I pride myself on a good knowledge of Vietnam’s street food fare. But here I started to question the chef. The name of the dish, banh trang nuong, was absurd. How can you have, as it translated literally into English, barbecued rice paper? I remember imagining someone placing a couple of pieces of rice paper on a street-side grill and watching the edible parchment brown, crumple up, shrivel and burn. I also questioned the very idea of a street food dish emerging out of Dalat. Dalat is a city of migrants from all over Vietnam. None of the fare from this Central Highlands city can genuinely be called their own. I was wrong.
The Vietnamese Pizza?
Today, banh trang nuong is spreading like barbecue coals across the streets and sidewalks of Saigon. Like mozzarella cheese sticks — pho mai que — and bubble tea a couple of years before, it’s become the latest craze. It comes from Dalat.
The suddenly popularity of this dish hasn't escaped notice. Over the past 12 months the local press has ranted, raved and soliloquized about what it has coined the ‘Vietnamese pizza’. Another English language publication has also given the barbecued rice paper the thumbs up, suggesting that it is an obsession of the schools-out brigade. But they’re wrong. While the city’s young certainly dig the cheap prices — VND15,000 a plate — and the fattiness of the now-mandatory egg and Laughing Cow cheese on top, the teenage clientele are more than amply supplemented by customers in their 20s, 30s and older.
My favourite joint so far is at 61 Cao Thang, Q3. Operated by a family claiming to originate from Dalat, mother, aunty and one daughter run the insatiable production line on the barbecue, while a son and two other aunts take care of the tables.
I tried going to the place around lunchtime, it was yet to open. Then I discovered it was a nighttime affair. So I duly rocked up with an eating partner, once again an American.
Browsing the menu and going through the variations on the basic theme — toppings like sausage, sweet dried beef, dried shrimp, seafood, cheese and egg — I explained the pizza connection. We delved into our first pie — cut into pieces by a pair of kitchen scissors handily sat on our plastic table — and both heard and felt the audible crunch of the barbecued rice paper ring through our ears.
“Wow! This is thinner than a New York pizza,” smiled my eating partner. At first sweet, then savoury, but mildly spiced, the texture of the rice paper mixed with the softness of the toppings makes for a nice combination of sensations on the palate.
Slowly he changed his tack.
“If you have in your mind that this is a pizza, then it just tastes weird,” he said. “But if you get rid of that, then actually this is an awesome dish.”
Delving into our third variation, the special or dac biet, which contained a bit of every topping, we both added a touch of dried chilli. The flavours burst to life. “Wow!” we both cried in unison.
My thoughts went back to my conversation with the American chef and I raised a smile. “Scott Marquis,” I told myself, “On the money, mate. Spot on the money.”
There are a number of streetside banh trang nuong joints around town, mostly opening late afternoon. Check out the place next to the cathedral or alternatively rock up to 61 Cao Thang, Q3