It is one of those days when everyone and everything is disinclined to movement. At the chicken shack out the road, the bike parking attendant is horrified when we pull in with every intention of eating. He dawdles up the stairs with his shoulders emphatically slumped to alert the waiting staff. These four have their heads flopped on the tables, their gangly teenage arms cast askew. But still eyes and thumbs work mobile phones. A kind of languid synchronised texting is going on. Even the blades of the electric fans seem to spin moodily. Any lunch rush is over and motivation levels are down all round.
This is a Hanoi Sunday in early August and a searing midday heat is to blame.
But we press on, taking up a table position not too far from the kitchen - we don't want the boys to strain themselves in our service. We pant an order for liquid refreshments, Hanoi beer and ice being the only option given the conditions. Again my pre-summer pledge to give up this amber beverage has gone by the wayside! And again, it is the heat, not me, at fault.
Another proclivity I will admit to is chips, french fries, fried potatoes in all names and incarnations. Thin, fat, crinkle cut, whatever. What continues to make this long held and now imported food weakness excusable in my mind is the Vietnamese 'take' on condiments and sauces for chips. For one, they never come salted. Frequently they are topped with an all-fingers pinch of banged up garlic which accompanies the chips in the oil. Other times the table is a clutter of ramekins, each with a paste or sauce perfectly aligned with the chip. Mayonnaise streaked with chili sauce cloys the potato with richness. Soy sauce with (or without) fresh chili gives that natural salt hit that the potato essentially requires, says my palate. A paste of muối tiêu chanh ớt (salt, pepper, lime, chili), often giving zing and tang to chicken or prawns, is also in concord with the chip.
These chips here at the chicken shack come slightly tainted though. There is a sweetness that it must be said is wrong. Potatoes and sugar is not a food pairing I'm aware of nor one that is likely to catch on, even given the success of Vietnam's chip matching efforts above. As the fan blades whirr hot air around, I start to second guess my taste buds, worrying that it's me, not the chips, with the problem. I guzzle more beer, purely for cleansing purposes, before testing the chips again. As I do so, the bird arrives; cleavered pullet on a plate, its head and beak there too, deep-fried frozen in what is unmistakably its squawking pose.
The chicken shack serves real chicken, not those hormone-laden mutants where every part of the bird appears to be a breast. It's the kind of bird that makes you work hard for the flesh. There is teeth gnashing and persistence required. But the reward is in the taste of chicken. Deep-fried crisp skin and dark flesh, dipped in the muối tiêu chanh ớt.
And it's honey painted chicken, which explains the puzzle of the sweet chips.
Nhà Hàng Hoả Lò
347 Âu Cơ
West Lake District