Central Vietnam has its own spicy, strongly-flavored cuisine, distinct from the Chinese-influenced fare of the North and the light tropical flavors in the steamy South.
Hue, capital city of the ancient Nguyen empire, is famed for its imperial cuisine—a banquet-style procession of elaborate dishes—but it also boasts a colorful, snack-heavy street food culture. Hoi An, a historic trading port-turned Unesco World Heritage site, is influenced by a confluence of Vietnamese-Japanese-Chinese-Mediterranean cuisine, and is home to both a noodle soup of mythical proportions and what might be the best bahn mi in all of Vietnam.
Between the two cities, there are enough unique dishes to almost make you forget about the food other parts of Vietnam.
Uncooked banh ep look like little dough balls with bits of barbecued pork; they’re flattened in a weighted griddle and scattered with fresh scallions and fried shallots before serving.
Banh trang trung starts with a crisp rice cracker, which is thrown on the griddle and cooked with scrambled egg, pork pate, scallions, fried shallots, and your choice of decorative topping (see the aforementioned hotdog and mayo).
A taste of Hue’s imperial cuisine minus the pomp and ceremony, banh beo—steamed glutinous rice cakes with shrimp and pork rinds—are a popular street snack. You’ll see stacks of empty two-bite bowls piled high on certain corners, though there are also restaurants that specialize in different varieties of miniature steamed banh.
Yet another pancake-family Hue specialty, banh khoai are like the smaller cousin of southern Vietnam’s famed banh xeo. The crisp yellow shell is made from an egg and rice flour batter, which is folded around slices of barbecue pork, sausage and shrimp, then topped with pickled vegetables and fresh bean sprouts.
Hue’s eponymous soup, a fiery rice noodle number chock full of beef, pork, cartilage and offal (if you ask nicely). The broth is laced with tomatoes and lemongrass, and the dish, like most Vietnamese soups, comes with your own DIY platter of raw vegetables and herbs to munch on between bites.
A cool vermicelli noodle salad laced with tangy nuoc cham, pickled vegetables, bean sprout and fresh herbs, topped with delicious smoky-sweet grilled pork and a scattering of crushed peanuts. Bun thit nuong is all over Hue (and much of Vietnam in general), but the trick is finding a restaurant or vendor with superior pork.
A novel new take on the “meat-on-a-stick” idea: ground pork is molded around lemongrass stalks and charcoal-grilled, then served with raw veggies (starfruit!), fresh lettuce and herbs, and a viscous peanut and pork liver dipping sauce.
Hen are tiny freshwater clams, beloved in Hue as a topping (along with everything else on this platter—pork rinds, roast peanuts, crushed garlic, shrimp paste, etc)—to rice (“com”) or vermicelli noodles (“bun”). The finishing touch is a ladle full of clam broth and a handful of torn cilantro.
Hue is also the historic capital of vegetarianism in Vietnam, and there are several health-minded veg restaurants in town. This simple stir-fry of fresh corn, mushrooms and scallions was a much-needed break from all the grilled pork.
Hoi An’s most famous dish, and one only available in this tiny town, thanks to a generations-old legend stipulating that the noodles can only be made with water from a special, bottomless local well. Cau lao is hawked on every corner in Hoi An, and while I doubt every bowl is made with this special water, most renditions are still delicious: thick udon-esque wheat noodles in a smidge of ultra-rich pork broth, with roast pork, fresh herbs and fried noodle “croutons” for crunch on top.
Named for their supposed resemblance to the flower, these delicate steamed dumplings are filled with shrimp and pork, then topped with crunchy fried shallots and served with a sweet dipping sauce. Like cau lao, the translucent wrapper dough is supposed to be made with the special well water, so white roses are a dumpling variety native to Hoi An and Hoi An alone.
On the complete opposite of the dumpling spectrum in Hoi An are these deep-fried wontons, which are almost like Vietnamese nachos. The wonton filling is minimal—this dish is really just a vehicle for the sweet-and-sour tomato/pepper/onion/shrimp topping, which wasn’t all that different from the Chinese.
A close cousin to the Hainanese dish of the same name (and likely a holdover from Chinese traders in Hoi An centuries ago), Hoi An’s com ga features shredded chicken mixed with herbs and copious amounts of raw onion, served over rice that’s been cooked in chicken broth and pickled veggies on the side.
Let’s just get this out of the way: yes, Anthony Bourdain featured the banh mi from Hoi An’s Banh Mi Phuong on “No Reservations” a few years back, so the stall isn’t exactly a hidden gem, but their sandwich remains, quite simply, the Platonic ideal of banh mi perfection. I am still dreaming of this thing: a manageably-sized, crusty-on-the-outside-soft-on-the-inside baguette with carefully arranged meats, a light-handed scattering of pickled vegs, and Phuong’s secret weapon: an addictive hand-ground chile sauce on top.