Having established itself as one of Hanoi’s most popular restaurants since the opening of its flagship eatery in 2003, Highway4 has expanded into a successful franchise with five outlets now scattered across the capital, one in Ho Chi Minh City, and another due to open soon in Hoi An.

 

And though the Ho Chi Minh City restaurant may have opened only five months ago, its menu of northern traditional and contemporary Vietnamese cuisine already appears to be proving a hit with the southern city’s foodies.

 

This seems to be the case when we rock up on a non-descript Monday evening only to discover that the top two levels of the three-storey building are completely full with customers, leaving us to grab a table on the ground floor.

 

Having heard all about the communal sushi-style dining quarters, where diners sit sunken into the ground, I feel pangs of regret while sat at my regular four-legged table for having not made a reservation in advance.

 

Still, it’s the food we’re here for, not the seating arrangements, and the amount of choice the menu presents is staggering. From salads, tapas and numerous spring rolls, to hot pots (or steamboats as they’re called here), and multiple rice, noodle, seafood, vegetarian and meat dishes, it’s hard to know where to begin.

 

On the recommendation of a fellow food writer up north, we order one of Highway4’s most loved specialities, nem ca xa lo4 (catfish spring rolls) and a selection of the restaurant’s award-winning Son Tinh rice wine. Beyond that, we’re left open to the suggestions of our ao dai-clad waitress. Not being the most adventurous of eaters, we sheepishly decline such delicacies as crickets roasted in pig fat and locusts roasted with lemon leaves in favour of chim cau rang muoi (pigeon roasted in salt) and bo nuong la chuoi (strips of beef grilled in banana leaves).

 

First out is the liquor, specifically four small sampler glasses of tao meo (rose apple), man do (red plum), mo vang (apricot) and chanh leo (passion fruit) and two ominously named Devil’s Fart shooters. Each of the former is smooth, sweet and easy on the tongue, while the latter packs a spicier wallop. Made from minh mang liquor and chilli syrup, the Devil’s Fart is surprisingly palatable, with hints of celery found between the initial sugary burst and hellishly hot after burn. For those looking for an alternative to beer or wine, the Son Tinh liquor selection is a winner.

 

Brought out in a large bowl garnished with lettuce and several colourful vegetables and edible flowers, the pigeon comes in winged form, and in a light, floury batter among roasted lemongrass strands, deep fried onion bits and large slices of chilli. It smells and tastes great; the fragrance of the lemongrass is subtle but long lasting while the saltiness of the batter and gamey texture of the dark and slightly chewy meat combine wonderfully. Dipped into the obligatory side bowl of lime, chilli, salt and pepper, this dish becomes utterly addictive. Best of all, there’s lots of it, too.

 

 

As soon as the bo nuong la chuoi is placed on our table a sweetly perfumed aroma emits from the large, unfolded banana leaf parcel, filling the nostrils instantly. The strips of grilled beef are tender and plentiful, and come swimming in their own juices among a dozen or so soft banana flowers.

 

About half way through, the famous catfish spring rolls arrive. Simply put, they’re phenomenal, and really do steal the show. Without meaning to lessen this dish’s reputation, these six heavenly rolls taste like the best fish finger sandwiches ever. Wrapped in semi-transparent crispy rice paper, the fluffy catfish fillet comes encased in a light batter that’s simply topped off with mayonnaise and dill. Personally, I’m not overly fond of the dark brown wasabi side sauce and am more than happy to devour the spring rolls on their own.

 

The food tastes great and authentically Vietnamese without alienating foreign taste buds. The portions are huge and the prices are surprisingly affordable, even when tax and service is heaped on. Get down there before the entire restaurant fills out.

 

The Prices

Son Tinh sampler set VND75,000

Devil’s Fart shooter VND30,000

Pigeon roasted in salt VND99,000

Strips of beef grilled in banana leaves VND95,000

Catfish spring rolls VND84,000

 

The Verdict

Food: 12.5

Décor : 11

Service: 10

 

Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15

13 – 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 – 12.5 very good to excellent
8 – 9.5 good to very good
5 – 7.5 fair to good
0 – 4.5 poor to fair

The Word reviews restaurants anonymously and pays for all meals

Mystery Diner

The Mystery Diner is a person hailing from a country that may or may not be Vietnam. S/he can be seen frequently in the restaurants and cafes of Hanoi and HCMC, searching for the most delicious meals each city has to offer. Look for the masked figure in a cape, lurking in the darkest corners of your neighbourhood com tam or pho joint.

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