From cao lầu to chả cá, Vietnamese fare varies wildly in Vancouver

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      On a stretch of Victoria Drive peppered with Vietnamese restaurants, Hoi An Café (5002 Victoria Drive)—with its cheery, sunshine-yellow signage and relaxed vibe—is notable for drawing a consistent and famished crowd seven days a week. Here, it’s not just your standard phớ and lemongrass chicken that are keeping bellies full but square bowls of golden rice noodles, each bed topped with a healthy heaping of barbecued pork, an irresistibly savoury garlic sauce, and fistfuls of crushed peanuts, cilantro, and green onion that diners mix together—adding extra herbs, greens, and shredded banana blossom as they please—before digging in.

      Called cao lầu, or cao lầu đặc biệt at Hoi An when shrimp is substituted for half of the pork, the dish is a specialty of the tiny central Vietnamese town of Hội An, where co-owner and chef Hai Le hails from. According to Hai’s partner, Lillian Le, Hoi An, which the couple took over from Hai’s sister in 2014, is the only place in Vancouver that offers the food in its authentic form. “Anyone who has travelled to Hội An, they know these dishes,” Lillian tells the Georgia Straight during an interview at the eatery. “They’re everywhere: on every single corner, every street, every place you go.”

      Produced at the East Side spot from a family recipe that requires soaking the noodles overnight in tamarind-and-turmeric water, which gives them their bright-yellow hue, and a lengthy seasoning process for the pork, the well-balanced dish—at once pleasantly chewy, light, and crisp—remains largely undiscovered in the western world, which typically reduces Vietnamese cuisine to bowls of hearty beef-noodle soup. However, in the same way Chinese food differs greatly depending on the area from which it originates, Vietnamese fare can range wildly in style, depth, and flavour among the northern, central, and southern regions of the Asian nation.

      “[Food from] the south is more sugary, a little sweet,” Lillian explains. “The north is kind of lighter in flavour. Central is more strong-flavoured and spicy.”

      At Hoi An, other hard-to-find central Vietnamese plates include mì quảng, also a dry yellow-rice-noodle dish, though this one boasts a smattering of broth that lends each slurp a warm sweetness. There’s also the bánh bột lọc, pork-and-shrimp tapioca dumplings—with optional banana-leaf wrapping—that Hai and his team make from scratch every morning. They’re sprinkled with roughly chopped red chilies and green onions and served with a side of fish sauce. “When you do this kind of food, it has to be authentic,” Lillian says, “because people from central [Vietnam], they’re very picky.”

      Chef Hong Duong (left) and his partner, Rose Nguyen (centre), opened Mr. Red Cafe in 2014 to share northern-Vietnamese dishes with Vancouverites.
      East Village Vancouver

      Rose Nguyen, co-owner of Mr. Red Cafe (2131 East Hastings Street and 2680 West Broadway), describes northern Vietnamese cuisine, which she and her husband, chef Hong Duong, specialize in, as more subdued. “The cooking style is more subtle,” she says during a chat at the restaurant’s Kitsilano location, “and we are always conscious about the combination of tastes: salty, spicy, sour, and sweet.”

      According to Nguyen, each dish prepared at Mr. Red—its name a reference to Duong’s childhood nickname—has a story. There’s the bún nem cua bể, deep-fried pork-and-crabmeat spring rolls that are crafted using a recipe passed down from Nguyen’s mother; the bún chả Hà Nội, a platter of grilled pork belly, vermicelli, and fresh herbs that is said to originate from Hanoi, where Nguyen and Duong were raised; and the chả cốm làng Vòng, deep-fried rice cakes made following the traditions of Vòng village, an area situated just outside the Vietnamese capital, where the harvesting of young sticky rice has been elevated to an art form.

      Another star at Mr. Red is the chả cá Hà Nội, a feast consisting of pan-fried basa (catfish) fillets marinated with turmeric, dill, and green onions that’s served hot in a cast-iron skillet with crushed peanuts, herbs, and a spicy shrimp paste for dipping. Considered a staple in Hanoi, the meal is so difficult to perfect that Duong woke Nguyen up at the pair’s home when, after much trial and error, he figured out a foolproof recipe at 1 a.m. one morning. “The dish looks like art because of the flavour and the way you keep the fish still warm until the end of your meal,” Nguyen notes.

      For each plate, Nguyen rattles off the exact address or location in which the best-made version of the food can be found in her hometown, where, growing up, she watched her grandparents and mother work tirelessly to produce phớ at street stalls and a small family-owned shop. “I want my grandparents to be proud of me when they are in heaven now,” she says. “I think northern Vietnamese cuisine is a beautiful cooking style.”

      Southern Vietnamese food, by contrast, tends to be sweeter and uses ingredients such as lemongrass and coconut milk more liberally, says House Special chef Yen Do, who was born in Saigon. This cookery—wherein the quality of phớ is dictated by its flavour rather than the clarity of the broth, and soup noodles are enjoyed with hoisin sauce instead of the north’s preferred giấm tỏi ớt (a rice vinegar, garlic, and chili mixture)—is the most easily accessible of the country’s regional cuisines in Vancouver. At the family-run House Special (1269 Hamilton Street), however, Yen and her kids, co-owners Patrick and Victoria Do, aim to put a modern spin on southern Vietnamese street food that’s designed for sharing.

      House Special's contemporary take on bánh tiêu, a hollow Vietnamese doughnut, involves filling the fry bread with shredded-duck confit.
      House Special

      Consider the restaurant’s take on bánh tiêu, a hollow Vietnamese doughnut dotted with sesame seeds that’s readily available throughout Saigon; here, it’s stuffed with shredded-duck confit and pickled carrots and daikon so it’s a cross between a bánh mì and Chinese bao. And then there are the handmade phớ bò viên soup dumplings, which mimic xiaolongbao, except instead of pork they’re filled with beef balls and House Special’s carefully simmered broth, plus sriracha, hoisin, and basil. In an effort to cater to Vancouver’s tastes, there are gluten- and dairy-free items and even a vegan phớ prepared using a medley of charred vegetables that includes “leeks and secret stuff”, Patrick reveals.

      “[Food from Vietnam’s] south is more flavourful,” Yen states matter-of-factly—and with decided bias—during an interview alongside Patrick and Victoria at the Yaletown establishment. “Generally speaking, you could say that southern [Vietnamese] food is a little bit richer,” Patrick adds. “It’s almost like if you look at southern food in the States, where it’s a little bit more like soul food.”

      Given Saigon’s status as the metropolitan centre of Vietnam, the food there is occasionally influenced by cuisines from around the world—much like the menu at House Special. A prime instance of this is the joint’s popular Uncle Hing’s Chicken Wings: spicy nước mắm (fish sauce) chicken wings for which the Dos “deconstructed” the recipe after they smuggled home a vial of a relative’s homemade Cajun-inspired sauce from Texas.

      “People [in southern Vietnam] are willing to try different things and infuse different cultures, and that’s kind of what we do with House Special,” Patrick explains. “We take different cultures and food that we ate growing up…and we try to make that into something unique and something cool.”

      No matter what region’s cuisine you choose to explore, you can thank Vancouver’s rich Vietnamese-immigrant population for bringing so many delicious options to the city—and their parents, grandparents, and so on for the meticulously mastered (and top secret) recipes they’ve managed to keep in the brood. “My husband’s family feels very strongly about this kind of food, and no one here was serving this,” Lillian says of Hoi An’s central Vietnamese fare, “so it’s kind of special.”