What comes up in your mind when you hear a dish that’s been around for over a century? To me, that means some serious credibility and a huge temptation to try that dish. Number of years a restaurant has survived in this competitive food industry generally indicates there’s got to be something very special that people love and return to. I’d be surprised to hear a place that lasted over a decade, but if you say a century, that’s quite mind-blowing and a strong motivation for anyone to try.
So what’s the dish?
It’s called chả cá, which means grilled fish. Its grand beginning dates back over 130 years when Vietnam was under French colonist and the dish was served to French troops by Doan family in Hanoi. The incredible flavour of the dish mesmerised many that the Doan family opened a restaurant in Old Quarter passing down their recipes over generations until current date.
The restaurant was such a great success that the name of the street was changed to Cha Ca from Hang Son (meaning street of paint) to dedicate and honour this acclaimed dish!
Cha Ca World has begun…
With the unimaginable increase of its popularity and success, there have been many new cha ca restaurants joining the market. While the original restaurant of Doan family still stands in Cha Ca street, named “Cha Ca La Vong”, there are a number of other famous restaurants for the same dish.
When you search for the best cha ca restaurants or top cha ca restaurants in Hanoi, there are tons of search results recommending different places. So when I was doing research, I went through different articles and top recommendations and I could see that two restaurants were repeatedly recommended. They are Cha Ca La Vong – the original restaurant and Cha Ca Thang Long.
My immediate instinct told me to go to the original – the real deal, but unfortunately, the restaurant was not open because it was past their lunch opening time. So I went to Cha Ca Thang Long, which was highly recommended by some of my local friends.
Google map address of Cha Ca Thang Long is a big range of numbers on Duong Thanh street, so we were feeling a bit confused, but we found out it’s because they have about 3 – 4 different blocks of restaurants in the same street. We went to number 21 Duong Thanh, which I believe is the main seating area.
We were here around 3pm and surprised to see how it was full of guests. Most of the tables were done and as soon as they left, there were new people coming in filling up the restaurant.
Neither my boyfriend and I had cha ca before this date and thus we were pretty lost when there was no one brining the menu nor asking us to take the order. We waited patiently until we could grab someone’s attention and the lady just asked how many portions we’d like and whether or not we want fish intestines. So we ordered two portions of cha ca and one portion of fish intestine.
Then pretty soon after, our table was starting to be set up with various ingredients like bun (fresh rice noodle), vegetables and sauces. The primary sauce we were offered was mam tom, which is fermented shrimp paste, a prominently famous sauce in Hanoi. But since I’m not a big fan of mam tom sauce, I asked for an alternative, which was nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce).
All the fish and fish intestines were pre-cooked and brought on the pan to grill with that huge bowl of dill and spring onion. The fragrance of fish was already so promising when it was served and adding the greens on the searing hot pan made the aroma even richer and more mouthwatering.
The first bite of the fish was quite an eye-opening moment for both of us because the flavour is not exactly like other typical Vietnamese cuisine and the dominant, yet subtle turmeric taste was delightful. The fish fillet had no bones and was very tender and meaty. The well-cooked dill and spring onion added a good range of texture and balanced off the oily taste.
Fish intestine may sound very foreign to most of you (like how I felt when I first had it), but its chewy texture is something I really loved. So if you’re an adventurous foodie, I highly recommend ordering a portion of this.
Frankly, we did not quite get why we were served nuoc mam (fish sauce) and mam tom (shrimp paste) because the cha ca was seasoned perfectly, but dipping in the sauce or pouring the sauce in the bowl with noodle and fresh herbs together boosted the flavour and it was like an explosion of my taste buds!
I must say that the meal was beyond perfect from the first mouthful to the very last. One tip I’d like to share with you is to adjust the level of heat while you’re grilling to avoid burning the precious fish and vegetables. We saw quite a few other tables burning their pan, so I hope you’ll be able to enjoy your cha ca perfectly without getting that burnt taste!
I’m definitely going to visit Cha Ca La Vong in the near future and I’m really looking forward to comparing how it’ll be different from Cha Ca Thang Long and it’ll be followed by a new post about that. So stay tuned and happy dining to you all!
Cha Ca Thang Long
Address: 21 – 31 Đường Thành, Cửa Đông, Hoàn Kiếm, Hà Nội, Vietnam
Opening Hours: Everyday 10:00 – 21:30