I wound up in the central Vietnamese town of Hoi An last week. The town is a major draw on the heavily pounded, unimaginative tourist trail along the length of Vietnam’s coast. For such a popular tourist hang, it’s surprising to find a town bereft of gourmet grub. There are virtually no quality restaurants in town. Everybody serves the same tired menu and caters to the lowest, cheapest tourists that come to Vietnam. Like the shoddy, tenth rate tailoring the town has become infamous for, the food here is decidedly lacklustre.
There are two exceptions. The first is the dish above – Cao Lau. It’s the best of the three local specialities that plague every restaurant billboard in town. The others being White Rose and Won Ton dumplings. This rendition of Cao Lau is from Fukien at 28 Tran Phu Street. It costs 6,000VD. It’s a noodle, herb, beansprout and pork sliver dish. Hoi Anans (is there such a word?) will tell you the dish cannot be replicated outside of town because the water used in the dish must be drawn from a well in the nearby Ba Le well which is down an alley opposite 35 Phan Chau Trinh Street. The pork is fried in a marinade and then roasted for 1 hour. Chuck in some fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, sugar, salt & pepper, thin crispy croutons add the noodles and herbs and you’re done. Mix it up and dig in. It’s simple, spice tinged and yummtastic.
Each chef adds his or her own amounts of each ingredient – that’s the only discernible difference from one restaurant to another. Someone somewhere in this town with a bit of brains could easily make a bundle by opening up a high end, classy restaurant serving quality food, but it hasn’t happened yet. My feeling is the restauranteurs here have gotten lazy. New blood and new ideas are what is needed.
The second food highlight (no photos for this joint, so just trust me) is Kimijan cafe at 30 Nguyen Thai Hoc Street run by Ms. Kim Lien, a French Viet Kieu who is one of the few folk in town who seems to know her grub. Very, very few people nip in here. I think it’s the mosquito netting on the windows that puts people off as it doesn’t allow them a look inside. But, it’s definitely the best cafe/restaurant in town. Not on the menu, but she’ll serve it if you ask, is an excellent Banh xeo. This version of the southern crispy pancake standard comes with a hefty herb side plate in which you will find six different leaves including a watercress type chap called cai con. It is found nowhere else in Vietnam. She also serves some stomach teasing French desserts. The Tarte tatin & Tart au citron meringue were both effortlessly eatable and had pieman loosening his belt buckle in appreciation. I didn’t sample the three different scrummy crepes on offer, but I hear from reliable stomachs they are also quite exquisite.