A strip of several open air restaurants selling bánh tôm and snails lines a narrow street making a 90 degree turn at a lakeside temple in Hanoi’s Tay Ho neighborhood. As with most mom and pop businesses in Vietnam, shops selling a certain product or service cluster in groups under the assumption locating next to the competition ensures that good fortune will prevail. We can visit floor fan street, computer street, and even a motorbike seat cover street. Call me crazy but in my western mind over a dozen places selling the same exact thing seems to me counterproductive. But that’s a whole other discussion for another day.
In any case, Phu Tay Ho Street seems to be the only game in town for these bánh tôm, or shrimp cakes. Pyramids of whole shrimp rocking their grease hardened rice batter shells line sidewalk tables and individual pieces stand ready for a quick reheating dunk in oil filled vats. Do you think they use trans-fat free blends here?
No matter how enticing the art display, eating food sitting out uncovered all day leaves my sensibilities a bit skittish. Bánh tôm therefore has become a cold weather only treat for me since I, probably falsely, assume Hanoi’s cold winter air serves as some sort of third world surrogate refrigeration mechanism. Pardon me, “developing nation” surrogate refrigeration mechanism.
The largest lunchtime congregation hovered over their piles of shrimp at a joint simple labeled “61 Phu Tay Ho” and much like businesses clumping together in Vietnam, I cluster around other Vietnamese to ensure gastrointestinal luck with my food. Maybe this concept isn’t so far fetched after all. And what luck to have a temple right across the street, so I summoned whatever deity lurks behind those walls to grant these shrimp healthy passage through me. Given that I was flying later that night, these prayers took on a particularly urgent tone.
Besides bún chả, bánh tôm is probably one of Hanoi’s finest street food selections. Forget all that greasy crap with gloppy tartar sauce at the Chuck-a-Rama buffet or Captain D’s. These Vietnamese gut bombs are the real deal at a steal of a price for just under $2 a portion. Eating them is simple. Wrap the shrimp cake in greens such as perilla, mint and butter lettuce selected from a table basket. Then clumsily attempt to give it all a chopstick dunk in a sweetened fish sauce mixture complete with strips of pickled unripe papaya.
Shrimp Cake Street is a bit out of the way from Hanoi’s usual tourist trail, but that is quite alright with me. All that means is more bánh tôm for us to savor in deliciously authentic Vietnamese surroundings.