The big food challenge when traveling to tropical countries is finding simple, inexpensive places that serve up fresh grub prepared in a relatively clean environment.
Hot weather, high humidity, storage methods, staff hygiene, a clean dining area, and shelf life of ingredients make it difficult to maintain freshness and quality.
There’s a boatload of names for the stomach bugs we pick up — 'Bangkok Belly,' 'Bali Belly,' 'Saigon Stomach,' and my own personal favorite, the 'Rangoon Runs,' but whatever label we use, those nasty ailments can ruin a trip in no time flat.
How then can we best avoid picking up a bug?
A food offering can be found just about every ten meters in any built-up area in Vietnam, so choices are practically endless. That part’s easy — but as visitors, we can’t know places by reputation, so how to sort the wheat from the chaff?
There are several pragmatic tactics to employ, such as going to places frequented by locals, looking at Internet reviews (although the places serving the yummiest food often aren’t reviewed), checking out the hygiene in the dining area, and ensuring the staff use plastic serving gloves when handling food.
I have another hack that never lets me down: inspect the sink by the toilet to see if there is hand soap and it’s been recently used, not some dried up, cracked old cache that is obviously ignored.
If there’s no soap or the soap looks scary, it means the staff can’t be washing their hands after using the toilet, so get back on your bike and keep looking for a place to eat.
There’s another great approach to take: restaurants serving only one single type of meal are prominent in Southeast Asia with Vietnam being a shining example because globalization has yet to take a firm grip on the food and beverage industry, so most diners are still family-owned and operated.
|A hawker's cauldron of bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup) in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
There’s an old expression 'one-trick pony,' originally a derogatory term used in circuses to describe an animal who has only mastered a single trick, and therefore of limited worth when it comes to entertaining a demanding crowd.
In my culinary dictionary, that expression takes on a different dimension, describing establishments that specialize in one single dish only, with a reputation for serving the best around.
Often there is an old family recipe for a particular dish that’s guarded like the crown jewels and handed down through the generations.
When we’re on the road in a steamy developing country, that 'one-trick pony' is a godsend more times than not because it’s often the ticket to a fresh and hygienic food experience.
This old travelers’ trick is not always a guarantee, but it certainly increases the chances of finding yummy and healthy food.
I’ve compiled a list of one-trick ponies in Da Lat over the past couple of years, most being proper restaurants with a couple of street stalls tossed in for good measure.
All of the dishes listed here cost between VND25,000 (US$1.08) and VND50,000 ($2.16), so none of them will break the budget.
The name of each joint is underscored below, followed by their specialty, and the address is listed at the end of each line.
Names and signage are sketchy in some cases, but the addresses are correct.
Co Lan – Bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup) – 29 Nguyen Van Troi
It's open at 2:00 pm until sold out each evening. The clientele shuffles in slowly, then builds to a crescendo between 4:30 pm and 5:00 pm, causing traffic jams and frayed nerves, that’s how popular the place is.
There is space for parking right inside the restaurant — very handy, so you can zoom in and park beside your table. It doesn’t do much for air quality, but it helps on that narrow, busy street.
|A mob scene outside Co Lan, a bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup) eatery in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
Any discussion of bun rieu cua in the center of Da Lat must include a simple cauldron and a few stools at the Hoa Binh complex run by a charming woman sporting a conical hat.
The stall is in the wide pathway leading to the third-floor footbridge connecting to the Da Lat Main Market building, where several vendors are located and motorbikes parked.
She is set up and in business by 2:00 pm with knowledgeable locals primed and waiting with their tongues hanging out. They know what’s fresh and best.
Just check out the photo of her beautiful dish glistening in the afternoon sun near the top of this article.
No Name Street Stall – Ca ri vit (thick duck curry served with banh mi baguette) – 35 Phan Dinh Phung
This simple stand occupies the sidewalk that leads down an alley, but don’t be misled by the humble surroundings, that duck curry is legendary in Da Lat.
The team fires up the stand at 4:00 pm and often sells out by 6:00 pm, so my advice is to grab an early take-out to avoid disappointment. It’s that good.
|A wicked bowl of ca ri vit (thick duck curry served with banh mi baguette) sold at an unnamed street stall in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
Pho Trang – Pho bac (northern-style Vietnamese beef noodle soup) – 79 Hai Thuong
The owner, Hoa, is a native of Lam Dong Province who perfected the northern (bac) style of pho preparation while apprenticing many years ago with her friend from Hanoi, then branched out on her own to open Pho Trang six years ago.
Crisp greens are delivered from the market at 4:30 am each day along with beef fresh from the slaughterhouse which is then simmered a full 24 hours before it hits the tables.
The first steaming bowls are served at 5:00 am and go all morning until noon or sold out, so freshness is ensured.
|A top-notch bowl of pho bac (northern-style Vietnamese beef noodle soup) at Pho Trang in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
Tau Cao – Mi hoanh thanh (wonton noodle soup) – 219 Phan Dinh Phung
This little hole-in-the-wall is widely considered to be the wonton noodle headquarters of Da Lat.
It’s run by a Vietnamese family with roots in the south of China (hence the name, which means 'Tall Ship,' referring to their migration) and you’ll know it when you eat it.
The noodles are made fresh (in a secret nearby location that I have not yet been able to convince the owner to reveal), the broth is clear, the wonton dishes are handmade right in the restaurant, and the marinated ground and roast pork hit just the right note.
The shop runs two shifts starting at 6:00 am going until mid-evening. Like most places in a country fond of pork, these folks have been hit hard by the impact of African swine fever on prices, so what had been VND40,000 ($1.73) for years suddenly became VND50,000 ($2.16) early this year, still well worth it!
Early afternoon the steamer full of hot banh bao (steamed pork buns) is loaded up outside the entrance, large, meaty, and as authentic as you’ll find anywhere in town.
|A knockout serving of mi hoanh thanh (wonton noodle soup) at Tau Cao in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
Banh Canh Chu La – Banh canh ca loc (steamed/fried fresh fish chunks in a broth made for slurping up the thick noodles) – 148 Bui Thi Xuan
I hunted around Da Lat for the best banh canh ca loc for a couple of years, then finally a friend led me to Chu La, and there’s been no turning back since my first visit.
Most places serve teeny-weeny bits of fish so small they’re almost lost in the batter, and I have left some places wondering if I actually ate any fish, but there’s no cutting corners at Chu La.
You can go for fresh steamed or battered fried fish, or for a combination of both, either version is to die for.
Prices start at VND35,000 ($1.51) with the dac biet (house special) large version comprised of half fried and half steamed fish going for VND50,000 ($2.16). That’s my usual choice because it’s an ideal combination.
|Two bowls of banh canh ca loc (fish noodle soup) served at Chu La in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
I was wandering around some back streets recently and the aroma of ducks on the stove lured me to a lane where a charming couple sells duck porridge. I can’t wait to dig into that when I hit that part of town late afternoon one day!
|Ducks are cooked on stoves at a duck porridge shop in Da Lat City, Lam Dong Province, Vietnam. Photo: Rick Ellis|
It reminds me to do another installment in a few months, but in the meantime keep your eye out for those one-trick ponies wherever you may be in Vietnam or around the region.
Those ponies can make all the difference in your food experience.