Cha Ca is Vietnamese Style Fish with Turmeric & Dill, and despite it being an Asian dish, I’ve never tasted anything quite like it before. Dill is seldom used in Asian dishes, so having an abundance of that in one dish was intriguing.
Trying local Hanoi food is one of the Top 5 must-try dishes when visiting Hanoi , so I’m glad we had time to try as many dishes and repeated some for comparison.
1. Cha Ca La Vong
14 Cha Ca Street, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
A highly recommended dish should never be had just once, so while keeping one recommended place in my pocket, we ventured to a 100-year-old Cha Ca restaurant that is often a must-not-miss in guidebooks – Cha Ca La Vong.
We were shocked when the skillet arrived with pieces of fish swimming in hot oil. Like, A LOT OF OIL and not very fresh-looking. Let’s not even discuss health issues; the taste was really off. Every mouthful was like lubricating our lips with a super greasy lip balm that never fades. We waited for the fish to cook some more, so that the oil will be absorbed by the fish, but there was simply too much oil. The rice noodles were dry and stuck together, making it difficult to pick them up with chopsticks as they break off from the weight of the clump below. We didn’t finish our noodles, and I saw the staff putting our remaining noodles back to the common pile, ready for the next customer. Perhaps it’s the local culture to recycle leftovers, but maybe don’t do it blatantly like that for all to see?
The bite of the fish was so-so, I mean, it probably might have tasted nice if not for the oil that was enough to grease a car. I do not remember telling my mum I like the taste of the fish, all I remember was us telling one another “OILY OILY OILY”. 😖
Beware of the copycat: CHA CA LA LVONG just across the street. So sneaky with an extra ‘L’ in front of ‘Vong’. Then again, if you only had one chance to try Cha Ca, I wouldn’t recommend coming to this street.
2. Cha Ca Thang Long
19-21-31 Duong Thanh, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi
The dissatisfaction from Cha Ca La Vong left us wanting. I didn’t want the only and last memory of the iconic Hanoi dish to be ‘oily’ and ‘not worth the hype’. The day we returned from Halong Bay, we set forth for Cha Ca Thang Long.
OMG BEST CHA CA EVER. 😍
Cha Ca Thang Long was highly recommended by our hotel receptionist and the moment we stepped into the place, we understood why she’s such a big fan. Sure, it didn’t have the sleepy charm of La Vong, but that was hardly missed. The interior was modern and simple, brightly-lit, and there was air-conditioning. Not that we minded not having air-conditioning, of course, but it was a nice touch. There were locals and international patrons, but mostly locals.
Here, the herbs looked fresh (so fresh and nicely plated I had to take a picture), the rice noodles didn’t clump, and service was great. The staff asked if he can help us, demonstrated, and spent time explaining how to properly cook the dish. The service staff all spoke English fairly well. The instructions were essentially the same – cook the fish, add the dill, spring onion and herbs, put some rice noodles into your bowl and add chilli, peanuts and fish sauce according to your desired taste, but having someone guide you along made for a much better experience.
Most importantly, the oil looked clean and fresh as opposed to recycled, and just the right amount was used; the pieces of fish were chunky and juicy and optimally marinated and was enough for both of us. At the previous Cha Ca La Vong, the fresh herbs when cooked with the fish felt like an odd neighbor and we were reluctant to drown them in the pool of oil, but at Cha Ca Thang Long, the greens and fish tasted like a heaven-matched marriage.
Without a doubt, Cha Ca Thang Long wins hands down, surpassing Cha Ca La Vong in terms of food quality, hygiene, ambience, service, and price. Perhaps we caught Cha Ca La Vong on a bad day, maybe their fish is better on other days, maybe oil-dripping Cha Ca is the authentic way, I’m not sure, but I love Cha Ca Thang Long’s interpretation of Cha Ca and cannot recommend it enough!