Our chaperone for the first leg of my Vietnamese journey, Lam Quang Huy, grins as we ease into our seats on the top floor of Cuc Gach, a peaked tile roof over our heads. It isn’t the four-poster bed frame turned into a curtained table for six nearby that elicits his reaction, but an old Lygo milk canister holding chopsticks, the container a throwback to his youth. Little stories are behind every detail in the restaurant, where bright green morning glory stems are put to use as drinking straws and the music brings back the Vietnam of the 1970s. As the owner’s grandmother did, the kitchen staff makes almost everything in-house, from the pickles to the tofu.
Unusual (and hard!) for this professional eater, I leave the ordering to Huy. He asks the waiter for soup, followed by “something salty” and vegetables, a selection of three dishes that typify the region. As we wait for the soup, Huy teaches us how to mince red chilis with the tips of the chopsticks and sings the praises of fish sauce, or what he calls “Chanel No. 5.” No meal in Vietnam is complete without a dash or more of nuoc mam.