Never Heard Of It is a collection of reviews of the countless and often extraordinary hole-in-the-wall restaurants of the Lower Mainland that don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve. Explore the NHOI archive here.
Gastronomically speaking, Vietnam can be roughly divided into three regions: North, South, Central. The prevalence of pho joints in Vancouver has especially familiarized us with cuisine of the South. The North has local representation too, but far more rare (here) are restaurants that serve the dishes of Central Vietnam. Hoi An Café is the only local restaurant (that I’m aware of) that specializes in this food. Thankfully, it does the delicious stuff justice.
The abundance of spices produced in central Vietnam’s mountainous terrain makes the region’s cuisine distinct from the rest of the country. Dishes are often much spicier. And then there are the historical influences of the old royal kitchens. It’s often called “Hue cuisine” after the city of Hue’ (pronounced “way”), which was once upon a time the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty – the last of the great Vietnamese feudal families.
This royal influence was manifested in innovative, often elaborate and delicate preparations. Experimental kitchens in the imperial palaces created little appetizers that explored contrasts in textures, colours and flavours. Dumplings are made of tapioca and rice starches that – when steamed – transform into chewy, jewel-like, sometimes sticky bites. Exemplars include Bánh bot loc (pronounced “bun boat lawck”), or clear tapioca dumplings stuffed with pork and shrimp; and Bánh bèo (pronounced “bain beyoh”), or savoury little rice and tapioca cakes molded and steamed in small porcelain dishes.
The universe of Hue food isn’t limited to dishes invented in the imperial kitchens, however. It also has a wealth of rustic dishes that include mì Quang (“mee hwang” — yellow rice noodles with pork and shrimp that originates from the Quang region) and cao lau (“cow laow” — yellow rice noodle with sauteed pork in garlic sauce). The noodles have a distinctive bright yellow colour and toothy chewiness derived from an overnight soak in a traditional concoction of turmeric-tamarind water.
But the dish that perhaps best exemplifies the rustic food of region is bún bò Hue (“boon bawh way”) – large diameter rice vermicelli in a light but spicy lemongrass broth served with beef, pork balls, pork hock, and a cube of pork blood.
The menu at family-run Hoi An Café (named after an ancient port city a few hundred kms to the south of Hue) is a succinct and well-executed survey of Central Vietnamese dishes. You won’t find a bad plate here. Everything is top-notch. The little steamed appetizers are all about $8.50 and the noodle dishes run from $10.50 to $11.50. They also serve the more usual pho (if you really must have it) at $8.95 for a small bowl and $9.95 for large one.
Given the effort and time that the kitchen puts into every dish here, this place is a fantastic deal – even by our Vietnamese food scene’s already high standards for quality and value.