When you order cha ca thang long at Vien Dong, the bright bustling Northern Vietnamese specialist in Garden Grove, you will be forgiven for a moment of confusion.
"I thought I ordered fish," you might think as you gaze at the sizzling platter of dill and onions that arrives before you with nary a morsel of animal protein in sight.
Not to worry, there is plenty of tender, turmeric-infused snapper lying below this feathery green mountain. But before you investigate, take a moment to allow the sweet, anise-y aroma to wash over you, giving the pungent bouquet of fried shallots, scallions, and fennel a few more minutes to blossom.
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You can busy yourself by preparing your bowl for the main event. In addition to the crackling hot plate before you, the cha ca, a beloved Hanoi specialty (often made with snakehead fish in Vietnam or catfish in the States, but here with red snapper), comes with a side of bun rice noodles, a mound of fresh herbs, a sesame laced rice cracker, funky shrimp paste dip, and the requisite nuoc cham.
Scoop the noodles, lettuce and herbs into your bowl, and then top with a heaping portion of the golden-hued fish, with its blazing garden of aromatics. A splash of fish sauce makes the dish complete and a few morsels of crispy cracker makes the dish complete.
As you eat the flavor builds in waves -- the turmeric's earthy heft; the light, licorice tang of the dill, the swarthy funk of the shrimp paste. And the fish? No longer hiding coyly in its leafy sanctuary, it has revealed itself a star -- near perfectly cooked with a lightly charred crisp exterior and a springy, succulent interior. It truly is (forgive us) the real dill.