Cha Ca La Vong is immensely famous, being a 'must eat' in many a guidebook, on the list of 1001 Foods You Must Eat Before You Die and even the subject of an article in the New York Times. Its a seemingly simple dish of grilled fish that is then pan fried in a with some dill, then added to a small bowl of noodles, chilli, peanuts, onion, other herbs and a sauce. The result is a dish that is so delicious that its inspired chefs in the US to either directly reproduce it wholesale or adapt the dish's flavours into new creations.
Here's the tricky part - the restaurant and the dish are both called Cha Ca La Vong, and its located on a street called Cha Ca. And on that street are two shops with exactly the same name located almost opposite each other. Even someone like myself who mapped out all the streets in the Old Quarter and knew roughly where to look for Cha Ca La Vong was very confused. In the end we chose the one of the east side of the road given the much more welcoming staff and signage.
Little did we know that we actually had gone to the slightly more expensive 'imposter' store (the original is already considered expensive by Hanoi standards). They claim in their menu that they are the famous Cha Ca La Vong 'mentioned in many guidebooks', but had I had Google Maps or a Lonely Planet handy it would have told me to go to the dingy, unwelcoming place across the road. Had we read the sign a bit better we might have noticed it actually read 'Cha Ca Ca Cvong' but it was really only when I was writing this blog post that I even noticed this little detail!
So given that they were not the correct store, how did the food hold up? Pretty well actually. Based on other blog posts I've read the food here is said to be on par with the original and definitely did not disappoint.
First the herbs, onion, sauce, peanuts, chilli and noodles are placed on the table.
Then a pan sitting on a hotpad is warmed with the dill added in to be fried up.
The waitstaff prepared the first bowl for us to show us how to eat the dish.
And when the dill is sufficiently cooked the grilled fish is added.
The end result is a dish that is very utterly Vietnamese but very unique due to the dominance of the dill. I always think of dill as a good friend of salmon, and it again proves here that dill and seafood are wonderful together. Mixed together with the noodles, nuts, herbs, onion and chilli and the sauce, this was a flavour explosion - I can see why this dish is so highly praised and copied in the US. If you like seafood, you'll probably like this more than an average bowl of pho, but for our palate was probably behind bun cha in our esteem.
The Verdict: Very Good (Provisionally)
I've said some very nice things about the food at this imposter store and it was well earned - the food was delicious and lived up to its high expectations. But what is not earned is its name, and I really don't like the deception involved. While the food is said to be as good at the original store, the experience of how the dish is presented at the true Cha Ca La Vong looks to be much better and more exciting (based on blog posts I've seen) so for these imposters to charge more its totally unacceptable. No matter how good they were, I really recommend not giving them the business as this kind of dishonesty should not be rewarded.