Following my nose, I take a trip to the famous BBQ joint on Quan Su. Words by me. Photos and edits by Nick Ross. The article was published on Word Hanoi Issue March 2013.
I remember reading somewhere that the smell of bun cha is so irresistible that when the aroma of chargrilled pork drifts through the air, it’s impossible to focus on driving, even if you’re not hungry. And if the smell of chargrilled pork makes bun cha the so-called most tempting street food dish for lunchtime Hanoi, then do nuong or streetside barbeque is its nighttime equivalent.
With so many BBQ joints opening in Hanoi, unlike a few years ago, the smell of chargrilled meat wafting down alleyways and along major thoroughfares is now a common phenomenon. Streets such as Gam Cau and Nguyen Thai Hoc as well as Ma May and Hang Luoc in the Old Quarter play host to food cooked on the table on that all-important outdoor grill. Even suburban streets such as Nghia Tan and Nguyen Trai have joined in the barbecue craze. But the standout, the one place favoured by both locals and foreign residents, attracting anyone from young Hanoians to business travellers, is Do Nuong Lau 61 Quan Su. Well-known among a variety of customers, not simply because of the smell of fresh barbecue meats and vegetables on the typical Vietnamese typical bep than, but because of a number of other elements that create the magical taste and mouth-watering smell it’s difficult to forget.
The TV Chef
Customers coming here for the first time might notice that the female owner looks familiar. In fact, the woman behind the scenes is Bich Lien, Vietnam’s first TV chef, who used to present cooking shows in the late 1990s, early 2000s.
“My mum was the first person to teach cooking in Hanoi,” says Nghiep, Bich Lien’s son. “Besides teaching on TV shows, she and her sister opened the first Nhu Lan Bread Shop in 1996. However, it was not until three years ago, when I was invited to a barbecue party in Saigon, that the idea of opening a barbeque shop using small bep lo sprang to mind.”
He adds: “It is not the BBQ concept, but rather my mother’s recipe of mixing ingredients and seasoning to create a combination of Asian and western tastes that makes our eatery so attractive to both locals and foreigners. Besides our own seasoning, we use my mum’s special tamarind sauce, nuoc sot me. A combination of the fish sauce or mam me typical of the south, and the tamarind, typical of the north, it also represents the sweet and sour flavour that is characteristic of Hanoi cooking.”
Following in his mother’s footsteps, Nghiep not only runs the family business but also works as Chef of Food Solutions for Metro, where Quan 61 get all their BBQ supplies; from pork, ribs, beef, chicken and octopus, to pig organs.
“Most travellers prefer chicken and beef,” says Nghiep. “Some travellers staying at the nearby hotels drop in because they’re curious. Then to my surprise, they come back again and again.”
Feeling winter in the air, I sit crouched on the street corner, eagerly looking at the slightly flaming barbecue. Warmth embraces my body. Across the street, the more extravagant Long Dinh Restaurant seems idle compared to these table-next-to-table street gourmets, chatting and devouring their food.
“You can find high-end restaurants in cities all over the globe,” smiles Nghiep. “But here on the street, you are experiencing the real soul of Hanoi. You can travel the world, but you’ll never find this anywhere else.”
Do Nuong Lau 61 Quan Su also sells lau chao or rice porridge hotpot. Priced at VND100,000 this comes with a selection of pork ribs, black chicken and other types of poultry. Each barbeque dish costs between VND40,000 and VND50,000. The eatery is open from 6pm until late.