Hill Peoples’ Food – clockwise from top left – restaurant facade, su su xao (60,000 VND), smoked pork (85,000 VND), com lam (15,000 each)
I stumbled upon Khên Lá over a month ago while working on an article for AsiaLIFE. Here’s a snippet that I wrote about the place in our June issue:
Restaurants specializing in Hue cuisine are a dime a dozen in this town, but eateries serving the foods of north-western Vietnam are few and far between. Khên Lá serves up minority tribe specialties including sup nam huong Sapa (mushroom soup) for 35,000 VND and com lam (bamboo sticky rice) for 15,000 VND. Ga nuong Ngia Lo, a dish of the Thai minority comprised of grilled chicken marinated with cardamom, sweet fennel and cinnamon, is also on offer for 145,000 VND. The strictly Vietnamese menu offers a good selection of Australian and French wine and champagne. Open for lunch and dinner.
Taking a break from our beloved lunch lady, The Astronomer, Nina and I ventured to Khên Lá last week. The restaurant was completely empty because it’s more of a dinner spot. Usually when I scan a menu, whether it be here or in the States, I have a fairly good idea what most dishes are. At Khên Lá, that certainly wasn’t the case. While I could identify individual ingredients, I was clueless for the most part about the mode of preparation and final presentation.
With a lot of help from our minority-tribe-garb-donning waitress, we settled on one main, one vegetable and three orders of bamboo sticky rice. All the dishes arrived at once with accompanying sauces and dips.
My favorite item was the bamboo sticky rice paired with crushed sesame seeds and salt. The rice didn’t taste particularly different from regular xoi, but the slightly drier texture was a notable and tasty difference.
My second favorite was the su su xao or stir-fried chayote with carrots and wood-ear mushrooms paired with a soy-based sauce. Flavored with bits of ginger and a dash of MSG, this simple combination was a very pleasurable way to take in vegetables.
The smoked pork dish was pitifully dry and tasteless on its own, but paired with a sour and spicy chutney/salsa, it was actually quite palatable.
All in all, a decent introduction to the foods of the hill people, but my loyalties and taste buds remain with the folks down north, central and south.
17B Mai Thi Luu Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City