She has been in this area for the last four years or so, serving up tasty bowls of noodle soup and her own invention — hot rolls of minced pork and herbs, wrapped in fresh fish and fried breadcrumbs, or ca cuon thit.
Mrs Sam’s journey to the summit of Mount Fish began in Hue where as a young woman she was schooled by an uncle in the secret art of ‘cook fu’, with a focus on snail and fish dishes. Once she had completed her training and decided to open a restaurant in Hanoi, figuring that snail dishes are easier to copy and fearing a future surrounded by plagiarist stallholders who would swipe her recipes, she chose to specialize in fish and leave the snails behind.
In 1994 she and her husband opened the famous Lan Vi Fish Stall behind Chu Van An High School on Thuy Khue. There, her ca cuon thit leapt out of her home kitchen for the first time and onto the plates of drooling diners. There, the tear ducts of rival restaurants ran dry as they added the rolls to their menus and then tried in vain to copy them. In fact, they were so unsuccessful that if Mrs Sam ate at any of the local restaurants and ordered her invention the staff would sneak over to Lan Vi Fish Stall and buy the dish.
When Chu Van An High School was expanded, Mrs Sam moved across town to Gia Ngu, and after flirting with geese and chicken (bun ngan and pho ga) for a couple of years, returned to The Way of The Fish. She decided to only serve one dish, and to do it perfectly. And she does. Unlike other food stall owners in Hanoi who, through either laziness or complacency, allow the quality of their food to nosedive once they become popular, the food you eat here will always be high quality and it will always be the same. This, Mrs Sam says, is her secret, and I would stand up in a court of law or before Poseidon himself and confirm that it is true.
Sometimes the ingredients change according to the season. For example, you may find morning glory (rau muong) in your bowl or the slightly tastier winter dropwort (rau can). The broth will derive its slightly sour taste from green mango in the summer, but from sau in the winter. You may or may not spy a piece of pineapple in your bowl. But the lumps of grilled fish are always plump and completely boneless, and the cha ca is crunchy — not the 99 percent flour, weird, rubbery offerings you might expect from other vendors. Even though the ingredients are often tweaked slightly, there will never be a terrifying change in taste. You will never leave here thinking that it wasn’t as good as last time. You will always leave wondering if you can get all of your nutritional needs from bun ca and ca cuon thit and whether you should eat here three times a day. You will leave Mrs Sam Cay Si’s food stall happy. Happy in stomach and happy in mind, knowing that in a city of Sinh Café and Sinh Café and copy copy copy you’ve eaten something you can’t have anywhere else. And you will see the dog that you previously wanted to kick and you will kiss it on the lips, and it will kiss you back.
Bun Ca Sam Cay Si, So 5 Ngo Trung Yen. Open daily 7am to 5pm. VND25,000 to VND30,000 per bowl of bun ca. Ca cuon thit goes for VND7,000 per roll