I’m a fan of Vietnamese cuisine with its comforting pho noodles and fresh herbs. But much of my food experience has been restricted to Southern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City (which is the only city I’ve visited in Vietnam).
Like any other country, Vietnam has a diverse culinary scene that differs from region to region. Whether it’s the delicate dumplings of Hue or the comforting heartier soups of the north. While most pho restaurants in America lean toward the traditional Southern styles, you can find a few that stretches one’s perception of Vietnamese food.
Such is the case of Da Nang Quan, a year-old restaurant along Oakland’s ethnic-centric 12th Street. The modern-looking restaurant serves the food of Da Nang, a central coastal city in Vietnam. While you can find familiar dishes such as pho and spring rolls, there are a lot more dishes that represent the heart of Vietnam.
I visited recently with my brother, who was visiting from Hawaii. Like I said, we’re both familiar with the popular Southern style of pho (you know, with the fresh herbs tossed into hours-long cooked bone broth), so I suggested Da Nang to expand our horizons.
The first unique dish was a starter of banh beo nhan tom thit ba chi, or steamed rice cakes ($6.50), a specialty of Hue. Four tiny bowls come to the table, each filled with a rice batter that’s been steamed and then topped with fried shallots, a bit of ground pork and shrimp, and a light fish sauce dressing. You scoop out the rice cakes, which are soft and comforting but still firm with a bit of chew. It’s like eating the rice noodles before they’re formed into strips of noodles.
I ventured into another specialty, which is the bun hen, or baby clams with shrimp sauce over vermicelli noodles. The baby clams are chopped finely (in fact, I didn’t even notice that familiar chew of clams) and mixed with various toppings for a funky, light dish. (It’s served with a shrimp chip, which I’m not sure is traditionally, but I felt didn’t really add anything.)
A bowl of warm clear broth is served on the side that you can sip between bites. This is definitely a nice light dish to try in hot weather, although I wanted more of a punch in flavor. (Of course, there was a nice tray of fresh chili sauces and pickled onions that I could add for more spice.)
My brother got a more familiar soup noodle dish, the bun bo hue ($9 for the large), which is known for its hot and spicy broth loaded with beef, pork balls, and pork slices with the thick vermicelli noodles. He enjoyed the bowl, saying that the broth was spicy but not overly so, and the ingredients seemed hearty.
I actually felt the urge to try another bowl so I went with another one of my favorites, the bun rieu ($7.50 for a medium), which is the tomato broth noodle soup with crab meatballs, tofu, and pork blood cubes. It traditionally is made with the thick rice vermicelli noodles, but I always request to replace them with the chewier and flatter pho noodles, which to me feels lighter when eating.
The bun rieu came out looking impressive and hearty, with many of the ingredients fresh and nicely done. But I felt it lack a bit of finesse, compared to other restaurants who make this dish with added shrimp and a richer tomato flavor.
Still, it was comforting and satisfying, in the way you feel you’re eating at the home of a generous host who offers you the best ingredients and lots of it.
There’s a lot more specialties to try at Da Nang Quan, from the marinated wild boar to pork cake. There are also vegetarian options such as a vegetarian pho, bun noodle bowl, or stir-fried chow fun.
The service at Da Nang Quan is friendly and always ready to help you navigate the menu. If you want to expand your knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine beyond pho, this is a great place to start.
The deets: Da Nang Quan, 615 E. 12th St., Oakland. PH: 510.268.1368. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (except Wednesday). No reservations. Major credit cards accepted. www.danangquancuisine.com
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