Vietnamese cuisine has risen to global stardom and hasn’t shown any signs of slowing. Unlike many tourist driven colonial minded food trends, something about Vietnamese cooking, its flavor, and its people, have remained unconquered. You can feel it when a Mo-ped narrowly misses your toes and a street vendor who could care less about your tripadvisor / google review will tell you “nobody makes it better than I do.” It’s not just a recurring food stall upsell, but a core belief in their craft that is the ultimate “fuck you” to haters, competitors, and thrill seeking Michelin Star diners. Combined with the most robust fruits, herbs, and veggies on the planet, along with fresh / readily available dismembered proteins (i.e. crustaceans caught 10 feet from your glass of craft bia), Vietnam is at the top of the list for the most affordable, delicious, and sustainable foods ever put in your mouth.
HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City)
An Nam Quan Almost 2 decades ago, in an attempt to make my friend (a Vietnamese International Student) feel closer to home, I drove her to a Vietnamese restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. This ended with a vomit filled grocery bag tossed into the rural abyss that was liberal arts dining escapism. So when she invited us to An Nam Quan (Quan means eatery) in District 3 of HCMC, I was a little wary. But as any decent person would, she had forgotten the incident and there was to be no revenge. Quite the opposite actually – the food was astonishing. Order the Chả cá (fish cakes) which includes raw scallions and fresh dill to be cooked by you at your table. Add to your bowl of rice noodles and drizzle a little of the reddish purple mixture of fermented shrimp paste for your pleasure. You can also order the Thịt bò cuốn lá luop (grilled beef wrapped in grape leaves) that’s topped with crushed peanuts and served with light dipping salt and oil. What did all this actually teach me? The diaspora (Cleveland) will never be as good as the original.
Ben Thanh Street Food Market A bit touristy, but so what. Embrace that shit. You have a tightly packed array of amazing food vendors eager to get your business. Regardless of how hot and sweaty you are, walk through slowly and take in everything. Each vendor specializes in something unique, in which I confess ordering 3 specialties, and 2 beers, and a coconut. If you’re facing the main entrance from Thu Khoa Huan street, then walk to the rear left where a vendor will be selling Bánh xèo and Gỏi cuốn. I highly recommend both.
3T Grill Restaurant (aka Quan Nuong 3T) Despite being listed as a TripAdvisor top places to eat in Vietnam, this establishment was surprisingly open and available during the week. Tucked neatly away between a modern high-rise and a corporate retail space, you’ll stumble across a quietly tiled hallway dimly lit by ceramic elephants. Follow the lopsided spiral staircase up to the 3rd floor (very top) and you’ll see this:
Impressively you’ll enjoy dinner on the top floor with a retractable roof. Here, you’ll order raw proteins that have been pre-marinated, such as lemon grass beef or wild boar, all to be freshly grilled at your table. Try also the marinated fish strips along with their house crafted glass of bia. Request a plate of fresh herbs which includes lettuce, mint, shiso, cilantro, and something called fish herb or Diếp Cá. Wrap your grilled proteins in this and dip it in the dish of lime salt or mắm ruốc – the servers will know you’re not fucking around. Every bite is an explosion of flavor that can never be reproduced in the states.
Quan An Lunch Lady Our visit to the Lunch Lady happened on Anthony Bourdain’s birthday, June 25. Still struggling with the loss of our fierce cultural icon and America’s true ambassador to Vietnam, my buddy and I ate Hủ tiếu (pork & prawn noodle soup) in a bittersweet, surreal silence. Tony gave props to working class people, elevating folks like The Lunch Lady (Thi) and her makeshift noodle stall to an international culinary stage. She’s become the Susan Boyle of noodle soups, and her stand is synonymous with Vietnamese cuisine for visitors and locals alike. Hủ tiếu, like phở, is easy on the stomach and a morning tradition. Note that Bún bò Huế as featured in “No Reservations” Season 5 is only offered here on Fridays before 1:30pm. We miss you Tony.
Eon Heli Bar Level 52 I’m totally not into the swank lavish bar scene, but again it won’t kill you to be a tourist. Located in the one of the tallest buildings downtown (Bitexco Financial Tower floors 50 – 52) you’ll quickly realize that HCMC is an economically diverse global metropolis.
The view is spectacular – all around you’ll see modernized glass, steel, and concrete, juxtaposed by corrugated tin roofs and rooftop hammocks. Expect to pay American prices for beer and mojitos, but the live music and the high perched glimpse of the roads and traffic you’ve dodged to get there, makes it all worthwhile.
DA NANG (Central Coast, Vietnam)
Phở Cường Hà Nội After an hour flight north to Da Nang (will set you back $150 US) you’ll likely be hungry, overheated, and thirsty. Drop the bags at the hotel and make your way to this modest eatery and you won’t regret it. Although it won’t have the air conditioned relief you’ll be looking for, it will have fresh coconuts and some amazing food only a Vietnamese grandma could make. You’ll feel much better after you put down a plate of com sườn ram mặn (rice with spare ribs in caramelized fish sauce) served with rau muống (Water Spinach) and a side of Opo Squash / Morning Glory consommé. This made my list of top 5 best things ever eaten.
At 36ºC (97ºF) my buddy went for broke and ordered a bowl of Hà Nội style phở . You’d think this would guarantee the onset of heat exhaustion, but in reality you’re replenishing much needed fluids, sodium, and electrolytes in the body. Some phở connoisseurs have even reported feeling a euphoria after downing a bowl of phở in the hottest of conditions. I imagine it’s the same feeling you get after visiting a sauna. Additionally I ordered a rare and meticulously prepared treat, egg rolls in hand fried noodle skins. 15 delicious little rolls for about $1.00 US.
Nhà hàng Cua Biển Something about this country and particularly the food will transcend boundaries, nationality, and ethnic membership…..You’re brought back to that moment in human history when food was no longer a primordial need, but a concoction, an architecture of pleasure to be experienced on your tongue. You realize the breadth of human progress and all that you’ve been missing while waiting in that suburban drive-thru…. It happened here in Da Nang at Nhà hàng Cua Biển. From Nantucket Bay to New Orleans; from County Cork Ireland to Vancouver Canada; from Kamakura Japan to Tokyo – seafood here, is unparalleled. Get passed your insecurities about livewell crustaceans and take a gander at dinner:
Well documented by Lonely Planet and other self-help travel books, Nhà hàng Cua Biển among other local seafood extravaganzas will shatter your expectations. Find Huong- a quick witted young woman with a writing pad, red shirt, and smile across her face. If you don’t speak the language, no worries, she speaks English. Tell her what you want and how you want it cooked. She’ll tell you how much it’ll cost and give you recommendations. She scooped up a handful of live shrimp and served them up to us lightly fried in corn starch, ginger scallions, and chilies.
Next, our seafood steward snatched up 2 female crabs to be cooked in a special spicy tangy sauce served with crisp French baguettes. This was the best thing I’ve ever eaten. I feel lightheaded just writing about it. She picked females because the essence of their meat, their roe, and the tangy sweet and spicy sauce, coalesced into a simmering mess of the most delicious substance ever created on earth. Crack your baguette and dip it in this heavenly brew, and you will never be the same again.
A counter-intuitive lightness accompanied the flavors with everything we ate. Even our fried grouper (cá mú ) which we snagged and weighed ourselves was surprisingly crisp and airy. Interestingly the scales were left on when it went in the fryer. When it came out, a unique presentation with a white brittle layer of skin that melted in your mouth. We also had a seafood fried rice, bia, bia, more beer, and an array of dipping sauces. The experience destroyed all my previous notions of a good meal forever. In the words of Anthony Bourdain “from the very first moment I arrived to this country, I knew my life had changed…”
A few blocks west from the main beachfront in Da Nang is the Red Window , a quaint and hip homestyle restaurant that offers traditional and vegetarian dishes. We chose to go old school and ordered cá kho tộ (claypot catfish). This includes local catfish steaks boiled over fish sauce, garlic cloves, thick soy and sugar, garnished with mint leaves, scallions, and a red chili pepper. This is the quintessential comfort dish for Vietnamese people living here and abroad, and I can tell you that nothing can make you feel more at home than enjoying it here. The fish was incredibly fresh and the sauce was a potent mix of sweet and salty, dribbled over a serving of white rice.
Next we had gỏi đu đủ (papaya salad) – thin strips of raw papaya, carrots, mint leaves, and cuts of steamed pork belly and prawns – all steeped in a lime juice and a sugary fish sauce and topped with crushed roasted peanuts. If you like ceviché, then no doubt you would love this. Light, refreshing, both crunchy and smooth, and packed full of flavors guaranteed to make your knees wobble. Lastly, another classic comfort dish, gà xào xả ớt (lemon grass chicken sautée with chilies). A perfect balance of white meat chunks in a lemon and herb spicy sautée. Chicken (among other proteins in Vietnam) have always been organic and free range, long before Whole Foods and hipsters made “organic” and “free range” a grocery shopping prerequisite. The benefits as most third world countries know, is a clean and bold taste in your mouth, free of disease that require antibiotics. This dish is to be eaten with a clean slate of rice.