Just wrapping up my visit to Hoi An--a small town near the coast in central Vietnam (about 15 miles south of Da Nang). Some highlights:
1. Cao Lau: this is one of the regional dishes the area is known for. The noodle is what makes it special. It's a thick, flat or oval, rough textured wheat noodle. A handful of these noodles--cooked al dente--goes into a bowl, gets a half ladle of DARK pork broth, some bean sprouts, fresh local herbs (with wonderful strong flavors--of lemon and licorice, for example), a few slices of meat and a scattering of deep-fried crispy won ton chips. I had this dish a couple of times, priced around $1.50; best was at a little sit down stall in the Central Market, but everybody serves it. BTW, word from local sources is that the dish is not made elsewhere because it can only be made with the local water. That part sounds like b.s., but a consult with a Portland, OR-area (where I live) noodle guru confirms that his own obsessive effort to duplicate cao lau has been unsuccessful.
2. Mango Rooms: Yes, it's the subject of the usual, suspect puffy talk in the guide books. In this case, however, the accolades are deserved. The owner, Duc, has traveled extensively in the US and has adopted the market-driven ingredient focus so popular in the Pac. NW and Bay Area, and increasingly elsewhere in the US. The catch--at least for street food devotees like me--is that he's doing the fusion thing, adapting local ingredients to dishes and techniques from throughout his travels. Still, the crostini served with a bowl of potent mango curry was an eye-popper; thin-sliced panko crusted "tempura" veggies were double-crunchy and greaseless; and the seared duck breast was cooked to mid-rare perfection, served over a sauce with multiple components that I should have written down, but including just a touch of bittersweet chocolate. This was a fine meal and Duc is a fine person to talk with about local cuisine--ironically being a street food fan himself--after 4.5 years back here in his home town.
3. In fact Duc recommended two places where, incidentally, I was the only westerner in the neighborhood. The first, an outdoor patio type place out on the road to Cua Dai beach, is called Quan Bien Moi, a seafood specialist. I was there for lunch. I dutifully (per Duc's suggestion) ordered "grilled fish" that, in a classic understatement, turned out to be bits of local white fish, topped/mixed with fine slices of tender young lemongrass, coconut, la lot leaves and god knows what else. The fish combo is flattened to a thin circular cake on a square of banana leaf which is then roasted over coals. It is served with a plate of green herbs, cucumber slices and lettuce, a small bowl of chilied fish sauce and some paper thin triangles of rice paper (rice flour/water sheets or banh). The idea is take some veg and fish, roll them up in a piece of the rice paper and dunk in the sauce. I did so repeatedly.
The rendering of the Vietnamese name for the dish is not very distinct on the note I have in front of me, but it appears to be ca otuoil ng. The owner--a friendly 30ish woman, sat with me after she served (I was there myself, it was lunch time and I was the lone customer at the time)--and noshed pieces of her homemade rice flour and sesame baked flat bread (rather like lavosh or papadum) with me, though she didn't dip in the brick-red chili sauce she served with it. Not sure exactly what kind of chilies, but it reminded me a lot in color and flavor of an arbol chili dip. I think the dish might have gone for about $3.
4. My second Duc-motivated mission was to try the bun gio cha nam nhieu rau at an area up an alley off Phan Cho Trinh St. (about 100 yards west of Le Loi St.). He said you have to go between 3:30 and 4 in the afternoon because that's the only time the dish is available. The venue is right in the middle of town, but the location up the alley is invisible from the street, so you have to know to go up there. When you arrive, there are a few tiny tables and even tinier little red stools plus the kitchen operation itself--a big pot sitting on the ground being stirred by the presumptive cook, a stack of bowls nearby along with a crude dish washing station. Talk about an underground operation--but there was a good crowd when I arrived, breathless, around 3:45. I disregarded the funny looks at the sweaty Caucasian and flashed the piece of paper with my order on it to the person apparently in charge. Then I lowered myself gingerly onto one of the stools that must have risen about 8" off the ground and been maybe 6" square. Oy.
This soup was served a few minutes later and it was transcendent: a light (though still spicy) pork broth, poured over the ubiquitous bun (thin white rice) noodles, thick slices of pork hock, herbs and the most amazing fish balls I've had in SE Asia. The fish paste is mixed with whole peppercorns and plenty of other spices (because they sure as hell aren't the bland rubbery things I've had too many times) and must be real wet when they are first boiled because the end product is irregularly shaped, not even close to a true sphere. Anyway, I scarfed it up. At about $1 for the bowl, I was tempted to order another, but I needed to be off and besides it was after 4--nearly closing time.
So that's the report. Singapore next where food centers galore await.
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