Ray Quan’s entrance is about one metre from the train tracks, tucked into the jam of buildings between Le Duan and Nguyen Khuyen. The ambience is a mix of cozy and quirky, from the rustic wooden furniture to the dangling glittery masks and geometric light fixtures, to the ‘jukebox’ (a computer with YouTube always open, inviting customers to take over the tunes).
When owner Bui Thi Dong Thanh, or Te, opened Ray Quan in 2013, she had foreigners and locals on her mind; the menu features traditional Vietnamese ingredients and cooking techniques while still catering to the Western palate.
Trial by Gecko
Ray Quan’s food and drink selection reflects the Vietnamese tenet that everything is medicinal. This is apparent in the assortment of species-steeped rice wines and the herbaceous dishes: all serve some remedial purpose. As such, on a recent visit, I consumed all of the rice wines and an exorbitant amount of meat, so I think I precluded a year’s worth of doctors’ visits.
First, I drank to good health. I’ve ranked the rice wines (VND100,000 to VND300,000 a bottle) on a scale of 1 to 4 geckos, because gecko is arguably the sexiest flavour of rice wine.
Kumquat. Kumquat helps you sleep at night, if the rice wine isn’t enough. This one’s super tangy and makes my mouth pucker up. 3 geckos because thanks to the proliferation of kumquat in northern Vietnamese cuisine, this wine reminds me of the pho I had for breakfast, and I can’t decide how I feel about that.
Gecko. “For men. For sex.” I begged to try it, and kind of enjoyed the savoury, spicy pungency of it, thanks to the reptilian infusion and the dash of ginseng. It’s my boyfriend’s favourite. Go figure. I’d give it 3 geckos, but am docking a gecko for the inherent sexism. 2 geckos.
Apricot. Velvety smooth with a touch of smoke, less sweet than its other fruity counterparts (mango, pink lemon), and with a gingery richness, this one’s a winner in my book. 4 geckos.
Off the Wagon
Now for the food. Ranked on a scale of 1-4 train cabooses.
Smoked Goose Breast (VND120,000). This tastes like what I imagine a Christmas ham would taste like. The goose bathes in a herbal green tea marinade before entering the smoker, providing it with luscious fragrance and titillating flavour. 4 cabooses, easily.
Smoked Buffalo (VND130,000). A bit dry at first, but after some chewing I’m met with an explosion of fiery tenderness that can only be attributed to the free roaming buffalo on Dien Bien Mountain. 2 cabooses.
Chicken with Spicy-Sour Sauce (VND100,000). Looks like your basic chicken stir-fry. Tastes like one of the best chicken stir-fries I’ve ever had. Furthermore, the ginger and lemongrass within offer digestive aid, and who doesn’t love that? 3 cabooses, as I would have liked a bit more chicken, less onions.
Nem Rau (VND75,000). These supple cushions ooze a purple mash of creamy taro, offering a bold take on the typically bland and cabbage-filled vegetable nem. 4 cabooses: 2 for the surprise factor; 2 for the delicious factor.
A Ray of Light
Overall, the rice wines scored an average of 3 geckos, and the dishes an average of 3.4 cabooses. Ray Quan’s food and drink consistently impress, thanks to variety, creativity, and all-in-all great execution.
A majority of Ray Quan’s regulars are foreigners. “It’s a place where people say hello and then goodbye,” Te explains. This seems fitting for its train track-adjacent location, a proper ode to the experience of finding, loving, and leaving Hanoi. — Noey Neumark
Ray Quan is at 8A Nguyen Khuyen, Dong Da, Hanoi