Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi is mentioned in the book "1,000 places to see before you die" by Patricia Schultz, who is also an executive producer of the Travel Channel's show of the same name.
The restaurant in the appropriately named Cha Ca Street (chả cá means "grilled fish") began life way back when Vietnamese city dwellers were catching on to the Western idea of restaurant dining with family and friends.
Indeed, chả cá Lã Vọng was something of a cosmopolitan trailblazer in the history of Vietnamese cuisine.
When the French dominated Vietnam in the 19th century, there was a family named Doan in Hang Son Street who generously treated their friends with homemade marinated grilled fish with herbs.
Appreciating the exotic flavor of the Doan's recipe, these friends helped the family to open a chả cá restaurant as a way of making a living.
The name was inspired by a statue of a fisherman called La Vong, the Vietnamese pronunciation for Lu Wang, also called Jiang Ziya, a famous Chinese prime minister of the Zhou Dynasty (1030BC-223BC). La Vong is a symbol of talented people who know how to wait for the right time to shine. So they named the restaurant Cha Ca La Vong. It soon became so renowned that the street name was changed from Hang Son to Cha Ca.
Chả cá Lã Vọng the dish is a showcase of slow cooking in the Hanoian style. The main ingredient is a type of catfish called hemibagrus, which needs lots of time and attention when it is cooked.
To prepare a hemibagrus, first the small bones are removed and the fish cut into small pieces. Then it is marinated for a while in a combination of saffron, zingibera ceous, galingale and fish sauce with a little pepper. After two hours or so, the marinated fish pieces should have turned yellow from the saffron and can be lightly grilled over charcoal.
CHA CA LA VONG RESTAURANT
14 Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem District
107 Nguyen Truong To Street, Ba Dinh District
In HO CHI MINH CITY
3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, District 3
36 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1
27 Thang Long Street, Tan Binh District
The fish is then taken to the table and fried in a small pan together with dill and spring onion before being served with fresh rice noodles called bún, fried nuts, basil and shrimp sauce, or fish sauce and lime for those who find shrimp sauce a bit heavy.
This dish is full of flavor thanks to the marinated grilled fish, fragrant herbs, fresh bún and crunchy nuts. Cooking it on the table and eating it straight away only adds to the experience.
Robert Sheen from New York was very taken with the food. "Cha ca La Vong is a simple, basic but nice dish which has a nice combination of flavors. It is a well balanced, healthy meal, all in one pan," he said after eating a healthy amount.
Cha Ca La Vong Restaurant is always full of happy diners locals, expats, tourists and returning overseas Vietnamese (Viet kieu). There in the tranquility of an old, dark timber house, it's interesting to watch the mothers, wives and girlfriends as they take over and stir the grilled fish, add some dill and spring onion to the hot pan, adjust the flame, and dish out the servings to their families and friends.
If you visit Hanoi and friends treat you to Cha Ca La Vong, you can consider yourself fortunate and much loved. It's a memorable experience not just because of the taste but also the sharing.
The dish conjures up a convivial yet intimate atmosphere whether served at home or at the eponymous restaurant. A friend of mine, a fan of chả cá Lã Vọng, cooks this specialty for her husband, friends and guests on special occasions. It is even said that she won her husband's heart this way.
Cha Ca La Vong has expanded to Ho Chi Minh City, with the same authentic flavor. Just like in Hanoi, the eateries in the southern metro serve one dish, chả cá Lã Vọng. However, to add a southern element, there is an assortment of the dry pancakes known as bánh tráng also available.
A meal for two costs VND300,000 to VND400,000 (US$15-20).