I was going to use the title “authentic Vietnamese food guide”, but then I realized that it doesn’t really apply. Because interestingly, as far as I know there’s really no such thing as “westernized Vietnamese food”. Whatever we get here in the US is pretty much how we would get in Vietnam. That’s really good news – you’ll never need to worry about falling into tourist traps, or ordering something that’s not “real Vietnamese”. Nevertheless, with all the cultural and language barriers, it can still be challenging to explore Vietnamese food outside the usual Pho and spring rolls. I wrote this article to help breaking these barriers, and hopefully the next time you find yourself in front of a Vietnamese restaurant menu, you can make orders with ease and confidence.
Regional Vietnamese Cuisine
Though Vietnam is a small country, the cuisine does have regional characteristics. As usual, a lot of these differences have to do with local climates and geography, but the long and turbulent history of Vietnam also helped shaping the way people seek comfort in good food.
As a sub-tropical country, we all know that Vietnam is hot and humid, with jungles and swamps everywhere… My wife visited southern Vietnam as a child. “It was really hot. I hated all those bugs everywhere, and there was geckos right next to my bed,” she complained. But I bet she would have a better time in northern Vietnam, because the weather there is much cooler – thanks to the mountains.
Unfortunately, though, the local agriculture is leaner too due to the hilly, fragmented landscape, and those tropical spices and fruits just don’t thrive there. Naturally, the locals ate less spicy food than the South, and the dishes are much simpler too.
You might have heard that northern Vietnam was the “original Vietnam”. That’s actually true – this part of the country next to China used to carry the name “Annam”, and eventually expanded down south along the coastline. The old Annam took on a lot of resemblance to feudal China. We are talking about strict dining etiquette, clearly defined social structures and so on, and you can feel this influence in the food.
So, what’s the capitol city of Vietnam? Hanoi, right – for the most part. But for the entire 19th century leading all the way up to the end of WWII, while under the ruling of Nyugen Dynasty, the capitol was Hue.
The imperial history of Hue not only brought the city a plethora of ancient monuments, but also a culinary scene inspired by the beautiful, intricate court cuisine of the royalties. The legend goes that an Vietnamese emperor’s meal consisted of ninety-nine dishes, including thirty-three made for the eye, thirty-three made for the nose, and thirty-three made for the tongue. It’s probably an exaggeration, but the point here is pretty clear: abundance. Central Vietnam has access to numerous spices, spices, seafood, and of course, a lot of salt from the ocean. Much like the royalties, the people there enjoy beautiful presentations, intricate bite-size hors d’oeuvres, and bold flavors from the abundant variety of ingredients.
Speaking of bold flavors, central Vietnam people love spicy food. Before the hot chili arrived from the Americas, peppers were the main “source of heat”. Believe or not, Vietnam is actually the largest pepper exporting country in the world! Luckily, the level of heat in Vietnamese food is nowhere near that of Thailand. Saltiness is yet another key flavor profile, mostly from the use of seafood paste and fish sauce. The most famous example is bún bò huế, an extremely flavorful beef noodle soup amped up with fermented shrimp paste and fried chili sauce.
Once you reach the south-end of the country, that’s where the food really becomes fun and creative. Away from all the rules and restrictions, people are more free to experiment with new recipes, adopting whatever foreign inspiration they are exposed to. Southern Vietnamese food embraces sweet and sour, with a moderate amount of spice. It’s made even more playful with tropical herbs and coconut milk, on top of Chinese and French influence. Due to the turmoil in the 1960’s and 70’s, many southern Vietnamese fled the country, bringing local dishes to the rest of the world – that’s why we see Saigon-style Phở, Bánh mì, and coconut jelly drink served in almost every Vietnamese restaurant here.
To better understand Vietnamese cuisine, I classified most of the common dishes into four categories: noodle, rice dish, street food, and specialty dishes. In the first part of the guide, I will go over some interesting facts of notable dishes in each category, and then list the best places in Dallas to sample them. There are a lot of Vietnamese restaurants in Dallas, but some specialize and excel in one or two things while faring average with the rest, so it’s crucial to go to the right place for the right food!
Despite being the most important staple of Vietnam, rice noodles aren’t very complicated. There are just two types of rice noodles. The flat ones with a rectangular or square cross-section like the fettuccine are called “Hu Tieu”, made from slicing thin sheets of steamed rice slurry. The, thin stringy ones with a round cross-section like vermicelli or spaghetti are called “Bún” (pronounced like a shorter “boon”). Bun takes a different process to produce: mix the rice powder with hot water to develop a stretchy, pliable dough, which is then extruded through a die, similar to how the macaroni is made. Hu Tieu and Bun noodles have distinct taste and texture, and they serve different purposes. The most well-known use of Hu Tieu is, of course, the Pho.
I still clearly remember the first time I had Pho. It was back in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. I followed my coworkers into a high-end looking Vietnamese restaurant and took their suggestion for a ten dollar noodle dish. Note that it was 10 USD back in 2006, for lunch! The waiter handed me a big bowl, half filled with rice noodles with a few *raw* slices of beef lying on top, and garnished with cilantro and green onions. Then, he poured hot soup into the bowl, instantly turning the raw beef into light pink. The beefy, herb-y aroma filled my nostrils as I stared at the strange concoction, not sure what to do. My coworker instructed me to tear up some basil leaves and add to the bowl, along with a handful of bean sprouts, but all I was thinking at the time was, how am I supposed to get full from this? And for 10 dollars?
Well, now I know that I wasn’t supposed to get full: Pho is intended for breakfast or midnight after-party snack. Nevertheless, here and today in Dallas, we can still get plenty full for lunch or dinner, with just ten dollars for an extra large bowl of Pho. The large portion size is sometimes referred to as the “locomotive bowl” for its grandeur. After a decade, Pho has evolved from a mere novelty for which monopolizing restaurants can charge premium, to a world-renowned symbol of healthy eating without sacrificing taste and fun. Pho tastes good, re-hydrates your body, and it’s loaded with vegetables, and low in fat and calories. What else can a dieter ask for? As for me, I’m a hundred and eighty pounds and not on diet, but if I could I would eat Pho every day – because there are so many variations of it than the regular sliced beef bowls.
Pho originated from Northern Vietnam. As mentioned earlier, Northern Vietnamese cuisine is not as lavish as the rest of the country. This is clearly reflected in Pho, a dish that has spread and traveled the world, but more known for its Southern Vietnamese form. Northern Pho contains simply beef broth and some spices, and topped only with chopped beef or chicken. For the garnish, it’s just onion and scallion. The noodles also tend to be much wider than the southern counterpart. Eating a bowl of northern Pho is like a visit to grandma’s house – simple, cozy, and heart-warming.
In contrast, southern Pho, also referred to as Saigon-style Pho, is like a holiday feast. The broth tastes much brighter thanks to the addition of rock sugar, lime juice, and hot chili. For phở bò (beef Pho), a whole party of beef cuts are available for the choosing: flank, brisket, ribeye, tenderloin, rump, meatballs, tripe, and even braised beef tendons are all popular toppings. For the garnish, cilantro, Culantro (a relative of cilantro), scallions, onion, basil, jalapenos, lime wedges, and lots and lots of bean sprouts are piled up high in a plate or basket for you to take. To better complement the soup, southern Pho noodles are sliced very thin and cooked quickly till al dente, and you can slurp in a whole bowl just as quick. Here in the US, southern style Pho is usually what we see in the restaurants.
Pho is not limited to just beef. Instead of beef broth, Phở Gà is made with chicken, and topped with sliced chicken breast. Another notable variation of Pho is called Hủ tiếu, aptly named after the noodle itself. The soup is a mild pork broth flavored with dried seafood, and topped with both thin slices of pork and various fresh seafood like shrimp and squid. With some fried onions sprinkled on top, this dish is a refreshing blend of land and sea.
Though not much of a noodle soup, Bò Kho is a hearty beef stew that can be paired with Pho noodles. It tastes somewhat similar to the Taiwanese beef noodle soup with the red chili and Chinese Five Spice, which give the broth a distinctive flavor and red color, but the added lemongrass speaks loudly of south Asia. Instead of Pho noodles, you can also choose Bun (rice vermicelli) or egg noodles. If you feel like having a French pot-au-feu, you may skip the noodles and just enjoy the stew with Bánh Mì bread.
Compared to Pho, Bun is much more versatile. Cooked Bun is long, thin, and delicate, bundled up like Capellini pasta. Bun can be served with soup, stir-fried, or simply on the side like steamed rice.
Though it doesn’t sound very fancy, plain Bun is actually a perfect candidate to catch the delicious drippings from grilled meats. All you need is dashes of fish sauce with lime and Thai chili for seasoning. If you ask me, my favorite way to eat Bun is to slice up crispy eggrolls and mix them with the noodles, along with some chopped cucumbers and lettuce to make a crunchy and savory Bún chả giò, both rich and refreshing. Some restaurants also offer a popular condiment called “Bi” to go with Bun dishes. Bi consists of shredded pork and pork rind seasoned with garlic, oyster sauce, and toasted rice powder. If you see it in the menu, make sure to get it for whatever dish you are ordering!
In contrast with the simple and free-form Bun platters, those established Bun soup dishes are a little more “challenging” for the uninitiated. Since most Bun dishes originated from central and south Vietnam, they are often flavored (sometimes heavily) with seafood. But if you manage to get used to the strong taste, the intense umami hiding behind the intimidating facade can be very satisfying.
First, starting off nice and easy, Bún Măng Vịt (pronounced as “git”, like github) is a mild duck noodle soup flavored with dried bamboo shoots and Rau Ram, or Vietnamese coriander. This herb has a slightly bitter, grassy taste that helps reducing the gaminess of stewing duck. The dried bamboo shoots are also fermented which makes them smell like a barn, but the flavor they contribute is crucial to this dish, and is also toned down by the Vietnamese coriander. Interestingly, the Vietnamese coriander takes a shape that resembles bamboo leaves, so this dish seems to paint an image of ducks walking through a quiet, rustling bamboo forest… Nice and peaceful!
If you are willing to venture a little further, give Bún Chả Cá a try if you ever see it on the menu. “Chả Cá” literally means “fried fish”, but it’s actually referring to fried fish cake – a popular snack food in Southeast Asia. The clear broth is made from simmering fish bones and heads, but without the strong fishiness of shrimp or crab. There are some interesting toppings to go with this dish, like shredded cabbage, pumpkins, and even pineapples.
Let me switch gears for a bit, and tell you a story of my own. For my 34th birthday, my wife offered to cook me something – anything. So I said, how about the rice vermicelli soup your parents made for us, with tomatoes, trotters, and pork blood? “It’s called Bún Riêu“, she said, and then spent an entire day cooking up a delicious birthday dinner for me. I watched her hustling around the kitchen, helping where I could, and I was amazed how much work it took just to make a bowl of noodle. The savory broth was cooked from pork hock and trotters, seasoned with crab and shrimp paste, and finished up with sliced tomatoes for some brightness. It was the toppings that really shined. She mixed ground pork and crab paste and made meatballs that tasted just like the broth itself. In addition, there were fried tofu and blanched pork blood, both of which I loved. For herbs, there were fresh mint leaves and bean sprouts, and she threw me a curve ball with the thinly sliced banana blossoms, something I have only seen sold in the supermarket but never tried. It tasted slightly of unripe bananas, but very tender and crunchy. The Bun noodle soup was exploding with the seafood of flavor with many layers of nuance, and the toppings were delicious. Surprisingly, as much as I hate mint candies, the fresh mint leaves supplemented the crab flavor perfectly. So yea, Bún Riêu is a dish you definitely don’t want to miss!
Once you get used to the flavor of Bún Riêu, you should have no problem enjoying the world-famous Bún Bò Hue, available in many Vietnamese restaurants around the town. The word “Hue” in the name indicates its origin: the city of Hue in central Vietnam. Despite the name (Bò means beef), the broth is usually made from both pork and beef, which may be of concern for some. The heart and soul of this dish is the chili paste mixed into the broth right before serving. As mentioned earlier, central Vietnamese people love spicy and salty flavor, often from fermented seafood. That’s exactly what Bún Bò Hue is all about. The chili paste is a mixture of fried dry chilies, lemon grass, annatto seeds, and a lot of salty, iodine-y fermented shrimp paste. The intensely savory broth comes with a big “Omph” as you take the first sip, but is then balanced out by various fresh herbs. The thick, chewy Bún noodles specially made for this dish, not typically used elsewhere. Note that cooked pig blood is a common topping just like Bún Riêu, so keep that in mind while you customize the dish.
Bánh And Mì
Nope, I’m not talking about the Bánh Mì sandwich here, though that’s a topic for the next article. Bánh and Mì are two types of noodles not very well-known outside Vietnam, but definitely can be found in Dallas’s restaurants.
The word Bánh is like snake-oil in Vietnamese. Though literally it means “cake”, it’s also used to name many completely unrelated foods like pancakes, pastry, bread, and even noodles. Without researching into this, my gut feel tells me that the word is related to the Chinese character 饼 (bing), which also happens to be a snake-oil word for various pastries, bread, and also noodles in archaic vocabulary.
In terms of noodles, Bánh is a thick, wide sheet made from steamed tapioca or flour, sliced into noodles as thick as Udon. Bánh can be simply tossed with herbs, meat, and coconut cream as a noodle salad (Bánh Tằm, or “silkworm noodle salad” due to the appearance of the noodles), or more commonly, boiled in a seafood broth, called “Bánh Canh“. Again, since it’s a central Vietnamese dish, it often includes seafood like shrimp, crab, or fish cake. What’s unique about Bánh Canh is that the broth is slightly thickened by the starch dusted on the noodles, which gives the noodles a slippery, velvety texture.
So, what is “Mì” then? Google translates it as “noodles”, but it usually indicates something made from wheat. With no local wheat production in Vietnam, pretty much all imported wheat goes into making breads, so wheat noodles are usually just a side item for those who prefer something more Chinese. I’m sure if you are familiar with Cantonese cuisine, when you read about “Mi Xao” and “Mi Kho” you’ll notice the similarity.
One popular noodle dish named “Mì” that doesn’t involve wheat is Mì Quảng, which in its name indicates the origin: the Quang Nam province of central Vietnam. Turmeric is a local favorite in the region due to its ancient Champa root. Both the rice noodle and the broth are infused with turmeric, which gives them a bright yellow color. For garnish, the dish comes with shrimp, sliced pork, hard boiled eggs, and toasted peanuts. It tastes quite different than any other Vietnamese noodle dish I have had. The broth was salty and intense, but there was only enough of it to keep the noodle moist, which reminded me of Tsukemen – the Japanese dip Ramen. Each bowl also comes with a few pieces of rice crackers dotted with black sesame seeds, which you can use to soak up the delicious broth.
I’m sure by now you are very much looking forward to trying some of these noodle dishes, and the good news is that you can find all of them here in Dallas!
Restaurant Guide for Noodles
First, let’s talk about Pho. So where can you find the best Pho in Dallas? To be honest, it’s really hard for anyone to mess up a pot of Pho broth. The assumption here, though, is that you are treating the ingredients with respect, giving them the time that they deserve to fully develop the flavor. A restaurant who takes Pho seriously builds the broth with lots of beef bones and meat rather than lots of MSG, and you can tell the difference because beef broth should never have a strong taste of Umami. Instead, what you are looking for is complexity, a well-balanced combination of flavors extracted from bones, meat, fat, spices, fresh herbs, and just the right amount of sugar.
There are dozens of Vietnamese restaurants serving Pho in Dallas area, and for folks who didn’t grow up eating Pho every week it might not be obvious what differences are among them. And that is OK. I would say, if you enjoy the Pho and it makes you want to go back for more, by all means stick with it. But if you really want the pro’s – as in, my wife’s – opinion, her favorite place for Pho is Pho Bac in Richardson. The flavor of their broth is spot-on, and they are always very generous with the noodle and meats. Other Pho places that we have enjoyed include Pho 95 near North Lake Highlands, Pho Pasteur which has locations in both Richardson and Carrollton (I also loved their Cornish hen, but that’s a topic for the next article), and Pho Truong near Richardson Public Library. The honorary mention goes to Pho Que Huong, who has locations all over the metroplex. Because of them, you can rest assured that you are getting consistently good quality Pho no matter where you live.
Hu Tieu My Tho recently opened a second store in Garland, branching out from their Arlington location known for the Hu Tieu noodle soup among Vietnamese community. You can also find Bún Măng Vịt, a normally home-made dish that’s rarely seen served in restaurants.
If you are looking to try Mi Quang, you can visit La Me and Midnite Bun Bo Hue, both located in the same shopping center. As the name suggests, the latter also specializes in Bun Bo Hue. In fact, they only have three items in the menu, so the focus definitely pays off in quality. Speaking of Bun Bo Hue, the absolutely favorite place for the local Vietnamese community to enjoy it is Pho Tay Do. Not only is the broth perfectly balanced in taste, they are also very generous with the toppings and herbs. You can also request the chili-shrimp paste to be served on the side, so you can add more as you taste.
Some other great place to try unique or uncommon noodle dishes is Đồng Quê Restaurant on Jupiter and Walnut St, and Pho An on Plano Rd. Just look in the house specialty menus and you’ll find exciting items like Bún Riêu, Bánh Canh, Bún Măng Vịt, and various fried or stir-fried noodle dishes. While Pho An is relatively new, Đồng Quê has long been a local favorite and it can get pretty busy in the weekends.
Finally, I want to mention DaNang Souphouse, the one-and-only buffet style Vietnamese restaurant in the metroplex. It features an extensive collection of southern Vietnamese noodle dishes, including almost everything covered in this article, plus a bar of street foods you likely have never heard of. This is the place to go to sample and experience Vietnamese cuisine as a whole.