“We are not vegan,” says owner Nguyen Quoc Hoang, 45. “Even though 80% of the menu is vegan-friendly, we want to appeal to everyone.”
Such a lowest common denominator approach would be risky were it not for the wisdom and expertise brought to the table by Hoang’s mother, Diem.
Now in her 70s, Diem helped open the restaurant 22 years ago, and still works in the kitchen as an advisor, focusing on quality control and coming up with new recipes.
“She travelled all over Vietnam, and even went to Paris in search of new recipes and inspiration for vegetarian food,” says Hoang.
Fake Meat and Two Veg
The restaurant lies down an unassuming alley, and is spread across two dining rooms which flank the outdoor kitchen.
Chefs and waiters buzz around in lime-green uniforms, and with the kitchen in full view, hygiene standards are as high as the certificate displayed on the wall claim they are.
Many choices on the menu include beef, chicken, pork and fish — but only in a synthetic soy-based vegan form.
“It’s a Buddhist tradition,” explains Hoang. “Buddhists serve fake meat so they can show hospitality without depriving guests of their favourite dishes.”
The French salad (VND60,000) is a perfect example of this, as among the broccoli, edam cheese and lashings of mayonnaise, there are sticks of fake ham, which look and taste uncannily like the real thing.
For vegans, the coconut salad (VND55,000) is a delicious alternative, combining everything that is best about Vietnamese cuisine; three varieties of fresh herbs, desiccated coconut and strips of coconut shoot all tossed in a simple vinegar-based dressing.
Omnivores will be happy to note that going green doesn’t mean the meal has to be a bland affair of salads and steamed rabbit food.
The fried vegetable spring rolls, just VND8,000 apiece, are crispy on the outside, and carry all the flavour of their pork or crab-filled cousins. The dipping sauce, also vegan-friendly, contains no nuoc mam, and is simply water with a little soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.
Keen to show off a more creative side to the menu, Hoang recommends trying the “beef” in la lot leaves (VND40,000). A dish of grilled green parcels arrives, each one containing slices of fake beef and mushroom, a real gift of flavour after a liberal dip into the soy sauce.
The understated fried tofu (VND30,000) is the surprising star of the meal. Deep fried in breadcrumbs, the tofu is mixed with mashed potatoes to create a texture and flavour guaranteed to secure a return visit.
The menu also features several lunch sets starting at VND60,000 for one person, and going up to VND800,000 for a feast big enough to feed six people.
After 22 years of being constantly surprised by his own success, Hoang is finally considering expansion.
“We have another restaurant at Yen Tu Pagoda, in Quang Ninh.” he says. “Now I’m looking for a location for a second Nang Tam restaurant in Hanoi.”
Before leaving, I ask Hoang what the name of the restaurant means, and he guides me to a full-page story printed in the menu. No spoilers here, so go and read it for yourself over lunch.
Com Chay Nang Tam is located at 79A Tran Hung Dao, Hoan Kiem, Hanoi and is open daily from 10am to 9pm
Photos by Sasha Arefieva