Two Meals

Assemble your own meal from rice paper, skewered meat, vegetables, and greens.

Hoi An has long been known for its culinary specialities. Most common right now are "White Rose" (shrimp and pork in a small steamed rice flour "rose") and "Cao Lau." Cao Lau is a dish based on a rather thick round rice noodle (most rice noodles are flat). Proper Cao Lau can only be made with water from the Ba Le Well in Hoi An - or so says Lonely Planet. LP thus recommended trying regional specialities at the Ba Le Well Restaurant. So I sought out the Ba Le Well Restaurant, one of the less attractive establishments I've eaten in. But it passed a major test the instant I saw it as it was nearly full of Vietnamese people - not empty, or full of foreigners. I was given a stack of three plastic stools, as if the extra couple inches would make much difference. Then, without ever being offered a menu, they began spreading plates out on the table as you see above. This is not Cao Lau, and the Ba Le Well Restaurant apparently doesn't make Cao Lau at all. Here's how it's done: you take one of the pieces of rice paper in the center, then load it with some greenery from the plate on the right. This consists of thinly sliced cucumber, thinly sliced green bananas (skin on!), lettuce, and a bunch of greens I couldn't identify. Then you drop on some pickled carrot/cabbage mix from front and center. Next on the stack is an entire spring roll. Finally, you add a piece of de-skewered barbequed meat from the upper left. Now, roll the thing up in the rice paper, dip in the red sauce front and center, and eat. This was one of those meals where my eyes glazed and I stared off into space as I chewed slowly and ecstatically. Utterly fantastic. The pancakes with beansprouts at top center are also added as a replacement for the spring rolls: you still use the rice paper around them, but most of the other material goes inside the pancake. This excellent meal will set you back 40,000 dong, or about $2.50US - and you'll be stuffed and very happy.

Several days later found me at Lac Canh Restaurant in Nha Trang. I'd been searching for seafood - I've had some fabulous squid, but this was the first time I did battle with crab. I ordered one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of "Sea Crab with Tamarind Sauce." Short of slaughtering, cooking, and ripping apart whole chickens, rarely will you do such close and personal dismembering of an animal at a meal. It took me over an hour to work through that kilo of crab, but damn it was worth it. Delicious. It included a free instruction course from one of the waiters on which parts of the crab's body are edible and how to get at them. I left with scratches all over my hands: these crabs have thorns all over, and, even though I had the utensils and they were dead, they nearly won the fight. Lac Canh also offered "Eel Pate," but I had to go back another day to try that (it's great too).

P.S. A whole fresh (and very delicious!) pineapple, cleaned and ready to eat, is yours at the markets for 5000 dong - about $0.30US.