Thursday, September 30, 2010

Copping An Eel in Hanoi

Last night, suffering from a lack of ideas for dinner, it suddenly popped into my head, as if I were in a parallel universe directed by Wang Kar Wai, that I was in the mood for eel. When this happens (more often than you might think), I have an easy solution – make my way about five blocks to the unimaginatively named “Nha Hang 34 Yen Ninh,” which can be found – where else? – at 34 Yen Ninh Street.

This place is a hole inside a hole in the wall. The entrance is not at all inviting, nor does it inspire much confidence, although the kitchen window, which faces the street, does offer one, as one parks their motorbike on the curb in front, a whiff of eel magic.

Although the photo here doesn’t show it, the place was absolutely packed when we entered. We were led to a single table at the back, beneath a TV screen showing a Spanish soccer match, and around which a little girl in glasses kept walking, staring at me all the while, saying “hello” in English but not replying to me when I tried to talk to her in English or Vietnamese. She was pretty funny, actually. Admittedly, it might have been the effect of her coke-bottle glasses.

We ended up ordering cháo lươn (eel porridge), which was quite satisfying – the eel was meaty and abundant, and the porridge thick enough to stay on my spoon. It was the first time in perhaps 12 years that I had cháo lươn, and it was different from what I sometimes had, and grew to love, in Biên Hoà before even that.

We also ordered chả lươn, which is basically eel deep-fried with lemongrass, and served with a kind of mint leaf and fish sauce-based dipping sauce, which in turn had red chili sauce at the bottom. This is probably my favorite dish at this restaurant, at which I’ve eaten twice. I love the combination of eel and lemongrass, and these balls of chả are like sponges when dunked into the sauce.

Our third and final dish was bún noodles served with a steaming hot pot of tofu, West Lake snails, banana, and a dark leafy vegetable. The soup was fairly hearty and tasted a bit of Chinese five-spice. I loved the combination of ingredients, and bún is the perfect choice to go with it.

The cost of all three dishes, plus two glasses of iced tea, came to 121,000 dong, which the owner was kind enough to round down to 120,000 ($6.15).

We left feeling fairly full (including my wallet, thankfully), but as the evening was young, and we wanted fruit for dessert, we headed up Yen Phu Street to a small hotel with a two-story café set on top of it. The café, Lang Bac, is pretty interesting – the first floor is basically a glassed-in room showing films, with fully reclined chairs (sort of like thick mats with short backs to them) spaced evenly throughout; perfect for couples who wish to lie down together and either watch the movie or canoodle, basically in open view of everyone else. We climbed to the third floor, which also had a glassed-in movie room, but also had a spacious terrace overlooking West Lake and the Hanoi Club Hotel (the lit-up building on the right in the photo), and ordered hoa quả dầm with a mix of yoghurt and sweetened condensed milk.

At 35,000 dong ($1.79), that’s about twice the price of what you’d pay for it almost anywhere else in Hanoi, but this was a great mound of cut-up fruit mixed together with who-knows-what – it was too dark to see. The flash of my camera showed what appeared to be strawberry sauce on top of what was already pretty incredible, and I have to say, this was truly outstanding for such a simple dessert. It was half-healthy, half-pure-decadence. I have a feeling I’m going to be coming here often, until I decide I’m up to duplicating this in my apartment. But at 35,000 dong, including a view of West Lake, it’s sort of worth just coming here and letting them do all the work instead.

Lang Bac Café is on 52 Yen Phu Street and is open from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day. Email:

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