April 17th, 2013
The city of Hué, Vietnam’s old dynastic capital, boasts some of the most intricate and nuanced cuisine in the country, a legacy of the dishes created in the court kitchens during the Nguyen dynasty. On a recent trip, we made a quick stop in this lovely riverside town to indulge in a five course roaming lunch that crammed in as many of the area’s delicacies as possible.
Our first stop was Ben Ngu Market, where vendors sell bun thit nuong, thin rice noodles topped with grilled, marinated beef, lightly pickled vegetables, and a dressing of fish sauce; mep bo hue, grilled beef wrapped with herbs in large, tender sheets of rice noodle; and bright cups of sweet taro, mung bean, and kidney bean chè (a pudding-like snack).
For the area’s most famous dish, bun bo hué (the noodle soup that bears the city’s name), we went to a restaurant that is simply called Bun Bo Hue (17 Lý Thường Kiệt). Their version is made with an enchantingly subtle beef broth and tender, toothsome rice noodles and is spiked with fresh herbs and slices of bright chiles.
At Ba Hoa, a large storefront on Trương Định Street, we lined up with locals for com hen, a combination of rice, shredded lettuce and lemongrass, crumbled bits of fried noodles and pork skin, and tiny, centimeter-long clams all mixed together with hot sauce and shrimp paste to create a surprising and somehow comforting salad-like dish. As we ate, a large group of ladies in beautiful traditional dresses drove up and took huge bags of the ingredients to go. I was tempted to do the same.
Closer to the city’s hotel district, at Quán Ăn Tài Phú (2 Điên Biê Phù, Vĩnh Ninh), we had a delicious version of nem lui, a saté-like dish of seasoned ground pork on lemongrass skewers that comes with fresh herbs and dry rice paper wrappers so that we could make our own spring rolls as we ate.
But to my mind, no food showed the delicate, elaborate quality of Hué-style cuisine better than the dishes at Cung An Định (97 Phan Đình Phùng, Phú Nhuận), a rustic courtyard-style restaurant that specializes in banh, little bites made from steamed rice flour and dried seafood. There are banh loc, dumpling-like squares of rice flour surrounding a single dried shrimp that are steamed in banana leaves until the dough becomes crystal clear; banh nam, flat, pancake-like versions topped with ground-up dried seafood and pork, and my favorite, banh beo, small saucers full of rice flour that are steamed until they reach a noodle-like tenderness and then topped with dried shrimp and bits of crunchy fried pork skin.
Photos: Josh Wand (7)