May 2008

Chả Cá Hà Nội – Ho Chi Minh City

April 18, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

5A Tran Nhat Duat Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 8484240

Chả Cá Hà Nội – fried fish fillets with dill and spring onions (89,000 VND per person)

Fixins – vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, fresh herbs, rice crackers, limes, fish sauce and shrimp paste

Ca Cuong Drops – a pheromone liquid from a tiny gland behind the wings of the male Ca Cuong, a beetle that lives in the rice fields (28,000 VND per drop)

Ever since The Astronomer made his way to Hanoi and tried Chả Cá without me, I’ve been suffering from palate envy. In order to even the score, we headed to Chả Cá Hà Nội in Saigon with our friend Hawkins a few weeks back. I’ll make my way to Hanoi one of these days, but until then, this southern version will have to suffice.

Even though the restaurant is named Chả Cá Hà Nội, it actually serves a number of other dishes, but we came for the house specialty. Before the star of the show arrived, our waitress brought out an array of accouterments including spliced spring onions, noodles, toasted peanuts, herbs, limes chilies, shrimp paste and fish sauce.

Wandering Chopsticks sent me an interesting article a few months back about the joys of pairing water beetle musk with Chả Cá, so we ordered a squirt of ca cuong out of curiosity. I was expecting our waitress to extract juices from an actual beetle, but instead she had a sterile little bottle filled with clear liquid.

I tasted the fish sauce both pre and post beetle droplet and couldn’t tell the difference between the two, which was rather disappointing. We could have shelled out 28,000 more dong for another drop, but were too skeptical (and cheap) to do so. Next time, I’ll just ask the waitress to squirt the musk directly onto my tongue and have the beetle essence permeate the dish that way. To the left is a picture of our waitress adding a drop of water beetle essence into our nuoc mam.

The fish arrived sizzling on a frying pan and was placed on a table-side burner to continue cooking. Our waitress added a pile of greenery including fresh dill and scallions to marinate with the fish.

After the fish and herbs were perfectly melded, we excitedly assembled our bowls of Chả Cá Hà Nội. I began with a cool pile of noodles, added in toasted peanuts and broken bits of rice cracker, spooned on the hot fish and herbs, drizzled on some shrimp paste and squeezed in a smidgen of lime. The end result was not only pretty, but spectacularly delicious too.

I sometimes feel that Vietnamese food can get a little redundant due to the constant employment of pickled vegetables, fish sauce, fresh herbs, etc., but Chả Cá is definitely a unique treat within the genre. What sets this dish apart from other Vietnamese standbys is the pungent shrimp paste and strong shot of dill.

According to The Astronomer, the version we had down south was just as good as the one he enjoyed in Hanoi.

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9 thoughts on “Chả Cá Hà Nội – Ho Chi Minh City

  1. You’ve turned me into a regular reader of your blog, and that’s seriously not good for my cravings, especially when I only come back to Vietnam every 3 to 4 years or so…

    This is one of a few dishes I’ve never actually sat down in an authentic “Cha ca Ha Noi” place to eat when I were still back home. It’s on my wish list *lol, how small my wishes are*. I was told by dad that it was better in the North because of its authenticity and special herbs. Apparently the herbs used in the authentic restaurant in the North only come from specific villages, and they taste (and look) a bit different from herbs grown anywhere else. I can personally say it’s true the first few times I tried herbs from the North, but after that I guess my tounge just became … dull *lol*

  2. Isn’t 89,000VND per person is a bit pricey? That portion is probably enough for 2 I think. Can you order 1 person portion but then share it, or they just count the number of people sitting at table for the bill?

    Wow, 6-7 bucks per person is fairly expensive in Vietnamese standard considering the dish is pretty common. Maybe I haven’t been back for a while =) Cathy, if you want to make this at home, I’ll send you recipe (pretty sure your Mom probably knows it too) because it’s really easy to make and cheap too.

    I still can’t get over how pricey Saigon gets nowadays =) I remember eating this with my family and it cost only like 100,000VND for a family of 5. We only make it at home out of desperation here because Canada has NO restaurant serving this dish…*sigh*

  3. Ooh! Looks really good! I’ve never had it with mam, though? nor beetle essence…

  4. I have to agree that this place was a bit expensive–I got a much bigger portion (per person) for 70,000 VND when I ate at Cha Ca Thanh Long in Hanoi. However, the quality of the food was comparable.

    I found the Noodlepie post about Cha Ca La Vong in Saigon; the latest address given is: number 3 Ho Xuan Huong Street, Ward 6, District 3. I’ll definitely have to stop by and see if it’s still there. Cha ca is awesome–I never knew dill could be so good.

  5. Vivian – the next time you’re either down south or up north in Vietnam, definitely give cha ca a try. It’s not your average Vietnamese dish 😉 And I’m glad you’re a regular reader these days!

    Michelle – Pricey is right! Living in Saigon has made me a cheap skate. DO send your recipe to [email protected]. I would love to make it at home. I’ll probably use less oil than at the restaurant 😉

    Tia – Once Michelle sends me the recipe, I’ll pass it your way so that we can both enjoy cha ca at home.

    WC – What the dilly yo? Okay, I’m just being silly. DILL rocks. Have you had it in cheese? I like it in that form too.

    N – I’ll drag you with me the next time I go. Promise.

  6. I completely disappointed about Cha Ca La Vong in Hanoi. Their behavior and other stuffs.

    I will probably stop by this place to check it out when I go to SG next month. 🙂

  7. wow this is really interesting, I’ve never heard of beetle musk phermones, and what a trip having a distilled drop added to the bowl.

  8. Hi,

    I’ve tried the sauce with and without the beetle secretions at this restaurant. Its a normal fish sauce without (ie. fishy), but add 2 drops of the ca cuong and the fish sauce is transformed in taste and fragrance. Floral, almost. So maybe 2 drops does the trick.

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