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Best representative vietnamese dishes?

I am beginning to explore Vietnamese restaurants in my area and would like some general suggestions about what to order. I recognize that any individual restaurant may have certain dishes that "stand out" from the crowd and are worth the trip alone. What I'm really looking for is 3 or so "representative" or "go-to" dishes that I could order from all of these restaurants in order to compare apples to apples. I am an omnivore and have am happy with meat/no meat, as long as it's authentic.

Thanks in advance for your help.

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  1. IMHO, pho is the singular Vietnamese representative dish that can be compared between restaurants fairly easily.

    1. After pho, there is ban mi. I also like the carmelized catfish in a clay pot. I've seen these in most Vietnamese restaurants.

      1. People have mentioned pho -- I'd go with a beef-based option. Bun bo Hue is another common noodle soup.

        The vermicelli or rice bowls are great summer meals. Bun thit nuong -- rice vermicelli with grilled pork -- is a common option.

        Banh mi (the sandwiches) are also a good basis for comparison. Most places offer a 'combo' option with various cold cuts and pate; it's usually the most interesting option if you don't mind not knowing exactly what you're eating.

        Finally, banh xeo is a rice crepe dish with a bunch of stuff in it. Not as easy to find, but worth trying if you feel like exploring.

        2 Replies
        1. re: Scrofula

          Bun thit nuong cha gio (rice vermicelli with grilled pork with fried rolls) is my fave non-soup noodles dish :-)

          My point is, pho really showcases the talent in the kitchen as far as the quality and depth of the beef broth goes.

          Here's a blog site dedicated to pho:


          And another (NSFW or NSFH), bit of a play on Team America the movie:


          1. re: Scrofula

            Banh Xeo is something I frequently order. Is does take some skill to produce and is very authentic.
            Cha Gio is something I like very much. I usually make them for a party.

          2. Pho, Bánh mì, and Com Tam Suon Bi Trung are the ones to benchmark.

            Pic --> http://thuyancom.blogspot.com/2011/01...

            1. The ones that are representative to me are my favorites, Cha Giao and Bun Bo Hue. If the restaurant does these well, then I will explore their menu.

              1. Places that specialize in pho don't usually do anything else (some may serve spring rolls and summer rolls). A full blown Vietnamese retaurant usually don't do good pho. So decide first whether you want pho or something else. Another good noodle soup not served at pho joints is bun bo hue - it should be spicy and loaded with offal in addition to some beef. A third noodle soup is bun rieu, a tomatoey crab patty soup. In addition to spring rolls and summer rolls, I like chopped baby clams served with crackers.

                1. If you have a large VN community nearby then you will have specialist restos that feature great dishes. The restos typically specialize in specific genres of VN cuisine, so you will not find one dish that is a rep for all VN food, but rather dishes that are great from each genre based on the category of the resto. So you have your ubiquitous pho houses or banh mi delis. But then you also have stir fry/banquet type restos, com tam places, etc.,

                  But look at resto menus for some of these items:

                  Pho, obviously.

                  Some stuff I love:

                  sea food hu tieu/ho ap chao

                  mi xao don thap cam

                  These are both noodle dishes topped with a VN style stir fry

                  bo luc lac or shaking beef, sort of like steak cubes. I have been served dry, tough scary bo luc lac, but well-made bo luc lac is heavenly; tender, beautifully seared beef cubes in a very light gorgeous sauce made of pan drippings and soy sauce served with lime juice-salt-black pepper dipping sauce

                  VN style salt and pepper seafood dishes. Especially the salt and pepper soft shell crab.

                  ^These are all gonna be best at your stir fry/banquet comprehensive menu type restos.

                  Try a bun, roll-your-own banh cuon, or banh hoi dish from a place that is well known for deliciously marinaded grilled meats...good meats is key here or you will not be impressed by these dishes.

                  Banh khot: little coconut milk-rice flour pancake cuplets filled with shrimp...mmmmh.

                  Banh xeo: crispy coconut milk-rice flour crepe stuffed with bean sprouts, seafood, other protein

                  VN cuisine has quite a lot of delicious soups beyond pho: I love hot and sour canh chua. Also try delicious bun rieu.

                  1. Vietnamese cuisine has its own specializations. For example, there are sandwich shops (bahn mi), soup noodle shops (pho), fast food, and full-fledged restaurants, Without knowing what's in your area, here are some general recommendations

                    For Southern Vietnamese restaurants, I'd say pho tai, carmelized catfish, goi cuon, and lemon grass chicken. Soda chanh is a good drink.

                    For Central Vietnamese restaurants, I'd say nem nuong and bun bo hue.

                    For banh mi places, get a baguette sandwich.

                    I have no idea about North Vietnamese restaurants.

                    1. It doesn't really work like that.

                      Vietnamese restaurants generally have a house specialty. They may offer a full menu but the house specialty is usually indicated on the menu and if it isn't you should ask the waiter.

                      1. My favorites are the "summer rolls" with shrimp.
                        I love the shrimp paste on sugar cane.
                        As mentioned the "bun" dishes (rice vermicelli) with grilled pork- their pork dishes are very good if you eat pork.

                        1. bun cha hanoi (grilled pork and noodles)
                          cha ca thang long (turmeric fish with dill)
                          bo luc lac (marinated beef).
                          cha gio (spring rolls)
                          goi ngo sen (Lotus root salad) with shrimp and/or pork.

                          I avoid the caramel dishes unless I am with a group. The intense sweetness goes a long way. It's the kind of dish in which the meat is more like a condiment for the rice.

                          And of course....
                          Ca phe sue da (iced vietnamese coffee)