Learning the Beauty of a Single-Dish Restaurant in Vietnam

Illustration by Joana Avillez.

partner tipWhile exploring the central coast of Vietnam, we ate our way through the small town of Danang and its surrounding area. This region of Vietnam is packed with our very favorite type of restaurant: the kind that only serves one dish. There’s focus here, whether it’s at a food cart selling bánh mì or a restaurant serving up bowl after bowl of pho, when a restaurant only offers one dish, they tend to do it right. We lingered at the cart that just shredded, chopped and served coconut meat, and encamped with the lady selling delicate “rose” dumplings from a mobile steamer. But our absolute favorites were spots for Hainan chicken and rice, a typical lunch, and a back-alley dining hall serving crispy banh xeo, made on what can only be described as a ring of fire.

The restaurants in Hoi An are jewel-box-sized and often painted in vibrant colors, amplified by the light from bare fluorescent bulbs. We are on a mission to lunch like locals, trying to move through the tourist crowd in this riverside town. We see a Vietnamese groom and his red satin bedecked bride duck into a turquoise room advertising “Cao Lau,” or “Hainan Chicken and Rice,” the dish we are after. Naturally, we follow suit.

The place was simply called Cao Lau PHÚC, and the kitchen is indistinguishable from the dining room, which seems to flow into a bedroom just barely hidden from view. Sitting amid the large plastic bowls of the mise en place, the chef could hardly pick herbs fast enough to meet the demand—always a good sign.

This dish originally hails from the Hainan islands off the coast of China, brought to Singapore and Vietnam by immigrants. The recipes and variations multiplied with the diaspora, but the defining feature of Hainan chicken and rice remains the same: The chicken is poached, and its broth and rendered fat are used to cook the rice. Sometimes, the leftover stock from one batch is used to poach the next chicken, concentrating the flavor over and over again.

The broth is served on the side, with a few aromatics tossed in. The chicken is cut-up, skin and all, tossed with sliced white onion and herbs, and served beside that flavorful rice. With a little pile of shredded green papaya on the side and a side of chile sauce, you’ve got a meal worthy of your wedding day.

From Hoi An, we head to Danang to find the crispy rice crepe of a lifetime. The drive begins with charm and cobblestone streets, but soon the setting morphs into flashy casinos and nightclubs that seem as though they sprang from the ground overnight. Deeper into the heart of Danang, smaller, squirrely streets house some of the best food in the country. Tonight’s reward lies at the end of an alley crammed with stalls selling packaged beef and pork jerky shredded, flossed and in flat sheets—some sweet, some salty, some covered in a thick layer of chile, some made for snacking and others for adding to soups and salads. We stumble upon a sign that reads “Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng,” filled with families and tables of young people drinking beer, all eating the very same thing: banh xeo, a rice flour crepe, filled with seafood and bean sprouts.

At Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng, there is no menu. Claim a plastic stool at one of the stainless steel work tables throughout the stark bright space and food comes shuttling toward you, piled high on trays. First, a plate with some kind of beef and pork kabob, a mountain of herbs, shredded papaya salad. Dry, almost plasticy rice paper wrappers and a bowl of water follow suite. We take a queue from our neighbors and re-hydrate them one at a time to make our own delicate fresh rolls. The banh xeo comes next, crispy on the edges, yellow from just a dash of turmeric. It’s piping hot.

The open kitchen is in a tizzy, with slicing, dicing, plating and drama. A horseshoe-shaped stovetop encircles a crew of women, heads wrapped in bandanas, pouring batter into molded cast-iron banh xeo pans. Flames flare up every time they approach with a ladle full of rice batter speckled with seafood. It’s sensational and theatrical, and it’s hard to imagine the stamina required to do this all night long.

The meal, paired with ice cold Vietnamese beer, is a generous balance of herbs and fresh veggies, charred meat and those decadent crepes. The kitchen hums in the background, and customers beam as they get exactly what they came for, making a communal activity out of crafting the perfect bite, over and over again. Sitting at industrial tables, there is an unspoken sense of camaraderie in knowing that everyone around you is eating the same exact meal. This is a restaurateurs dream, an operation that promises to deliver the very best version of their namesake dish, day after day, to a constant flow of happy, well fed customers (myself included).