Chả Cá Lã Vọng: The Must Eat Northern Specialty When in Vietnam

cha ca la vong

Chả Cá Lã Vọng: The Northern Dish you Must Eat When in Vietnam

When guests ask me for my favourite Vietnamese foods, chả cá always challenges for a top spot. Every aspect of the 100 year-old northern specialty contributes to one of Vietnam’s most enriching dining experiences. Chả cá hasn’t reached similar global heights to its edible peers, which makes it harder to find outside of its birthplace in Hanoi. Fortunately for those who missed chả cá lã vọng in the capital can save themselves the return trip to Hanoi by visiting a new restaurant in Hue.

What is Chả Cá Lã Vọng?

Chả cá simply translates to grilled/braised fish, but its minimalist name doesn’t hint to the complexities of its flavours. The river fish is marinated with turmeric then fried with dill and scallions. The fish is fried twice, once by the chef and then at the dining table. The dish must be eaten straight from the pan and additional ingredients added by the diner moments before consumption to maximise its taste bud sensations.  Along with the dining table stove and frying pan, chả cá also comes with a plate of vermicelli noodles (bún) and several small dishes of lime, fish paste, peanuts and fresh chili. A delicate portion of each ingredient creates a dish like no other.

cha ca hue tours

How to Eat it

The chả cá dining experience can be a daunting one for those not entirely experienced with Asian cuisine. Due to the delicacy of the dish, getting the balance of flavours right is essential. Although there is never one way to eat any Vietnamese dish, my Hanoian friend gave me some invaluable advice for eating chả cá; after adding every ingredient and condiment, the result shouldn’t be bigger than a mouthful! Keep that in mind when following these steps.

  • The waiter will bring out the pan of fish and set the stove alight. Although the fish has already been cooked, this is merely to reheat the fish, dill and scallions. Your waiter may do the cooking themselves or leave you to it. Keep the ingredients in the pan moving to avoid it sticking and burning at the bottom of the pan.
  • Use your waiting time efficiently and get some quick prep done. That tiny bowl with the purple shrimp paste needs a few cuts of chili, several drops of lime and a stir with a chopstick.
  • Once complete the waiter will lower the stove’s flame and the fish will continue to simmer.
  • Take a small piece of fish along with a tiny amount of dill and a shred of scallion to your bowl. Dress with a few strings of vermicelli noodle.
  • Squeeze a drop or two of fresh lime, a couple of peanuts, a dab of purple shrimp paste and if desired, a cut of chili or two.
  • And that is chả cá lã vọng. Get the whole thing between your chopsticks and send it down the trap. Destination ngọn!
chả cá lã vong hue

Where Does the Dish Come From?

Chả cá lã vọng originates from one eatery in the centre of Hanoi’s old quarter. Still active on the street that has been renamed after the much-loved dish, the restaurant first began operating during the French colonial era over 100 years ago. Legend has it that anti-colonial revolutionary cells would frequently congregate there under the cover of the restaurant to exchange information on latest activities and findings. The name Lã Vọng belongs to a Confucian legend whose statue would sit overlooking diners at the restaurant and now lends its name to the dish.

cha ca la vong

Bún Chả Hà Nội vs. Chả Cá Lã Vọng

When Anthony Bourdain took Barack Obama to bún chả in Hà Nội, I always wondered why he couldn’t have spared a couple more dollars and took him for chá cả lã vọng instead. Maybe they got the names confused? I am certain that a serving of chả cá lã vọng may have instilled some of that age-old revolutionary spirit in Obama and could have changed the current dystopic face of global politics we find outselves in today. Don’t make the same mistake as Anthony!

 

bun cha ha noi

Despite both having bún (vermicelli noodles), their respective meats being chả and originating from Hà Nội. There are multiple distinctions between the two dishes. Firstly, bún chả is a dish based on minced pork shoulder squeezed into meat balls.  While both dishes include vermicelli rice, chả cá uses shrimp paste rather than fish sauce as its primary condiment. Vegetables for bún chả are pickled whereas chả cá’s dill and scallions come fresh and fried on the table. Finally, there bún chả is mainly a greasy affair whereas chả cá lã vọng is evened out with its side-ingredients. Oh and of course, chả cá lã vọng is much more of a table spectacle!

Where to Get the Goods in Hue...

Despite being a dish exclusive to Hanoi, recent years have seen a few locations open up in Hue and despite being almost 1,000 kilometres from home, they serve a decent chả cá lã vọng.

Chả cá Lăng Hà Nôi
254 Ngự Bình
While the restaurant is further out of town than …. The restaurant surrounds the exterior of the owner’s house and tables are set beside the garden.

Chả Cá Hà Nội tại Huế – NGƯ PHỐ
1 Dương Văn An
Classier dining experience than your average street food joint. Close the to centre of town and quality is to a high standard.

But it Ain't That Local

Chả cá lã vọng is a northern dish and a finer dining experience. This is the kind of dining experience for families. Don’t expect these restaurants to be full of streetlife buzz! If you’re looking for something curbside and definitively loca, take the Hue Grit Food Tour!

Hue Food: 10 Local Dishes You Must Try When You’re in Hue, Vietnam

Dessert Vietnamese Hue

10 Hue Foods You Must Try

Regional specialty dishes are often overlooked by visitors travelling Vietnam. While pho and banh mi are world-renowned as Vietnamese food, there are some less-discovered creations awaiting your enjoyment in every province of the country. This is especially true for local Hue food. The city’s cultural heritage and long-standing affluence has produced foods that solely belong to the area yet celebrated around Vietnam. To spare you the search and mind-boggling google translations, here is a guide of 10 local Hue foods you have to try. Although the majority include meat, There are vegan options available around the city. If you want to pack as much in as possible during your time in Hue, why not take a deepdive into the food scene with a Hue Grit Food Tour? We not only show you where Hue’s best local food is but tell you how to eat it and the social-historical context of each dish. Check out our tripadvisor if to see we’re the best Hue food tour the city has to offer!

The Noodles, the Rice & the Meat

1. Bun Bo Hue: Hearty Noodle Meat Feast

noodles hue vietnam bun bo hue best food
/>If pho vacates it’s title of ‘most famous Vietnamese noodle dish’, I’m sure that bun bo hue would be next in line. A direct translation would be ‘beef (bo) vermicelli noodles (bun) from Hue’. Bun Bo Hue is a meat feast. It’s primary ingredients, beef brisket, oxtail, pig knuckles and congealed pig’s blood are stewed in a huge pot along with lemongrass and some chili then served with veggies and leafy greens. It might seem too much for one dish but foodies find themselves ordering more. Best eaten on colder days for central heating at the back of a packed hole in the wall.

2. Com Hen / Bun Hen: Majestic and Appetizing

Com Hen Hue Grit Tour Local Food
One of the more gracious entries to the local Hue food list. Com hen translates into baby mussels (hen) and rice (com). The dish’s supporting cast include fresh produce (starfruit, green mango, banana leaf,variety of herbs) and fried treats (pork rind, peanuts). Com hen can be served dry or wet depending on your preference. Chili relish, shrimp paste and fish sauce are the usual sauces to accompany com hen. vermicelli noodles (bun hen) is also an optional substitute for rice. One serving is usually too small for a whole meal, be ready to order more. Com hen has a unique spot in the culinary history of Vietnam. Read our article about the dish and it’s relationship with the city here. Can be eaten at any time of the day and any time of the year but best on a warm day with a cooling lemon juice.

3. Bun Thit Nuong Hue: Sassy Tropical Tongue-Melter

Bun Thut Nuong Hue Food Tour
Another tasty Hue noodle dish. Unlike bun bo hue, bun thit nuong is a food served dry and cool. When hot soup-based noodle dishes don’t work in sweltering heat, bun thit nuong is the answer. Grilled pork and vermicelli noodles topped with papaya, scallions, leafy greens, herbs and crushed peanuts. An optional tablespoon or two of fish sauce. The result is an explosion of flavors perfect for a light meal. Best eaten on a scorching summer day.

4. Nem Lui: Aromatic Grilled Beef Spring Rolls

pork skewers best food Hue Grit Tour

Grilled ground pork skewers are nothing new but when those skewers are made from lemongrass, nem lui holds itself up pretty well. Another Hue food now found nationwide. As with all Vietnamese street foods, Nem Lui isn’t a one-trick pony. Straight from the grill, you should take the meat off the skewer, wrap it in rice paper with greens (to make something akin to a spring roll) and dunk into it’s accompanying sauce before taking a bite. Only after taking these steps, you’ve reached Nem Lui nirvana. Best to eat as an evening snack, street food straight from the BBQ. Nem Lui can be found with the sense of smell, most BBQs selling Nem Lui waft the aromatic combination of lemongrass and grilled eat through the street. We can’t find a vegetarian Nem Lui in Hue but Lien Hoa has mecan on bamboo which is mildly similar and damn tasty.

The Banhs (savoury cakes)!

5. Banh Khoai: the Hue Pancake

Banh Khoai Vietnam Hue pancake
If you’ve tried banh xeo and loved it, banh khoai is it’s local hue food cousin and you don’t want to miss it. A rice-flour savoury pancake filled with pork, shrimp and beansprouts. Sometimes with quail eggs too! Served sizzling hot from the frying pan with a side of starfruit and local herbs. A spoonful of peanut sauce on top of the banh khoai adds the 4th dimension to the flavour-packed dish. Experiment with the quantities of the condiments to get the balance right. Unlike banh xeo, these aren’t rolled up. Eat them straight from the bowl. It’s a greasy affair so roll up your sleeves. Best eaten as a sundowner/evening snack.

6. Banh Beo Chen: Your Edible Beer Buddy

Hue Grit Tour Banh Beo Chen
Banh beo is quite simply a jelly-like savoury cake consisting of rice flour and tapioca. Topped with pork rind, grated shrimp and finely chopped onions. Servings usually come in batches meaning it’s best shared with a friend or two. When eating banh beo, drip some onion oil on top then dig it out from it’s dish with a spoon. Best eaten as a snack any time of the day. Always great with a shared conversation and a beer to compliment the spice.

7. Banh Ram It Hue: Devils’ Delight

Banh Ram It Hue Grit Tour
This one is a personal favourite. Banh ram it is a triple-layered circular stack of varying textures. At the cake’s base is a crispy, deep-fried rice cracker. Sitting above is a rice dumpling stuffed with pork and shrimp. Topped with scallions and minced shrimp. Not so different from banh beo chen but more filling, more crisp. All in bitesize pieces, that’s if you have a big mouth like me. Best eaten as a snack at any time of the year.

8. Banh Trang and Banh Ep: Vietnamese Pizza

Vietnamese Pizza Hue Grit Tour
Two local hue foods that are highly popular with students are banh ep and banh trang. Banh ep is a soft thin pancake with vegetables and spicy condiments to be rolled up into a spring roll and eaten fresh off the smoker. Banh Trang is a fried rice cracker topped with herbs luminous sauces and meat. People refer to this as Vietnamese pizza but prepared to be heart broken because this thing doesn’t include a doughy base or elaborate cheeses. The best street-food stalls selling banh ep and banh trang are usually sat beside student dormitories and open until very late at night. Although Hue claims it as it’s own, banh ep actually comes from nearby Thuan An beach.

The Sweet and Fruity

9. Va Tron: Exclusive Local Fruit

Vietnamese salad Hue Grit Tour
There aren’t many fruits and vegetables on this list of Hue foods but this entry makes up for it. Trai va (fig) is particularly special because it only grows in Hue and rarely outside of the region. It’s an unusual fruit since it doesn’t has the properties you would associate more with a vegetable. It’s freshy and savoury. Sometimes brown and sometimes pink. It is used in local salads, soups and even as a meat alternative. Lots of restaurants with larger menus have Va Tron. If you’re feeling unsure, go to the vegetarian address below. I dare you, carnivore.

10. Che & Chè Bột Lọc Thịt Heo Quay: Sweet Dessert for All the Family

che hue grit tour best local food in hue

The only Vietnamese pudding on this list. Che is not only a popular Vietnamese dessert but all over South East Asia. While Che comes in plenty of varieties, Hue has it’s own take on the regional favourite. Chè bột lọc thịt heo quay is a sweet flour dumpling topped with ginger and a porky surprise within! Certainly one of Hue’s stranger local foods. Nevertheless, if you’re not keen on the meaty addition to your dessert, try another of the many che varieties on offer. Some stands boast more than 20 varieties. If you’re a sweet-toothed kind of human being, challenge yourself to try them all. Me? I would rather take a cigarette to conclude a food gorge. Excuse the cough.

What Other Local Food is Out There?

Finding Hue restaurants is only half the challenge. Knowing how to eat them can be just as difficult! Want a guided culinary adventure? Join us on the Hue Grit Tour! We’re more than happy to show you around and how these foods are eaten!
These aren’t the only dishes available in Hue. In fact, this is just a cornerstone of the Hue culinary experience. If you’re an adventurer. Get out to the streets of Hue and dive deep into the endless amounts of restaurants and street food available.

Looking for a homely lunch? Check out Nha Cafe.

More inclined to some buddhist-leaning vegetarian food? Visit our list of best vegetarian restaurants in Hue.
There are also plenty of fantastic seafood restaurants. Others also serve some very bizarre dishes. Both of these will be covered in future articles.

Have you visited Hue already? Which foods did you try? Which dishes were unforgettable? Are there any you’re trying to forget? Comment below.

Hue Grit Tour

Why wait? Book now!
Want to know more? Check out the itinerary.
Looking for some gritty tips? head over to the blog.
Have some questions to ask? Contact us.

 

Photos by Ana Fortuna.

Beach Of Hue: Thuan An Fishing Town. The Allure of the Sea

beach hue grit tour thuan an

Thuan An Beach for 2019

Thuan An is Hue’s closest beach. Around 15KM from the city centre, it isn’t as tourist-convenient as the beaches that serve Hoi An or Danang but it’s charm and the variety on offer makes it a worthy day trip. Thuan An is a small fishing village with a population of around 21,000. While a resort and some villas have cropped up, Thuan An has retained it’s strong cultural identity tied closely with the sea. Ultimately, this means cheap seafood, cheap beer, strips of sparsely-populated beach and an authentic culture to discover!
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Cafe Nha: Fantastic Homemade Lunch in a Rustic Hue Cafe

Homemade lunch hue grit tourHow Authentic is Your Lunch?

Visitors to Vietnam will tell you that local food is a divine exploration of the palate. Although flashpacking foodies travel with a golden bucketlist of dishes, it is easy to forget that no culinary experience can be more authentic than one in a home. Unless tourists stop in an intimate homestay or are invited to eat with a Vietnamese family, they may not have the opportunity to eat homemade food. Cafe Nha in Hue is changing this. In contrast to the fast-turnaround noodle shops and beer-centric restaurants, Cafe Nha have brought the household culinary experience back for lunch. Read more “Cafe Nha: Fantastic Homemade Lunch in a Rustic Hue Cafe”

Mi Op La 33: Best Vietnamese Breakfast Restaurant in Hue

Mi Op La 33: The ‘Full-English’ Vietnamese Breakfast!

best Vietnamese breakfast Hue Grit Tour
Birdseye view of the first floor during Tet Holiday.

Any visitor who likes a drink will find out that Vietnam has some of the cheapest beer in the world. Following that evening of small serendipity will be the second realization that tropical hangovers are brutal. Read more “Mi Op La 33: Best Vietnamese Breakfast Restaurant in Hue”

Five Fantastic Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue

Updated October 2018: We’ve found a few new places that definitely deserve to be on the list.

Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue

Vegetarians and vegans  travelling Vietnam may be surprised that the country has a plethora of restaurants to suit all meat-free diets.Twice a month, the population will go to their local meat-free restaurant to gorge on vegetables and tofu. Restaurants on the ‘pancake trail’ serve some really shitty meat-free dishes, fact. After living in Ho Chi Minh City and Danang, Hue has provided me with the variety I desire and a few surprises too. I’m not sure why there are so many vegetarian restaurants in Hue, maybe something to do with the city’s age-old culture and affluence from both the upper and middle classes. A large percentage of street-side restaurants also turn veg every month on the 1st and 15th of the lunar calendar. Look for signs including ‘chay’ (with absolutely no accents on the word) on these days to get a budget fill.

vegetarian restaurants in Hue Grit Tour
Despite his clean-living lifestyle, Buddha has been unable to hit the gym for some cardio since being trapped behind a barricade of potted plants.

Read more “Five Fantastic Vegan and Vegetarian Restaurants in Hue”