Tucked away on Thanh Nien, the road separating Hanoi’s two lakes – Tay Ho and Truc Bach – lies an unassuming restaurant with front-row views of the water that maintains a no-frills approach to its interior. Filled with over 25 tables and green plastic chairs, the real appeal of the venue lies in its namesake dish: banh tom. Despite how easy it is find throughout town, Banh Tom Ho Tay remains a special place for many Hanoians as the restaurant is largely known as one of the oldest and more authentic spots to serve up the dish.
The short story is that banh tom – essentially a deep fried shrimp cake – surfaced on the same street Banh Tom Ho Tay lies on. In the 1930s, food stalls selling the golden crispy fish cakes began to congregate, and as they gradually gained hype throughout the capital. In 1956, the government decided to combine many of the stalls into a single fixture restaurant. Banh Tom Ho Tay was born. For decades the shrimp cake was the sole dish on the menu, and it was only in recent years that other options were added. Despite more variety in choice, Banh Tom Ho Tay staff members maintain that almost every single customer that walks through their doors will order a serving of the iconic dish without fail.
Speaking to CNN Travel, owner Ngoc Lan Ha maintains that one of the reasons the restaurant has achieved its notoriety is their recipe. “Our shrimp cake is special because the recipe has been passed down through several generations, from my grandmother, to my mother, to me. And we’ve been continuing the legacy that our parents left behind.”
Banh tom, no matter where it is served, will always contain the same three core ingredients: fresh shrimp, shredded sweet potato and wheat flour, all which are then fried in piping hot cooking oil. However, what keeps customers returning to Banh Tom Ho Tay after so many years is their secret blend of spices. As opposed to grinding the fish together to make a fish ball, the shrimp is left whole (head and all) and sits upon the golden batter. Dip the cake in Vietnam’s beloved fish sauce, and add chilli and lime juice. Lastly, pair it with a variety of fresh salad and fragrant mint leaves. That’s the full banh tom experience.
Local business owner, Minh Nguyen, describes the restaurant as a place of nostalgia. “I used to come here when I was younger, I would come with my classmates or as a treat with my family. It was a special place to come to and Banh Tom Ho Tay is a staple for anyone who is from Hanoi.” For many, the venue has become somewhere where many memories were made alongside the salty seafood cakes.
Although the appeal of anything battered and fried is good enough reason for most people to eat a dish regularly, Banh Tom Ho Tay’s history, and secret blend of spices, gives the beloved shrimp cake a certain charm that no one else could replicate.
Banh Tom Ho Tay restaurant is located at 1 Thanh Nien, Truc Bach, Ba Dinh, Hanoi.