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Day 79 – Hoi An Food Tour

May 21, 2010

Datelines: Hoi An, Vietnam – Friday, May 21, 2010

I’ve engaged in writing gimmickry before: the list, the interview, and more lists. By far, though, my favorite is exploitive pictures and descriptions of food. The narrative isn’t complex. Just: “picked up food, put it in mouth, tasted good/not good.” Planning the day is even easier: find restaurants and eat the most interesting things on the menu.

It came to this because I’d pretty much run out of things to do in Hoi An. Today was my last day in town and I’d tried to book a cooking class and learn how to make some of the city’s more famous dishes. Unfortunately, all the classes I wanted to take were full. Instead of going in on a class with a less reputable kitchen I opted to go on a self-guided food tour. If I couldn’t cook the food, at least I’d eat it.

First up, a sampling of a dish called White Rose, shrimp encased in steamed rice paper (see above). This is a light, airy dish. The rice paper practically melts in your mouth. The shrimp is mixed with seasoning and is revealed as the paper disappears. What surprisingly makes the dish is the fried garlic. It adds a burnt, biting flavor to the dish. Even more important, though, it adds texture. The garlic is a bit crisp and a bit chewy, which contrasts with the softness of the rest of the ingredients. It also provides a nice orange color. I’ve had this more than once and today it did not disappoint.

It didn’t hurt that I was able to wash it down with a nice, bitter cup of iced coffee.

While I waited for my appetite to return, I decided to try and find Ba Le Well. Locals come to the well to draw water to make a cao lau, a local dish composed of soft flat noodles topped with pork slices and finished with bean sprouts, greens, and crispy croutons. I’d had this dish before, so finding the place where generations of cooks came to draw cao lau water seemed like a decent way to take a break. I work hard. Real hard.

Finding the well turned out to be harder than advertised. The guidebook was hazy on directions, but after wandering a residential area and walking up and down alleys where only natives tread, I think I found it. It was a small, square hole in the ground. There was even a man dipping large blue canisters in to get water. It may not have been Ba Le Well, but after wandering around in the heat, no doubt trespassing onto private land and scaring peace loving locals, I decided it was close enough.

Break over, I headed for the next destination. Appropriately enough, it’s Bale Well Restaurant. Just down from where I found the fake/real Ba Le Well, this local favorite specializes in pork, fried spring roll, or Hoi An pancake wrapped in rice paper and herbs. I’d been here before with my friend from the tailor shop. I decided to return because I hadn’t had a chance to take a pic or contemplate the food. I knew it tasted good, so figured that it deserved a second visit.

Turns out, it probably deserves a third, fourth, or fiftieth visit. There’s a reason why locals come here. There’s a reason why the restaurant, which started in a small venue, has moved to a larger location and expanded. There’s a reason why the family that owns this place has been able to put up additions to its house.

The food is damn good. A simple guide to eating here. When you sit down, a waitress will bring over a plate of rice paper, a plate of herbs, and a plate of barbequed pork. Shortly after, you’ll also get a plate of fried spring rolls and a bit after that a plate of Hoi An pancake. Your job is to pick up a piece of rice paper, slap some herbs and lettuce on it, put on meat or roll or pancake, roll up the rice paper, dip it in peanut sauce, and eat it. You can mix and match meat. You can add chili sauce to your peanut sauce.

This is self-assembled food at its finest. The rice paper adds a bit of flavor but is really just there to keep your fingers clean. The fresh veggies and meat are what make the dish.

Then there’s the Hoi An pancake. The pancake is fried and made of rice paper, egg, and seasoning. The pancake is fried on one side then folded in half around bean sprouts and shrimp. The outside is slightly crisp, but most of the half circle of goodness is light and airy. Some unknown ingredient gives it a little sweetness. This is by far my favorite Hoi An specialty. I could eat this all day. I could also gain 500 pounds.

I gorged myself on fresh vegetables and meat. All this decadence cost me 80,000 dong, which sounds like a lot until you remember your maths and realize it’s about $4.50 USD. Fantastic.

By now it was sunset. I walked off part of my meal and headed for my last spot, Mango Rooms, for dessert. Mango Rooms is a hoity-toity restaurant that specializes in new twists on traditional Vietnamese dishes. It also is very pricey. Thus, dessert only.

I opted to sit upstairs and ended up on the balcony. If you can stand sitting in a little bit of a cramped space, the Mango Rooms’ balcony is a great place to take in the river and the street below.

But let’s get to the food. I was just in for dessert, but I couldn’t resist ordering a mango and passion fruit shake. This was a bit of genius in a cup. The cook hadn’t just added passion fruit to a mango shake, he‘d added the passion fruit seeds as well. The black, slightly gelatinous seeds became like little tiny boba with a little crunch in the middle. The seeds were quite sour and added a big bite to what otherwise would have been a smooth mango shake. Delicious.

The best, though, was the dessert itself. I went with something called “Eastern Fortune” which the menu describes as “chocolate and fruits wrapped in wonton skins grilled in coconut butter sauce.”

I describe it as “the best dessert I’ve had in the last month.” It’s so good that I’m not going to include a picture of it with this entry. The picture just couldn’t do it justice. The wonton wrapper was sweet and crispy and perfectly cradled the fruit and chocolate. The fruit was either banana, jackfruit, or mango. The thing that made it stand out, though, was the coconut butter sauce. I spent the next 20 minutes nibbling and tasting, trying to figure out whether it was coconut with butter or butter made out of coconut.

I still don’t know which it was. I do know, however, that I didn’t want it to end. I stretched the experience out as long as I could. The two Australian ladies next to me finished their drinks, appetizers, and mains and I still had one wonton left. I’d drag my fork through the thick white coconut sauce and nibble some more. Only out of pride did I beat the two Aussies to the bill and out the door.

The dessert cost as much as my whole meal at Bale Well Restaurant, but it was worth it. A sublime end to a day of eating. I must resort to writing gimmickry more frequently.

GALLERY: Click through to see bonus pictures of a mango and passion fruit shake, the chips and mango salsa, a basketball game Mervyn stumbled on between feedings, and a picture that doesn’t do justice to the deliciousness that is Eastern Fortunes.

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