Thursday, July 16, 2009

A Taste of Vietnam Emerges in Prague

A Taste of Vietnam Emerges in Prague
By Evan Rail

A bowl of pho at the Prague restaurant Ha Noi.
PRAGUE | The Czech Republic is home to a significant Vietnamese population. But the question for dedicated food-lovers in the city has been: where can I get quality Vietnamese food in Prague?

For years, the answer has been “almost nowhere.” Basic dishes can be had at one of the Vietnamese-run wholesale markets in the distant suburbs, where modest stands offered a few classic recipes from the homeland to weary vendors. But in central Prague, the pickings have been slim.

So when the new restaurant Ha Noi (Slezska 57; 420-222-514-448) opened in the beloved Vinohrady neighborhood this spring, word got out quite quickly. Breathless write-ups appeared on Expats.cz, a forum for expatriates, and the restaurant was reviewed on Cuketka.cz, a popular food blog.

Occupying a modest cellar near the Jiriho z Podebrad metro station, Ha Noi looks like your average Chinese bistro: industrial chairs, pan-Asian artwork and plastic placemats on the tables. And indeed, the menu lists some of the bland, international-Chinese-style dishes you can find just about anywhere in the Czech capital. But focus in on the “Vietnamese specialties” section and you’ll find a handful of great, authentic dishes, all at modest prices.

I particularly liked the nem ga (49 koruna, or about $2.60 at 19 koruna to the dollar), an appetizer of three spring rolls stuffed with minced pork, cabbage and fried to a perfect crisp, served with the fish-sauce-based dip called nuoc cham or nuoc mam pha. (If you order two days in advance, you can even get nem tuoi song (29 koruna): fresh, non-fried “summer” rolls stuffed with herbs, rice noodles and cooked shrimp.)

For main courses, there’s tangy bun cha (79 koruna), a bowl of soft rice noodles, roast pork, bird chilis and peanuts, topped with fresh basil; it’s a salad of sorts, but one with plenty of meat and starch. A similar dish of mixed noodles (89 koruna) combines both rice and glass noodles in a single bowl with very tender chunks of beef, red chilis, carrots, white radish and more fresh basil.

Ha Noi serves two types of the revered soup pho, one with chicken and one with beef (both 79 koruna). Both feature very aromatic broths layered with notes of star anise, ginger, Vietnamese cinnamon, roasted onions and beef stock, and are filled with tender chunks of meat and long noodles, perfect for slurping. Though there are no desserts, Ha Noi does offer Vietnamese coffee (39 koruna), traditionally brewed in a small metal percolator and served with sticky, sugary condensed milk.

Real fans of Vietnamese cooking will note that this is only a start: Ha Noi doesn’t have the crisp, coconut-milk crepes called banh xeo, and there is no bun bo Hue, the rich lemongrass soup from the center of the country.

A friend recently posted on Twitter that he, like everyone else he knows in New York, is completely obsessed by the spicy Vietnamese sandwiches called banh mi. Those dishes are not available here, leaving room in the Czech capital for at least another couple of restaurants like Ha Noi.
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