Hue is no longer the capital of Viet Nam, but it’s still an epicurean destination. This riverside restaurant serves up traditional dishes from the central region, such as nem lui and banh khoai.
When I travel, I don’t enjoy visiting pagodas, temples, museums and ancient places.
Hue, the former royal capital, is full of such things. However, I still fell in love with the imperial city and have returned many times because of the marvellous cuisine.
Hue is a paradise of food, with all kinds of amazing dishes in both high-end restaurants and on the street.
I discovered Pho Dem Restaurant while strolling along Trinh Cong Son Road, a new road by the Huong River.
It was not time for dinner yet, but my friends and I decided to sit down because of the pleasant fresh air setting.
The restaurant offers limited indoor seating, as the owner redecorated her own house to serve customers. However, tables on the pavement across the road serve up to 50 people.
The other tables were quickly occupied by middle-aged people and their families.
Later on I understood why: Pho Dem provides customers not only classic Hue cuisine but also wonderful melodies by Trinh Cong Son, one of the most famous Vietnamese songwriters, who was born in this city.
A few hundred metres from Pho Dem, other restaurants were full of young people who preferred to hear rock and heavy metal while dining.
Hue cuisine is so famous in Viet Nam that it can be found in many other cities and provinces. While I’ve tasted these dishes in Ha Noi several times, nothing compares to tasting them in Hue itself.
As wraps and rolls are always my favourite, I decided to make our dinner busy with rolling activities. We also ordered banh khoai, nem lui, thit nuong and banh uot thit heo tom chua along with Huda beer.
Banh khoai is a crispy rice cake loaded with shrimp, bean sprouts and other goodies. You grab a sheet of rice paper, layer it with the crispy rice cake and a few provided aromatic herbs, pickled vegetables and grilled pork (pork can be replaced with beef or shrimp), dunk it in sweet, sour and spicy fish sauce and scoff it down. Then you take a sip of cold beer and roll another.
One dish of banh khoai costs only VND15,000 and makes about 10 rolls. I loved it so much, I ordered a second dish and quickly finished it in front of my friends’ surprised eyes.
The nem lui came a few minutes after the banh khoai. This dish also includes rice paper for wrapping, herbs and pickled vegetables. But nem lui is different due to the inclusion of minced pork grilled on long lemongrass sticks and a special sauce, the ingredients of which only the chef knows.
At VND50,000 for a plate of 10 sticks, these were the cheapest nem lui I had ever eaten.
Bun thit nuong, noodles with sliced char-grilled pork (VND50,000), sums up the simple delights of Hue cooking. The noodles arrive still warm and soft, with a moistening drizzle of fish sauce and lime juice infused with clove, pepper, chili and garlic.
Bun thit nuong and banh khoai seemed to be the restaurant’s most popular dishes as I counted nine six-person tables ordering them.
I was so satisfied with the meal that I asked for the bill even though the fourth dish, banh uot thit heo tom chua (steamed pancake with pork and fermented shrimps), had not yet come.
The restaurant owner also forgot our order. But she smiled gently, apologised and asked us to come back the next day for a bigger plate.
I did not fulfill that promise because it was my last night in the imperial city, but I will someday. Hue is so special to me that I want to return again and again.