I've visited Vietnam four times in my life, and the last two times I've been, my aunt has taken me to a restaurant in the third district of Saigon*/Ho Chi Minh City called Quán Đạt: Đặc Sản Phan Rang. Phan Rang is a city in Southern Vietnam with a high population of an ethnic group called the Cham people. This restaurant specializes in foods from this area of Vietnam.
The one dish that you can't leave this place without eating is bánh căn. They can be best described as mini pancakes, and they remind me of the japanese dish takoyaki, where bite sized pieces of octopus are cooked in perfectly round pieces of dough.
Bánh căn has a layer of cake made with rice flour, followed by a layer of egg. Various fillings are dropped in the middle of the mixture; here they have shrimp, ground pork, and squid. They're baked right in front of the restaurant in terra cotta molds that give them their semi-spherical shape. They're served with a generous sprinkle of scallion and crispy croutons.
The most fun part of eating these (aside from watching them get made) is assembling the wrap. Bánh căn is usually serve with large lettuce or mustard leaves. Take a piece of the cake an wrap them in a leaf with mint, basil, cucumber, and green mango. I prefer using mustard leaves over lettuce for the extra bite. There's a lot going on in this wrap, but I love all the bright flavors and textures it adds. You get three dipping sauces to choose from: A sweet and sour fish sauce with ginger, a peanut sauce, and a more pungent fish paste sauce. Try all three, and then mix them together to make your own!
A similar dish to the bánh căn is called banh xèo, which literally means "sizzling cake," named after the sound the batter makes when it hits the cast iron pan it's cooked in. It's very similar to a crepe, and the dish definitely has influences from the French crepe. The thin rice flour batter is filled with pork belly, seafood, and bean sprouts. Ours had squid as well. Bánh xèo is eaten the same way as bánh căn is, but you can also eat it by itself with fish sauce.
My sister's husband, who isn't Vietnamese, loves this dish. He calls them "happy pancakes," and we were certainly all smiles when they came out to the table!
Another dish we always get when we're here is gỏi cá mai. Gỏi is the Vietnamese word for salad, and cá mai is a white sardine that's popular in Southeast Asia. The salad is filled with mango, onion, peppers, peanuts, cilantro, and other herbs, and wedges of lime that you squeeze over it before mixing and serving.
Instead of wrapping in lettuce leaves, rice paper is served with this salad. The paper becomes pliable when you dip it in water, and the salad is wrapped up with more lettuce and herbs. A spicier peanut sauce comes with this dish to dip in.
Asian families don't usually eat dessert right after a meal. Fresh fruit is sometimes served, but otherwise sweets are eaten at other times, and rarely immediately after eating lunch or dinner. I can't ever leave this store without getting a bowl (or two!) of xu xoa. It's a jello-like dessert made out of agar, which is a seaweed based gelatin. Unlike the jello you find in the States, which is animal based, agar is completely vegan.
The agar itself doesn't have any added sugar or flavoring, but it's served with candied ginger and kumquat and sugar syrup, which gives it a slightly tart, spicy, and sweet taste. It gets extremely hot and humid in Vietnam, and nothing refreshes you quite like a big bowl of xu xoa.
My favorite dishes to eat in Vietnam are phở and bánh mì, the beef noodle soup and sandwich that is already extremely popular in the states. If you're looking for more off the beaten path dishes, and you have a brave palate, definitely give Quán Đạt a try!
*Although officially named Ho Chi Minh City, many Vietnamese people still refer to the city by its name before 1975 when the South lost the Vietnam War, and Saigon and Ho Chi Minh City are still used interchangeably.