The best Vietnamese food is fresh, spicy and prepared by actual Vietnamese cooks. And believe it or not, there is good, authentic Vietnamese cuisine in the United Arab Emirates. Hanoi Cafe, which runs two locations in the capital and another in Dubai, is the region’s home for skewers of affordable Vietnamese coconut chicken curry or large bowls of freshly-made pho soup.
The restaurant’s Khalifa Street branch opened nearly seven years ago, in part to serve the growing community of Vietnamese expatriates living and working in the UAE, who now number around 20,000.
Hanoi Cafe has a dozen or so two- and four-seat tables, and the restaurantis clean, bright, and welcoming. Decoration is simple and basic, apart from the fake life-size banana plants painted in vibrant colors that occupy two sides of the room.
Hanoi Cafe uses only the freshest vegetables and ingredients. While the menu is extensive, it doesn’t offer many fried dishes or heavy starches, and most of the food is cooked with little or no oil.
A delicious healthy starter is the goi cuon (fresh summer rolls) – rice-paper wraps filled with prawn, vegetables, and rice vermicelli noodles.
There are plenty of options to get your spice fix too. Each table is set up with several bottles of hot sauce and other spicy condiments. The first is a bottle of generic, grocery-store red chili pepper sauce. The other is lampung, a thick and sweet Indonesian chili paste blended with garlic and sugar. The third, and best, is Asian chili oil, a spicy companion to soups, stir-fries, and grilled meat dishes.
Hanoi Cafe’s homemade chili oil blends peanut and sesame oils, garlic cloves, ginger, and plenty of dried red chili flakes. It’s a punchy addition to Hanoi’s Cafe’s pho soup, the most popular dish in the restaurant, according to staff.
Pho is an entire meal. Each large bowl of (typically) beef-based broth comes with round glass noodles or flat white egg noodles and some kind of meat, like steamed prawns or thinly-cut rare beef strips. The warm broth is infused with fresh spices and floating pieces of freshly-sliced lemongrass and spring onions.
If you dare, ask the server to make the pho extra spicy, as spicy as possible. “Are you sure?” she will probably ask, with a bit of a chuckle and a raised eyebrow.
Tell her yes.
Within minutes, she’ll place a large, steaming bowl of pho in front of you. The special ingredient for the heat (in a spicy bowl of pho) is green bird’s eye chili peppers. The UAE and other Gulf nations import these short, spicy chilies from Thailand. Bird’s eye chilies are not the hottest chili you can eat – each ranges from between 50,000 and 100,000 on the Scoville heat scale (compared to 100,000 – 350,000 for a habanero pepper).
Still, this popular Asian pepper packs an extreme, no-nonsense punch of intense mouth-burn. And Hanoi Cafe’s peppers are fresh and the real deal. Their cooks have somehow perfected the ratio of chili to soup, which keeps just the right balance between flavor and burn.
After half a bowl of the spiciest pho, you will be in pain, the pleasant kind of pepper pain that eventually takes hold of your entire head. Your lips may experience a strong throbbing sensation. And the roof of your mouth will go numb. You will likely start hiccuping, even crying.
For spice lovers, that’s the dream.
When the server sees the large pile of tissues (used to clear the water in your eyes), she may laugh again – audibly this time. “We didn’t just use green chili peppers. The chef also added fresh red chili powder to the pho,” she says, laughing even harder.
Hanoi Cafe: see the menu
Address: Khalifa bin Zayed the First Street (3rd St.), near corner of Sultan bin Zayed the First Street (4th or Muroor St.), not far from Europcar’s green sign.
Telephone: +971 2 626 1112
Website: www.hanoi-cafe.com (non-operational as of this post)