During the planning stages of our trip, I started making my list of dishes, and a few places that I wanted to check out. Of course, being a fan of Cha Ca Thang Long(tumeric fish with dill), I had the famous Cha Ca La Vong, made popular by Patricia Schultz's 1,000 Places to See Before You Die, and seen in every single travel show on Hanoi, on my list. But after asking around a bit, and reading a post or two, we thought that'd maybe we would try elsewhere, and on Beach's and a NY Time's article, the lower-keyed Cha Ca Thang Long Restaurant seemed to fit the bill.
So upon our return to Hanoi from Halong Bay, we dodged the endless procession of motorbikes and walked on over to Cha Ca Thang Long.
At first glance it seemed that the restaurant hadn't taken down the Christmas decorations! But the interior of the restaurant was very clean, and I guess red is the color of choice.
Every table comes equipped with a brazier loaded with heating gel.
And a rather large bowl of scallions and dill.
And in an instant, all of the ingredients of Cha Ca arrive; the wonderfully spicy, but sweet orange chilies, shredded scallions, skinned peanuts(a very important detail.....a gentleman told me the peanuts have to be skinned), a bowl of wonderful fresh herbs...
A plate piled high with Bun....
Both the Missus and I each had an entire set of ingredients......it was turning out to be quite a collection of plates and bowls. Meanwhile, one of Young Ladies, started toward us with 2 little bowls, as she approached our table she spoke to us in Vietnamese. As soon as we replied in English she stopped dead in her tracks and beat a hasty retreat to the kitchen, and came back with two different bowls. These had Nuoc Mam(Fish Sauce) in them.
Laughing, I told them, "no-no, mam tom, mam tom, shrimp paste....please!" "You want shrimp sauce?" "Yes, yes, please......"
And while the fish sauce was quite nice....pungent and biting like a stiff drink of whiskey, the Mam Tom was a revelation. Rich and savory, pungent as expected, but it had been whipped until foamy, making it very light. and there was an unmistakable sweetness, with a mild sour flavor. The Missus went through 3 bowls of this stuff, and 2 little bowls of the chilies during the meal.
The brazier was lit, and our pan of fish arrived. I went to start cooking, and with a smile, the Young Lady, waved me off, and started cooking the Cha Ca for us.
Her own version of quality control I guess. She mixed in half of the dill and scallions, gently mixed everything together, and served us.
Our observations on the meal? Strangely, the dill had almost no flavor, which threw off the overall flavor. The fish was very moist, tender, and without any hint of the dreaded "muddy flavor", but was on the bland side. I had been expecting this to be a tad oily, but that was not the case at all. The Bun was very mushy and sticky. Kind of a mixed bag for a meal. Though the fish was very moist, compared to the version a good friend's Mom made for us, the flavor came up a bit short.
The service was probably the best we had in Vietnam, amazingly efficient, and generous. As soon as we were out of something, they would bring out replacements until we told them to stop! The price was also quite good 160,000 VND for 2. About 5 bucks each. The based on the what we heard and observed, the clientele was completely Vietnamese.
Cha Ca Thang Long
21-31 Duong Thanh
Hoan Kiem District, Hanoi