In times of stress and deep uncertainty—you know, like the last several months—it’s natural for us to turn to the familiar and the soothing for a dinnertime boost of comfort.
For a lot of Madisonians, that comfort is found early and often in the multicultural menu at Ha Long Bay. Tucked quietly near the edge of the ever-gentrifying Willy Street neighborhood in Madison, this Southeast Asian restaurant continues to be the sort of place with a long list of dishes that will keep you coming back.
And in times like these, that seems even more valuable than usual.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reduced Ha Long Bay to carryout orders only, but it somehow hasn’t reduced the restaurant’s massive menu at all. Given the menu truly does contain multitudes—between the appetizers, soups, fried rice dishes, curries and entrees, there are more than 100 choices from the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Laos—this is a feat worthy of Olympic mention. Pro tip: Ha Long Bay doesn’t offer online ordering, and given the restaurant’s local popularity, you should prepare yourself to fight through busy signals to get your order placed.
Sampling offerings from all three cuisines is the best way to get the full Ha Long Bay experience—and a great place to start is with the Xao Tom ($12.95), a Vietnamese house specialty that features steamed vegetables and your choice of meat in a thick and sweet ginger-pineapple sauce. It’s a stone-cold go-to, a flavorful dish that will appeal to both the worldly and more traditional palates.
Ha Long Bay’s known far and wide for its pho, the traditional Vietnamese noodle soup that serves as that country’s national dish. Few restaurants in town do it better than Ha Long Bay, which offers a whopping 12 different varieties, including both familiar options (meatballs $8.95) and the unusual (roast duck, $12.95). A tofu-based vegetarian option ($8.95) hits the greens like a pro golfer, with bok choy and napa cabbage adding to the mix. No matter which one you pick, you will appreciate the warm mélange of flavors as well as the comfort it provides.
Sticking with noodle-based soup for a moment—the weather is getting colder, after all—don’t miss the Tom Kha ($9.95), a spicy-smooth, coconut-based Thai noodle soup with a bright orange color that teases the spices (chili paste and galangal) to come. If you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can add in some squid; otherwise, chicken, pork, beef or tofu handle the protein chores nicely.
As for the Laotian section of the menu, the Nem Khao Tod ($11.50), an almost salad-like mixture of pork nem sausage, coconut, crispy rice, egg and spices, is a great way to acquaint yourself with an unfamiliar cuisine. Eating it straight up lets you savor the flavors, but creating a wrap with the enormous leaves of lettuce with which it is served is a different experience altogether.
With a menu this large, there are bound to be a few clunkers.
For instance, avoid getting fooled by the papaya salad. You’re likely to expect tropical flavor, but this salad’s anchored by green papaya, relying on slivers of the mild-tasting fruit to provide crunchy texture rather than the sweet flavor you’d expect from the red papaya you might buy at the grocery store. Getting crunch when you’re expecting sweet adds up to disappointment.
Similarly, the Bahn Xeo, Vietnamese crepes that serve as a weekend-only special, aren’t nearly special enough to merit circling your calendar. The interior ingredients (meat, bean sprouts and green onion) come to life when they’re doused in lime juice and fish sauce, but the crepes themselves were soggy, and they were made even more so by the travel time from the restaurant to my dinner table.
If somehow some room remains after sampling the cuisines of three distinct nations, opting to top your meal with an order of blueberry Rangoon ($2) is a perfect way to end the experience. Dusted with powdered sugar and filled with just the right amount of fruit, these crispy confections have no need of any dipping sauce—unlike their crab-based cousins on the appetizer menu. And at that price, you might even want to order several.
Some restaurants have a couple of can’t-miss entrees that draw you back in time and again. Ha Long Bay’s encyclopedic list just might keep you occupied for the next five years or so.
Aaron R. Conklin is a freelance writer based in Madison. He has written about food, theater and pop culture for publications such as Isthmus, the Wisconsin State Journal and Madison Magazine.