Archive for the 'Pho Cuon' Category

Hanoi Highlights I

The first stop on our long road back to America was the capital city of Hanoi. It’s hard to believe that I spent an entire year in Vietnam without venturing further north than Hue, but it’s probably because I knew I would be heading in this direction before peacing out. The Astronomer, on the other hand, spent quite a bit of time in Hanoi for business and definitely knows his way around town.

We flew from Saigon to Hanoi on Jetstar Pacific and arrived after the sun had set. We dropped off our bags in our hotel room located in the Old Quarter and headed off to find some good eats. Since The Astronomer knows the Old Quarter (and all of its secrets) like the back of his hand, he led me to Xoi Yen because I am a sticky rice fiend.

I went for the classic xoi xeo (7,000 VND)—sweet sticky rice topped with fried shallots and sheets of mung bean paste that resemble Parmesan cheese. The Astronomer ordered a portion of xoi ngo (15,000)—sticky rice with corn topped witdh cha mo (pork forcemeat), mung bean paste and fried shallots. The two orders of sticky rice were served with a bowl of pickled cucumbers on the side. The spicy and sour cucumbers contrasted nicely with the sweet sticky rice.

Still a bit hungry after our sticky rice snack, The Astronomer and I stumbled upon a woman serving up an impressive number of Northern dishes in a cramped street side set up. We ordered three pho cuon (3,000 VND each) and two nem chua ran (3,000 VND each). Unfortunately, both the pho cuon (grilled meat and herbs wrapped in rice noodle sheets) and nem chua ran (deep-fried fermented pork) turned out to be ho hum. I don’t think it was the cook’s fault that these dishes didn’t rock. When it comes down to it, pho cuon and nem chua ran aren’t innately brilliant dishes. Pho cuon lacks a proper dipping sauce (neon orange chili sauce from a squirt bottle doesn’t count), while nem chua ran needs a good punch of fresh herbs.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel room and crashed. I had a hard time sleeping my first night away from Saigon—there’s something about the people and the spirit of the city that tugs and pulls at me. I’ve moved around quite a bit in my adult life so it was really a novel sensation to actually yearn to be somewhere. Although it took a while, I eventually caught some much-needed Zs.

The next morning didn’t begin as bright or as early as we had hoped. I was a bit bummed about missing our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, but my frown was quickly turned upside down with one wiff of cha ca. Cha ca is hands down the greatest dish to come out of Hanoi. Hearty chunks of white fish marinated in tumeric are fired up tableside with a forest of green onions and fresh dill. The fish and greens are eaten with an assortment of accompaniments including vermicelli rice noodles, peanuts, herbs, fish sauce and fermented shrimp paste. The dish is so good that I don’t mind reeking of fish and dill for the rest of the day.

Even though Cha Ca La Vong receives all of the accolades and press (including a visit from Andrew Zimmerman of Bizarre Eats), those in the know head to Cha Ca Thang Long (80,000 per portion) for this local delicacy. And let’s set the record straight—there’s nothing bizarre about fried fish with dill.

The rest of the day was spent buying train tickets to Sapa and walking around Lake Hoan Kiem.

Two scholars—The Astronomer and Ly Thai To.

Shady trees and winding paths—two lovely non-edible Hanoi offerings. After exploring the city scape, The Astronomer and I went on a run that consisted of multiple laps around the lake and dodging tourists in the Old Quarter—a pleasure compared to our options in Saigon.

For dinner we stayed in the Old Quarter and noshed on barbecued pigeon (chim quay - 45,000 VND) and  rice noodles with beef (pho xao – 20,000 VND). Pickled cucumbers and dish of kalamansi, chili and salt were served on the side.

The barbecued pigeon was succulent, but a bit too oily. We dipped the meat in a simple sauce made from kalamansi juice, chillies and salt to combat the oiliness. The pho xao was a solid plate of carbs—it’s hard to mess up stir-fried noodles, veggies and meat smothered in a light gravy.

Because dinner never ends with just one eatery for us, The Astronomer and I jammed over to the street side vendor we discovered the previous evening  and ordered a plate of mien xao cua Thai Lan (20,000 VND). The vendor recognized our faces and quickly wok’d up a heap of glass noodles with crabmeat and fresh beansprouts. Whereas the mien xao cua served at the Crab Shack in Saigon contains lots of fresh crab meat, the crab in this dish tasted strangely crunchy and not at all fresh.

The following day we met up with “Teddy,” a former editor of mine, at Dac Kim for a lunch of nem cua be (crab-stuffed eggrolls) and bun cha.

The Astronomer was impressed with this eatery on an earlier visit, and Teddy guaranteed that the place was great, so it really wasn’t a surprise that both the bun cha and nem cua be were executed outrageously well. Along with Cha Ca Thanh Long, Dac Kim is definitely a not-to-be-missed stop during a trip to Hanoi.

We took Teddy’s advice and hit up Banh Cuon Gia Truyen in the Old Quarter for dinner. This woman makes each banh cuon fresh to order.

Banh cuon—delicate rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork and wood ear mushrooms—are another one of Hanoi’s specialties. Even though the banh cuon here was comparable to what we’ve eaten in Saigon, a portion cost twice as much.  We also had to fork over some extra dong for cha (pork forcemeat) because it wasn’t included. Not cool, Hanoi. Banh cuon without cha is like Oreo cookies without the cream in the center.

Street side roastie.

After our puny plate of banh cuon, The Astronomer took me to an eatery specializing in eel. The first time he ate here, The Astronomer ordered a bowl of noodle soup with crunchy fried eels and glass noodles, which were good but not great. On this occasion, we listened to the waiter and ordered stir-fried glass noodles with eggs and topped with the same fried eels, which turned out to be really spectacular.

Our third course of the evening was a bowl of bun thang at 12 Hang Dieu Street. Compared to stellar Vietnamese noodle soups like bo kho, bun rieu and bun mang, this Northern-style chicken soup just left me bored. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a pretty good bowl of soup, but it can’t hit the spot like the big dogs can.

For  dessert, The Astronomer picked up a plate of profiteroles from a random French bakery in the Old Quarter. Although they looked appetizing, the cream tasted like bubblegum. The Astronomer ate one and we gave the rest to a street vendor. Bubblicious puffs just ain’t our thing.

The following morning we cruised the bay of Halong.

Eating in Hanoi II

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When visiting Hanoi, my primary culinary objective is to sample my favorite northern Vietnamese dishes in the land of their creation or, better yet, try something I’ve never seen or even heard of in the south. The first meal of my latest visit was a late lunch. I was absolutely starving after an hour plus run and no food since 8 a.m., so when my intended destination turned out to be a tourist trap, I blindly stumbled into a wanton soup eatery. The place was basically empty, but it was definitely not peak hours, and I justified my choice to myself in light of the above rule by noting that wantons and dumplings are a Chinese import, and Hanoi is a lot closer to China than Saigon.

I was also intrigued by the northern spelling of wonton: van than instead of hoan thanh. Nevertheless, I ended up ordering sui cao my. I found it rather disappointing—the sui cao themselves were good, with nice peppery seasoning, but I was only given three. Bland slices of pork made up the majority of the meat in the dish, and the broth was nothing special. Sadly, it seems my judgment was clouded by hunger when I chose this place.

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Fortunately, I was more than ready to seek redemption in the form of a second course. I headed for a mien luon spot recommended by my Rough Guide tour book (as noted previously, their Hanoi street eats section is surprisingly insightful). I ordered the mien nuoc—thin glass noodles and crispy mini eels in a broth with fried shallots, bean sprouts, and scallions. Now this was the sort of eating experience I was looking for—I’m not sure whether this dish is even of northern origin, but it was certainly different than anything I had eaten before, and pretty darn delicious. The broth reminded me of a good hu tieu mi—sweet and salty and crying out to be drank when the noodles were gone. The dried eels were interesting—kind of like the fish-skin chips The Gastronomer and I sampled once at the Chinatown business expo. I had expected little pieces of big eel in the soup, but these were entire animals I was gulping down—the eel equivalent of the dried mini-shrimps used in xoi man.

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Dinner found me wandering again, but this time at a more thoughtful pace. I found a winner in Nguyen Huu Huan Street. First I stopped at a massive sticky rice establishment. The Gastronomer has tried quite a few varieties of xoi on Ton That Thuyet Street, but this was a whole different story—it seems the northerners take their xoi pretty seriously. Slightly overwhelmed, I glanced around at what people were eating before pointing at some sort of loaf and saying, “sin cho toi mot to xoi cha.” As it turned out, xoi cha (or at least this variety—there were definitely several kinds available) consisted of yellow sticky rice topped with shreds of hardened mung bean paste, fried shallots, and the cha itself. I made little progress discerning what the loaf was made of, but it was a bit chewy and surprisingly sweet. I don’t usually love sweet xoi, but the ingredients of this one melded perfectly. I almost ordered another bowl, but another stall down the street was calling my name (“Astronomer, Astronomer…!”).

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This one was run by a father and his three sons and served a mostly male clientele. On display were a number of pastries deep fried to order; I decided it was time to sample another banh goi. The pastry itself was similar to the first banh goi I tried, but the components were more evenly distributed inside, and the spicy dipping sauce, which looked remarkably similar to the broth for bun cha but tasted entirely different, was a welcome addition.

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I also ordered a plate of pho cuon. When they came out, I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to dip them in the same sauce, but I decided to go for it. No one stopped me, and they went together wonderfully. When The Gastronomer and I tried pho cuon down south we were underwhelmed, but these were really spectacular. Filled with plenty of ground beef and copious mint leaves, they were quite tasty without the sauce and even better with it. I’ll definitely have to return for more.

I capped off my dinner with a couple of pastries from one of the small French-influenced bakeries that are everywhere in Hanoi. The chocolate tart turned out to contain coffee, which was a disappointment, but the lemon tart (R) was awesome.

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Day two began with an ultra-simple breakfast of bread and jam at the Prince II hotel. The baguette was one of the best I’ve had in Vietnam, with a soft crust and substantial exterior. Afterwards, I was still a bit hungry, so I bought a chocolate-filled pastry from a street vendor. I bargained the price down from 10,000 VND to 5,000 and then made the purchase despite knowing that I should have paid no more than 3,000. She aggressively tried to sell me additional pastries and even a trip to Ha Long Bay, but I declined. When I got back to my room and took a bite of the pastry, I found that there was in fact nothing inside. I hate being a tourist.

Despite my previous resolution to try something new every meal, when lunchtime rolled around I was really in the mood for some bun cha. I checked out Dac Kim on Hang Manh Street, recommended by Wandering Chopsticks and advertised as Hanoi’s most famous bun cha restaurant in the Rough Guide, but it was closed. Perhaps 1:15 in the afternoon was too late? Luckily, I was only a few blocks away from Dac Kim II, and I couldn’t resist going back (side note: I’m not sure if one of these restaurants copied the other, or if they actually have the same owners. I walked by a third Bun Cha Dac Kim in the Old Quarter the day before. Oh well, if they’re all good, what does it matter?). The nem cua be were even better than I remembered them, and the bun cha was also satisfying, although I felt like I received an inferior ratio of juicy sausages to chewy meat strips this time.

All in all, another successful business trip to Hanoi. Next time I look forward to trying pho xao, northern banh cuon, and maybe some barbecued bird.

Tastes Like Hanoi

December 12, 2007
Cuisine: Vietnamese

140 Vo Thi Sau Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Pho Cuon (15,000 VND)

Bun Cha (15,000 VND)

Asia Life HCMC, a lifestyle magazine aimed at the expat crowd, is one of my food inspirations. In every issue, the editors profile a lesser-known regional Vietnamese dish that I have usually never heard of. While flipping through a dated issue recently, I learned about a Hanoi specialty called pho cuon that is supposedly all the rage these days up north. With a little help from the restaurant directory in the magazine, The Astronomer and I tracked down the dish for lunch yesterday.

The eatery, located inside an alley, consisted of an open kitchen, tables, chairs and an awning. We ordered one helping of pho cuon and two portions of bun cha.

The pho cuon was served first and was comprised of lettuce, basil and grilled meat rolled up in a thick sheet of rice paper that reminded me of banh uot. According to the magazine, the rice paper is actually uncut sheets of banh pho. A watered-down nuoc mam and vinegar dipping sauce with sliced carrots and diakon was served on the side.

The smooth rice paper was the dominant flavor, while the meat and greens were merely background noise. The dipping sauce moistened the roll and tied the flavors together. Since this was my first time eating pho cuon, I can’t say whether or not this was an especially good rendition. The pho cuon was tasty, but not nothing to go crazy about.

The bun cha arrived next. Bun cha is made up of three components—herbs/greens, vermicelli noodles (bun) and little patties of grilled minced pork (cha) dunked in a watered-down nuoc mam and vinegar dipping sauce with sliced carrots and diakon.

Rumor has it, northerners eat this dish by adding noodles and greens directly into the bowl of cha. Since we were down south, we were given an extra bowl to make little portions using all of the ingredients.

The little patties of grilled pork were smaller than a pog, and sweet and savory in all the right places. Served with a heap of noodles, I found it impossible to stretch the two tiny patties as needed. The Astronomer and I have had bun cha on numerous occasions, we were neither disappointed nor thrilled with this version.

I am looking forward to traveling to Hanoi next year to taste these regional gems on their home turf.

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