Nem cua be, or rice paper spring rolls stuffed with crabmeat and served with lightly pickled carrot and daikon
For a one-stop shop where we could taste all things Vietnamese, the hubby and I stopped at Quan An Ngon in Hanoi, a partially open-air food court in the Old Quarter. This was actually our second time to a Quan An Ngon, the first being during our trip to Ho Chi Minh City last year. These establishments are known as affordable places to try a smattering of Vietnamese dishes from all over the country, and specifically specialties in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. The hubby and I view our trips to this venerable food court as a sort of "learning lab" -- a one-stop shop to educate ourselves about the dishes we see on the street.
The welcoming courtyard at Quan An Ngon
One of the things I really wanted to eat again when I revisited Hanoi was nem cua be, a classic Hanoian dish of deep-fried rice paper spring rolls stuffed with crabmeat. I have really fond memories of being broker than broke and eating these for lunch almost every day with a bowl of bun cha (rice vermicelli noodles with grilled pork) because they were cheap and crazy delicious. The ones at Quan An Ngon were just the way I like them -- lightly fried crispy, stuffed to the gills with crab meat, and served with a light pickle on the side for some acid.
The hubby and I also ventured into new territory and tried several dishes we'd never heard of. One of the surprise hits was the mien xao luon, or stir-fried cassava (yuca) noodles with strips of crispy eel, bean sprouts, shredded carrots, cilantro, green onions and served with a light pickled cucumber and spicy sauce on the side. We absolutely went nuts for this dish. It had lots of fun texture and wasn't overly greasy at all considering that it was stir-fried. Plus, it was really nice to eat eel in a context other than our usual, which is in Japanese unagi form.
Above, left: che suong sa hot luu, a Vietnamese iced dessert drink; top right, che chuoi hap, steamed banana topped with thick coconut cream, tapioca pearls and sesame seeds; bottom right: the hubby enjoys an icy ca phe sua da, an iced Vietnamese coffee with condensed milk
Now that I've fully converted the hubby into an Asian dessert eater (two years ago, he would've balked at the idea of eating soup or beans for dessert, which are common threads in Asian sweets), we both were really excited to try some new desserts. First, we ordered what everyone else was having, which was the most insane-looking drink. Called che suong sa hot luu (try saying that three times fast), it's an iced coconut milk dessert with grass jelly, water chestnut tapioca pearls, something custardy, and a few other jelly-like items that we couldn't identify. It was crunchy and cold and chewy all at once, and while that probably doesn't sound all that great, it was a party in my mouth.
So the CSSHL (I have to abbreviate, because I sure don't know how to say it) is probably one of those desserts you had to be there for, but I'm pretty sure the other dessert we ordered, a steamed banana topped with coconut cream, tapioca and sesame seeds, is universally appealing. My little bowl arrived at the table comfortably warm, and I immediately wrapped my hands around it, cradling it with love. Its silky smooth texture combined with the chewy tapioca and subtle crunch from the sesame seeds really capped an extraordinarily fun meal.
Quan An Ngon | 18 Phan Boi Chau, Hanoi | 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Ho Chi Minh City | Vietnam