Pho and banh mi are quintessential Vietnamese dishes, but there's more to the cuisine of this Southeast Asian country than noodle soups and sandwiches. Drawing influences from neighboring China as well as France, the foods of Vietnam feature a mix of flavors: a delightful funk from fish sauce and shrimp paste, an unexpected kick from spices and peppers, and a refreshing bite from raw vegetables and herbs. Here are 10 Vietnamese dishes to know, plus suggestions of where to find them.
Translucent sheets of rice paper are packed with vermicelli noodles and a protein (usually whole prawns or grilled pork) to form these chubby rolled appetizers. Green onions, shredded lettuce and herbs up the crunch factor, while a peanut dipping sauce give them an extra punch of flavor.
A mash-up that came before hybrids were the trend du jour, this cross-cultural sandwich fuses the best of France and Vietnam. A crusty, hollowed-out baguette serves as a vehicle for fillings such as pâté, headcheese, pickled vegetables (daikon, cucumbers) and cilantro, or in more modern takes, sardines, fried chicken and crispy duck.
Bún bò Huế
Vietnam's lesser-known noodle soup is a fiery bowl that, despite the word beef (bò) in its name, features a pork-heavy broth spiked with chile oil, fermented shrimp paste and lemongrass. A specialty from the seaside town of Huế, this spicy, funky dish calls for thick, spaghettilike noodles along with pork hock, beef shank and cubes of congealed pig's blood.
Cá kho tộ
This hearty dinner staple draws its name from the brown sauce (kho) that forms as the main ingredients — fish sauce, sugar and catfish (cá) — braise and caramelize inside a claypot.
Originating from Saigon, this humble platter gets its name, which translates to "broken rice," from its main ingredient: grains that are fractured during the milling process. A number of toppings can come with it, from thinly shredded pork to fried whole spring rolls.
Pronounced "fuh," this time-intensive noodle soup starts with a bone-broth base made by boiling marrow-filled bones and a variety of other beef parts (shank, oxtail) with onions, ginger and spices (star anise, cloves). The soup is simmered for hours, then served with thin rice noodles, slices of raw flank (plus offal for more adventurous eaters) and a plate of add-ins such as bean sprouts, basil and lime. Hold off on the hoisin sauce and Sriracha — a truly good broth doesn't require these extra condiments.
This may not be the prettiest dish, but it's certainly one of the most unique. The street-food favorite is similar to the noodle rolls you find at dim sum, but they're far more supple and typically stuffed with minced pork or mushrooms, then topped with fried shallots, herbs and even slices of mortadella.
Unlike pho or bún bò huế, this noodle bowl, which is native to Hanoi, comes completely soup-free. Instead, diners coat the rice noodles and toppings — usually grilled meat or fried spring rolls, plus pickled vegetables and crushed peanuts — with nuoc mam, the sweet, tart and salty fish sauce dressing that's essential to Vietnamese cuisine.
Bo luc lac
A bed of watercress lends a peppery bite to this popular entree (also known as shaking beef), which tosses chunks of meat with onions, garlic, soy sauce and fish sauce.
Another dish that draws influences from the French, this Vietnamese crêpe gets its golden hue not from eggs, but from turmeric. The spice is mixed into the batter (usually made from rice flour and coconut milk), which is then griddled and stuffed with meat and veggies. It also comes with a side of nuoc mam for dipping.
Where to Try: Banh Xeo Quan in Los Angeles and Bun-Ker in New York City