Best of Viet Nam

I know ya'll been waiting for it.

Not strictly the best dishes in Nam, but a list of favorite foods combined with tip-top meal experiences. It's not just the flavor of the broth or crispness of the duck that cements a meal into your memory box, but the experience of eating something new in an unexplored land where every sensation is atypical and unpredictable. There's a great chance I could taste one of these dishes again sometime down the line. It could be lovingly prepared the exact same way with identical {or even superior} ingredients but still would fail to conjure up the same feelings from that one time. That's why eating is an act that cannot be re-created; every 'next meal' is its very own, tantalizing you with both the allure of unfamiliarity and potential for greatness.

Best of Viet Nam
(Part One)

Best Bowl of Noodles
Mi Quang

Mì Quảng. The noodles who call the Quảng Nam province home have made their way across the country, although the best renditions can be found south of the D.M.Z. This was my single most-dined on dish in the Socialist Republic and I never experienced Quảng fatigue. With all the variations out there how could you? The size [and color] of the noodles change from vendor to vendor, as does the amount and sweetness of broth, the greenery served on the side, the proteins piled within and even the thickness and char levels of the accompanying báng tráng nướng (grilled rice cracker). Add in peanuts and some broth-blanched mint leaves and there's no doubt this bowl can stand the test of time.

Honorable Mention: Phở Bò

Best Magical Elixir

Trái Dừa {Fresh Coconut}. No doubt with this one. I'm 96% positive this was Zeus's personal energy drink. How else could he hurl thunderbolts?! After a vigorous swim (see: sunbathe) I'd hop on the '81 and putter around in search of the nearest nut hawker. Ice cold revival nectar sipped straight out of a freshly hacked Bến Tre coconut. Kerns never had a chance.

Honorable Mention: Rượu Ngọc Dương

Best Shell

Sò Điệp Nướng Mỡ Hành [Grilled Scallops]. There's a plethora of shells and snails to choose from in this land. Vietnamese love the sidewalk seafood vendors, which is an economical choice when out boozing for the night. I've grubbed [and enjoyed] most all of the varieties but the oil {or pork fat} drenched scallions they drizzle on top of these baby grilled scallops is the best match since Roscoe's did chicken 'n waffles. Hop up to Phan Thiết or any other coastal town for ultimate freshness.

Honorable Mention: Ghẹ Rang Me (Stir-fried crab with tamarind)

Best Home-Cooked Dish
Home-Style Meal

Sườn Xào Chua Ngọt {Nghẹ An}. Usually this popular dish is made by simmering ribs in a mixture of sugar, fish sauce, m.s.g. and garlic along with a sour element (vinegar, lime, tomato..up to the cook) but up in Nghẹ An a family deep fries the pork slices until crispy then simmers until the mixture is reduced to a sticky coating of bliss. The pork was crispy, chewy, caramelized, with bits of sour and salt working their way in to the party. Just imagine if caramel, pig and tamarind pods had a three way. I'm sure you can.

Honorable Mention: Gỏi Cá [Raw fish salad in Cam Ranh]

Best Stumble-Upon
Honey 'Banh Mi'

Bánh Mì Mật Ong. "Cái gì đấy?! Thơm quá!" The intoxicating aroma hit me hard enough to knock me off my bike. Well, it wasn't my bike and I did recovered in time to continue down to the Lào Cai market for an afternoon grocery run. I had just returned from China and made a new friend at the border during my re-entry into Việt Nam after 3+ months abroad. I asked her about that ridiculously seductive smell that had just penetrated my nasal cavity. She told me it's a little honey bun shop run by Chinese immigrants. Forget about supper It's time to get my bun on. I left her to barter over some tacky high-heels and pulled a U-turn {which technically don't exist in Việt Nam, it's just called driving} back to the source of this scent. The place was poppin' like a downtown Denny's on New Year's Eve. Buns were being impaled with toothpicks and thrown into plastic bags so quickly the 4 workers in the back could barely keep up the pace. I wrestled my way through the flying elbows that define a Vietnamese 'line' and ordered 5 to go. By the time I scooted the 2 blocks back to the market my bag was empty. Besides the fragrant aroma of honey, the buns were light and soft with a texture even the French couldn't make a fuss about. Just perfect. My new acquaintance and I returned for a ten pack of these golden twists, and at 1.000 VND (5 cents) a pop, why not? If you find yourself up in Lào Cai, do find yourself to the bun shop peddling honey baked happiness.

Honorable Mention: Vịt Quay in Nghẹ An

Best Utilization of Fermented Purple Shrimp Paste {Mắm Tôm}
Com Hen

Cơm Hến. Who doesn't love them some Hến?!? Frankly, most people. This dish of day old rice and river clams {Hến} is as lovely as it is frightening- but what else are you supposed to do with Mắm Tôm? Kidding. I don't mind a little purple slime with my crispy dog legs but this potent paste has to be used correctly. The Hến have a natural mushroom-like earthiness to them, but this dish is unique because you have a gang-load of ingredients (rice, river mussels, fried pork skin, shredded banana flower, chili paste, Thai basil, shrimp paste, fish sauce, peanuts, mint) that are all absolutely essential. Every participant brings something to the potluck. Basil: Freshness. Chili: Fire. Pork Skin: Crunch. Mussels: Meaty backbone. Nobody asks Mắm Tôm to take on a leading role in this situation, as it happily shares the limelight with the 12 or so other components. Now everybody's happy.

Honorable Mention: Bún Riêu

Best Use of a Hot Pan
Banh Xeo

Bánh Xèo Miền Trung. I didn't really care for the Southern-style Vietnamese Bánh Xèo during most of my time in Hồ Chí Minh city. Even the celebrated Bánh Xèo 46a- which has been praised to the point of exhaustion- failed to really do it for me. It was either too many bean sprouts or a wilting crust or some other problem. From Phan Thiết up to around Nha Trang is where Bánh Xèo are really done right. Forget that mission burrito-sized crepe and laborous rolling process- in Cam Ranh you get a three-bite sized crisp pancake stuffed with hauntingly fresh squid to dunk into a sweetened Nước Mắm blend. Trust me, you'll be scarfing so quick they won't have a chance to soggify. I'm talking dirt-cheap and outrageously satisfying. Sit your ass on that stool and watch the lady pour, stuff, cover, uncover, flip, and serve your pancakes to order. Keep 'em coming. Một cái nữa..Một cái nữa...Một cái nữa chị ơi!!

Honorable Mention: Bò Né

Stay Unparalleled.


Tia said...

I'm sooo hungry! You certainly have a refined palette for Vietnamese food! :)

Mike Corsini said...

Post of the century.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to Vietnam in May. Loving you blog, the pictures are insane and the food looks amazingly delicous. Thank you for all the posts, I just wish there were more updates!!! :)

A. Rizzi said...

@Tia: I do know what I like :).

@Mike: Of the month at least.

@Anony: Kind words are much appreciated. I'll try to update more often, gotta have the grub to motivate me though!


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