I’ve always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain, and every once in a while I find his authoritative, yet curious tone narrating experiences in my life that feel distinctly, well, Bourdainian. These once in a blue moon culinary delights that you know somehow comes to represent a community of people, while giving you one of the best, and most unique dining experiences you’ve ever had. Often this occurs with street food, where you sit and eat with the locals, enjoy a slightly warm beer on a sidewalk and come to remember the true pleasures in life. Good food, good friends and the cultures we pass by in our all too short lives.
Tell me you didn’t hear Bourdain yourself when you were reading that.
Earlier this year I was able to explore Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital city, with some friends who had been calling the place home for several years. They took me to Lý Văn Phức, a street known by locals as “Chicken Street”, where the specialty was, unsurprisingly, BBQ chicken.
Located in a busy backpacker area of the city (Đống Đa), the street seemed unassuming at first, a number of small eateries which seemed to be struggling to get customers. The odd person sitting on the sidewalk on the city’s signature tiny stools; a place you will enjoy most of your meals in the country. But quickly it became clear why this was the case – one establishment on the street was taking all the customers. So here’s the first hot tip: you’ve got to make sure to pass by all the replicas and eat with everyone else; word is the others just can’t compare.
The dining treat in question may at first put off the more worrisome international traveller – with all the cooking being done on a on open flame, on a flat lot on the side of the street, the all the tables and chairs laid out on the same lot. No roof over your head, just a few people walking around with sweet bread, sticks with massive slabs of juicy, perfectly cooked chicken (available as legs, wings or feet), and some pickles and sauces for the table. And these pieces of chicken were LARGE. Vietnamese chickens, it seems, have a size advantage on their cousins overseas.
The place was packed, with something of a waiting list – a good sign if there ever was one, and by rule the only sort of place you should ever eat at that’s cooking on the side of the street – you know everything is getting cooked properly.
Here, you experience the definition of organised chaos – there was no menu, no clear way anyone was keeping track of what you were eating. You just kept ordering beers and chicken via an old man who was physically walking the food around on sticks, and somehow it all came together in the end. There was no shortage of incredible hot sauce for the table either. Between the marinade, the atmosphere of the place, and the incredible honey soaked sweet bread, it was that very experience I spoke of before. So it was only natural I started hearing Bourdain in my head….
“…the sticky, honey soaked bread, the mouthwatering BBQ chicken legs, wings and feet straight off the grill, covered of course with a healthy dose of chili sauce… a beer from Copenhagen that goes down like water… Life really doesn’t get better than this.”
And indeed it doesn’t. I think we could all use a little bit more Bourdain spirit in our lives, and if you’re in Hanoi, it’s at the busiest spot on Chicken Street where you’ll find it. But don’t tell the locals I told you about it – it’s almost certainly already busy enough.
So where is it? And what’s it called? Even asking the locals, it’s just referred to as the busy spot on Chicken Street (Lý Văn Phức in Dong Da). So walk towards the end of street and you’ll see it on your right. Having someone who speaks Vietnamese with you will definitely help with the experience, though being able to physically point at the food as it was being carried around ensures it’s something that can be enjoyed no matter what language you speak.
The hunt is well worth it. If you can find it, it’ll be the best BBQ Chicken you’ve ever had.