After spending a week in Saigon visiting family and taking advantage of the city’s unbelievable dining scene, The Astronomer and I hopped a flight to Dalat. Nestled in the mountains of the Central Highlands, Dalat offered a breath of fresh air, literally and figuratively, from Saigon’s frenetic pace.
Here, temperatures were markedly cooler, roads were downright spacious, and the terrain was hilly and green. It’s no wonder that newly wedded Vietnamese honeymoon here in droves. Fresh air is romantic!
One of the highlights of our side trip was the meals that we shared at Quan Binh Dan 07, a scruffy local restaurant specializing in cac mon nhau (drinking food).
The sounds of boisterous revelers, along with the irresistible scent of meat sizzling on the grill, beckoned to The Astronomer while on his evening run. He was so excited to have stumbled upon such a find that we dined there that very night.
The restaurant was mostly packed when we came in, with small groups of friends and families huddled around communal hotpots and tabletop grills. This sort of fare is popular throughout Vietnam, but here in the crisp mountain air, it seemed less out of place.
The garnishes in the Central Highlands are a little different than what we encountered down south. Whereas seafood is usually served with salt, pepper, and fresh limes in Saigon, here we were treated to slices of locally grown tomatoes and cucumbers, herbs, and soy sauce squirted with chili sauce.
The first dish that arrived was the muc nuong sate (grilled squid), which arrived raw and marinated in a spicier-than-expected satay sauce.
We grilled the squid carefully to make sure that its texture was properly tender rather than unappealingly chewy. The Astronomer loved this dish so much that we returned the following day for another order. The squid in Vietnam is nothing short of exsquidsite.
The mi xao thap cam, pan fried noodles with vegetables, shrimp, squid, and beef, tasted familiar enough and satisfied our need for noodles.
The highlight of the meal for me was the luon um nuoc dua. This was my first time encountering a dish prepared a la “um,” a style of cooking that requires ingredients to be sautéed with a little liquid and then covered with a lid until ready.
Here, eel, tomatoes, glass noodles, and a plethora of greens were cooked in coconut water with a curry-tinged blend of spices. The result was a soul-warming pot full of all that is good in this world. We ate the stew straight up and atop toasted rice crackers dotted with black sesame seeds.
Our introductory dinner at Quan Binh Dan 07 was such a fist-pumpingly good experience that we returned the next day for more cac mon nhau. In addition to ordering The Astronomer’s favorite muc nuong sate, we shared the lau bo (beef hotpot) on our second visit.
The lau bo came with two portions of egg noodles and several squares of tofu for dipping into the hot broth. We ordered additional noodle nests to satiate our American-sized appetites for carbohydrates.
There was also a tremendous plate of greens for stewing in the broth.
The cold Dalat air seems to inspire dishes that not only deliver nutrients, but provide central heating as well. It’s a damn good thing that The Astronomer happened across this watering hole. It really treated us right.
Chúc mừng năm mới!
For more Vietnamese food adventures from our summer 2011 trip, check out these posts:
- Saigon Classic: Bún Bò Huế Yên Đỗ
- Saigon Classic: Flaming Roadside Bánh Xèo
- Saigon Dinner Crawl: Squeaky Meatballs, Sesame Sludge, Spicy Duck Tongues, and More
- District 4, Saigon: Our Home Away From Home
- Saigon Classics: Goat Three Ways, Coconut Ice Cream, and Vietnamese Fried Chicken
- Vietnamese Steak and Eggs at Quán Lệ Hồng
- Life After Bourdain: Reuniting with the Lunch Lady
- Phở Hòa Pasteur: Phenomenally Phamous Phở
- Family Knows Best: Saigon’s Finest Bánh Mì, Glutinous Bananas, and Chicken Sticky Rice
- American Doughnuts on Saigon Soil
- Hủ Tiếu Cá – Vietnamese Fish Noodle Soup
Quán Bình Dân 07
7 Nguyen An Ninh
Lâm Đồng Province
Da Lat, Vietnam