Sizzling fish has proliferated in Little Saigon, America’s best developed bastion for Vietnamese cuisine. The inspiration for this dish, which often goes by Cha Ca Thanh Long in the Orange County enclave, was Cha Ca La Vong, a legendary Ha Noi restaurant that dates to 1871 and serves one dish, sizzling snakehead pan-fried with butter and turmeric that they bomb with fresh herbs like spring onions, cilantro, and dill. In Little Saigon restaurants, owners approximate snakehead with another freshwater option, catfish, and the results don’t get any better than at Song Long, a French influenced restaurant with mottled yellow walls and trippy paintings of sealife in the back corner of the Le Loi Center strip mall.
At Song Long, Cha Ca Thanh Long ($16.95) is clearly a better choice than escargots and entrecote, featuring big chunks of flaky, turmeric-stained catfish served on sizzling cast iron platter with caramelized onions and scallions, plus a shower of crushed peanuts, dill and caramelized shallots. All of the herbs and onions cook down in a buttery base. Wrap the aromatic results in lettuce with springy rice vermicelli, basil, mint and purple perilla leaves. Dip the packets in fish sauce bobbing with julienne daikon and carrot, and repeat.
Is Song Long’s sizzling fish exactly like the Ha Noi original? No, but it’s an honorable tribute.