I confess I’m a soup lover, yet another reason for Vietnam to be at the top of my list of foodie destinations since there is no shortage of options day or night.
The beauty is although the common Vietnamese soups share the same name and unique place of origin, the ingredients and preparation are different depending on local tastes in each region as well as what’s readily available and fresh.
Da Lat is a destination that’s on nearly everyone’s list and the city features unique and delicious food, but, like anywhere, the best hideaways aren’t always easy to find.
These places aren’t found in foodie blogs nor in tourist magazines – their success is strictly based on word-of-mouth. They’re makeshift, worn and old, a couple don’t even have addresses, and popular among locals but otherwise not well known. After lengthy searches and comparisons they are the best I’ve found at what they serve.
Mi Quang Da Lat Style
As most people know, mi Quang originates from Quang Nam Province in central Vietnam. The Da Lat version of the said dish is completely different from the original, the only resemblance being the turmeric-soaked thick, yellow noodles. From there on, it’s a whole new experience.
Mi Quang Da Lat features a big hunk of pork instead of chicken, quail egg, and shrimp, plus much more broth, so it’s really a soup – the cooler weather up in the hills calls for something extra to warm you up.
The broth is rich and heavy with a tinge of sweetness to it and the texture of the noodles is squishy yet firm. The key to this delight is the pork – marinated and slow-cooked – meaty with some fatty chunks.
Of course the Da Lat recipe also calls for a sesame cracker to be broken into the dish plus various add-ons such as banana blossom, water spinach, bean sprouts, perilla leaves, lime, fish sauce, and several kinds of chili sauce, just like the original.
My favourite mi Quang joint in Da Lat isn’t even a building, rather a lean-to built into the stairways between Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, which is on the lowest level of the Central Market, and Phan Boi Chau Street, which is up several flights of stairs on a higher level of the city center.
The shop consists of the entrance to a structure built into the hill (I’ve never seen the roll-up metal entrance door open, so goodness knows what lies behind it…) with retractable awnings providing shelter from the elements plus 3 concrete walls which enclose the restaurant that look like they were put up in a big hurry.
Crudely painted on the back wall are the names of dishes not sold these days, so no doubt there have been a few iterations to the shop over the years.
The joint has a name, “Nguyet,” but no address since it’s on a stairway, so good luck finding it! Just kidding – it’s not difficult as long as you can locate “Quan Hoa Linh” at 10 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, the lowest level of the market.
Nguyet is up one flight of stairs from Hoa Linh, to whom I apologize for passing over.
If you’re standing in front of Hoa Linh, the market’s food court is directly behind you, across the street and up one flight – a delightful subject we’ll keep for another day.
The owner of Nguyet is a charming woman who sports a little grin – almost smug – as if she is well aware that her dish is something special. So while Nguyet isn’t the easiest place to find and certainly won’t win any interior decorating prizes, the mi Quang certainly is worth remembering!
Bun rieu cua
This treat is arguably my favourite soup of all but the trick is to find the best version, and I believe I finally found the grand champion of Da Lat.
The Da Lat version of this crab soup contains no crab – presumably because it’s a long way from the sea and fresh seafood. Instead, crushed teeny-weeny dried shrimp are used together with duck egg, onion, garlic, an array of herbs, the mandatory fish sauce (nuoc mam), and ground pork to create the fist-sized clumps that form the basis of the soup.
A nicely-sized slab of coagulated blood and a chunk of pork hock round out the Da Lat version together with tomato wedges and those slippery white, round rice noodles. When that blood almost melts in your mouth, you know the soup is fresh.
My favourite address for this delight is also a bit tricky to find, so it’s best to pinpoint the big pink “Concung.com” shop at 287 Phan Dinh Phung first. The side street which terminates at Phan Dinh Phung is called Hem Phan Dinh Phung (“Hem” means alley) although the street is a normal two-lane thoroughfare. We’re often unsure how many lanes there are on a road in Vietnam, but I think two is about right.
This palace of bun rieu cua is marked 287/1 – it’s the first building down from the Concung.com shop. There is a grill outside for “bun thit nuong,” the barbecued pork noodle salad dish, which is also among the great ones in town, but I’m still working on finding my favourite, so stay tuned….
Beside the entrance is a series of shutters which open upward from a waist-high counter, so you’d think that in the past it was a shop for which the counter was used to display goods for sale.
There are also remnants of decorations, photos, and posters indicating it was a coffee shop, a hair salon, and several types of restaurant at various junctures, but I’m just grateful that they’ve all faded away and left that yummy bun rieu cua.
If you show up early afternoon around 1:00 pm., when the soup is ready, you’ll see a contingent of pole-carrying vendors sporting their “non la” (traditional Vietnamese conical hat) all lined up for a feed.
Those vendors hustle hard and need nutrition and healthy portions, so you’ll know right away you’re in the right spot. It’s the Vietnamese equivalent of a roadside truck stop back in the Western world, where you know the food is good because of all the trucks parked outside, except here it’s carrying poles and bags of recyclable goods.
Sup ca ri ga
Nestled in an alley beside a hotel situated at 51 Nguyen Van Troi on an upper level in the old city is a top-notch outdoor soup kitchen run by a family that lives in the warren of homes built into the hill at the end of the street.
The breakfast offering varies by day – from bun bo Hue (spicy, the way it should be) to hu tieu pork soup – with the dishes slowly building to a crescendo on Sunday morning when a divine chicken curry soup “sup ca ri ga” is served.
The curry is rich but still soupy in consistency, accompanied by potatoes, onions, carrots, and shallots. What a way to start the day – especially in chilly Da Lat!
Incidentally, I’ve tried all the dishes they cook and everyone is a gem, clearly a case where a single kitchen does serve several high-quality meals. The young man who runs the stand confided in me more than once how much he truly loves cooking, so he often tweaks the menu and surprises us all.
They sell out early, before 9:00 am each day and especially on Sundays. If you show up on the late side you’ll get chicken feet instead of the usual chunks of fresh meat, but for me that’s a bonus!
Besides being a bit hard to locate, what else do these three places have in common?
Ironically, it’s the price!
At VND25,000-30,000 per serving they’re among the cheapest around, so knock yourself out without denting your wallet when you visit Da Lat!