9 Must-Try Dishes in Vietnam
Pho Kho Gia Lai, a.k.a. Dry Pho
Pho is the national dish of Vietnam and is sold everywhere from nice restaurants to street corners where grandmothers set up makeshift kitchens. For this version, all of the components—noodles, beef brisket broth, herbs, chiles—are served separately. After observing the locals, I found the best method is to add just enough broth and meat to moisten the noodles for each bite and then quickly slurp it down before the fried onions and fresh herbs get soggy. Oh, and there is no Rooster Sauce (Sriracha) in Vietnam and you will look like a rube for asking for it, as I did.
Noodle soups are the backbone of street food and the best one I had was on the island of Phu Quoc in a dilapidated roadside stand with tiny plastic chairs. Bryan Caswell, who is about 6-foot-2 and stout as Texas, looked like a giant at a Hobbit’s tea party. The broth, like in pho, is the most important component of the dish. Here it starts with a base of dried shrimp and tomato, which is then simmered with pork trotters and aromatics like clove and lemongrass. It’s served with rice noodles, roast pork, trotters, Thai basil, a chewy fish-cake-like sausage and fresh sliced tomatoes. The fresh, tart tomatoes, lightly poaching in the warm broth, were perfect against the richness of the fatty pork. And lunch with a six-pack of Saigon beer cost about $5.
Goi Ca Trich
The chef at the Blue Lagoon Resort in Phu Quoc prepared this little appetizer that simply blew our minds. Herring from the wet market just down the road was expertly filleted and very lightly pickled, arranged on a dry sheet of thin rice paper and mounted with lettuce, basil, slivers of fresh pineapple, freshly grated coconut flesh and lime juice. It is served rolled up and dipped in a light nuoc cham (fish sauce and lime juice). Salty, sweet, acidic, aromatic and with different textures, it was the most memorable bite of food all week.
Known as dragon beans or winged beans, these odd-looking legumes have four spikes or “wings” with frilly edges, and they taste somewhere between a snow pea and an asparagus but with a succulent mouthfeel. Most places prepared them the same way: wok sautéed with fish sauce, garlic, scallions and a little citrus. This could easily become the trendiest vegetable in the States if someone can figure out how to grow them properly. I’d at least be a loyal customer.
Bo La Lot
Another vegetal ingredient rarely seen in the States but popular in Vietnam is the wild betel leaf, also known as piper sarmentosum. In its raw form it is pretty much flavorless, but when it is charred, it releases a deep, fragrant flavor almost like chard mixed with shiso. Bo la lot is a dish of ground beef seasoned with garlic and fish sauce, then wrapped in betel leaves, grilled over a charcoal flame and served with fresh cilantro and ground peanuts. It is traditionally served as part of bo bay mon (seven courses of beef) but you can find it in many corner restaurants: Just be on the lookout for that unmistakable aroma of sweet medicine and charcoal.
Fried Chicken Head
I don’t know the Vietnamese word for this—the wrinkled hawker in the Tan Dinh Market did not have a name for it. I imagine it’s nothing more complicated than fried chicken head, or maybe it’s got a glamorous name like Sweet Dark Crown of Special Bird. Chefs live for this kind of stuff and Stuart Brioza and I couldn’t keep our sticky fingers away from this simple yet addictive treat. The sweet soy glaze makes the skin taste like candy. The neck meat is tender and pulls gently from the nuggets of bone. The beak, eyes, coxcomb and tongue all crumble in your mouth into a texture that can only be described as chicken-flavored popcorn.
Fertilized Duck Egg
This is a delicacy known as hot vit lon or balut. It is a duck egg that has been fertilized and allowed to age somewhere between 18 and 21 days—just long enough for the yolk to develop into an embryo resembling a primordial creature with beak, eyes, body and feathers. The eggs are boiled for 20 minutes and served in the shell with a little salt, lime juice and basil. One might think the flavor would land somewhere between the creaminess of an egg and the gaminess of duck. Nothing could be further from the truth. The taste is very specific, I want to say hormonal, almost aquatic. The texture is like curdled sea urchin with chunks of hard-boiled egg white and a delicate stringiness. Is it hard to swallow? Yes. The salt helps. It’s definitely not for everyone, but I actually found myself enjoying the unapologetic flavor of duck embryo.
This dish of mixed pork grill with broken rice is a staple in Vietnamese restaurants stateside, but I’ve never had a version as tasty as this one. The pork steak is glazed with fish sauce, honey and white pepper, the meat loaf is delicate and sealed with a thin omelet, the tripe is stringy but not tough, just pliable enough to add another texture in your mouth. But the star of the dish is the broken rice: sticky, sweet, fragrant and texturally uneven in a manner that is playful and unexpected. Historically, it was the rice kernels that broke during the milling process. Considered to be less desirable, they were sold cheaply or given away to peasants. In their hands, they have turned it into something downright sexy.
Lychee and Lotus Seed Consommé
Most desserts in Vietnam are underwhelming, but one at Cuc Gach Quan in Ho Chi Minh City was quietly the best dessert I’ve had in a long time. This was a study in understatement, of monotone colors in a bland ceramic bowl with three perfect ingredients: fresh lychees and lotus seeds in a chilled citrusy consommé.