The old quarter of Hanoi in Northern Vietnam is maze of narrow streets, crammed with food stalls and makeshift storefronts. Each street has its own specialty. Some sell nothing but kitchen utensils or bamboo; others are known for their Banh Cuon savoury crepes and Bun Thang noodle soups.
At 14 Cha Ca Street, up a rickety flight of stairs, is a 100-year-old restaurant called Cha Ca La Vong. The restaurant is famous for its seared catfish of the same name, marinated in turmeric, among other secret ingredients. It is often cited in guidebooks as one of the city's must-try dishes.
When Hong Nguyen and his wife, Rose, were planning to open the second location of Mr. Red Café, the chef knew he wanted to include Cha Ca La Vong on the newly expanded menu.
A perfectionist, Mr. Nguyen experimented repeatedly, but could not get the recipe quite right. Then one night, at 1:30 a.m., he shook his wife awake.
"I figured it out!" he exclaimed excitedly. (If you ever meet Mr. Nguyen – usually the cool, quiet embodiment of Buddhist calm – you will understand that his nocturnal agitation was wildly out of character.)
Now available in the new Mr. Red Café, which officially opened in early April, Mr. Nguyen's Cha Ca Ha Noi is one of Vancouver's must-try dishes.
The fish is basa, a mild catfish, marinated overnight and lightly seared until the unguent orange coating takes on a pale golden crisp. It is served in a relatively dry, hot skillet (not saturated in oil, as is Cha Ca La Vong), sprinkled with chopped bird's eye chili – be cautious about those – and fistfuls of fresh dill and green onion, quickly sautéed to release the aromatic oils.
A basket on the side is filled with a tangle of vermicelli rice noodles, bunches of fresh herbs (cilantro, lemon balm, mint), a bowl of crushed peanuts and a dark, funky sauce – a table-side variation of the marinade, wherein lies the elusive secret ingredient: red yeast rice, also known as anghak powder, the fungus that gives Peking duck its deep-red colour.
The fermented flavour is fairly strong in the sauce. You need only a small dab. But it mellows beautifully in the flaky fish, exquisitely balanced with bright ginger, salty fish sauce, sweet shallots, tangy vinegar and all those wonderful crunchy dill stems.
If you haven't had the pleasure of dining at the original Mr. Red Café on East Hastings, which I considered one of the best 10 new restaurants of 2014, do yourself the favour. North Vietnamese cuisine – lighter and more herbaceous than the fiery foods in Central Vietnam and sweeter fare to the South – is extremely rare in Vancouver.
If you are already a fan of the original, you will love the cozy new West Broadway location, decorated with traditional bamboo panelling and palm-leaf thatching. More importantly, the kitchen is fully fitted with restaurant-grade equipment, allowing a larger menu.
Among the new offerings available only in Kitsilano is a Sunday night set menu. The rustic, home-style meals, Ms. Nguyen later explained, are composed of family recipes she learned from her grandmother, who operated a food stall in Hanoi for 30 years.
Caramelized Vu Dai fish braised in a clay pot (available on Set A) was one of her grandmother's specialties. The Nguyens use wild salmon in place of carp, slowly stewed until the bones are soft enough to chew, in a dark braise made from soy sauce, chili, lemongrass, galangal, onions, fish sauce and dried garcinia, a shriveled black fruit that gives the dish its distinctive sweet-and-sour tang.
Set B comes with Bo La Lot, wondrously tender and slightly sweet ground beef, tightly rolled in large betel leaves and steamed to order.
Both sets are served with an appetizer, fried tofu with green onions (just like her grandmother used to make), steamed rice, a cold vegetable soup and salted eggplants that look like eyeballs.
The tiny eggplants are very unusual, not just because they look odd. They have a thick, fibrous skin and a soft, pulpy interior. When bitten, they explode with a mouth-drying tartness, as if pickled from the inside.
"You have to eat them with the soup," Ms. Nguyen explains. "They go together and balance the flavours."
Ah, very Buddhist. They do indeed taste better together.
Each dish has a story. The green papaya salad garnished with chewy beef jerky, for example, can be found only on Hanoi's Cau Go Street near Hoan Kiem Lake. There is a black-and-white photo of the lake on the restaurant wall.
All dishes, right down to the condiments, are prepared with uncompromising standards. The basil and mint are handpicked so not a single wilted stem is brought to the table. The rice vinegar, which sits on the tables in jars filled with chilies and garlic cloves, is the highest grade available.
Several dishes will flip preconceived notions upside down. Be brave and try the mung bean sticky rice with durian sauce. The durian doesn't taste anything like stinky socks, as most people fear. Fresh pureed and frozen with coconut cream, it smells like ripe pineapple and has the smooth, rich texture of avocado.
The service is so friendly and gracious you will naturally forgive any confusion at the front door, long waits between courses and the slow retrieval of dirty dishes.
"To our beloved customers," the Nguyens write in an introduction to the menu. "Mr. Red Café is honoured to serve you … we have a simple wish of becoming a boat carrying the cultural values of Vietnam, and Northern Vietnam in particular, across the ocean to you."
Dear Mr. Red Café, we are honoured to have you feed us.