Mysterious Vietnamese Noodle Dish Makes An Appearance In New York City

The most memorable, awkward meal of my life took place in an alleyway. Memorable for what I was about to eat, awkward because I was a 6-foot, 200-pound Westerner molded into a red, plastic child-sized chair, my knees rising above the matching table, like a Brobdingnagian who went on a walk and ended up in Hoi An, on the central coast of Vietnam, lost and hungry.

When an ancient woman in a conical hat placed a small bowl filled with noodles, pork and vegetables in front of me, I quickly forgot about my lumbering self or that I had crossed into a realm few other tourists here do; in a town crammed with Vietnamese restaurants that cater to Western tourists, these alleyway eateries are tucked away almost out of the view of most visitors.

I looked around: I was the only non-Vietnamese sitting at the dozen or so tables flanking the alley, and realized I had found the travelers’ holy grail: authenticity. But that’s not necessarily what had motivated me to wedge myself into this form-fitting chair. I was there to eat cao lau, an enigmatic noodle dish that I’d read about in an out-of-print book about Vietnamese cuisine.

I grabbed a pair of chopsticks and dug in.It was a medley a tastes, a flavor strata that was at once very Vietnamese (the fish sauce, fresh herbs like cilantro and morning glory) and at the same time very non-Vietnamese: the noodles were chewy in a way I’d never tasted before in a Vietnamese dish. It was one of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had.

So much so that a year later I was back in Hoi An – this time specifically to eat and learn about cao lau. I was on assignment for AFAR magazine and my goal was to meet the people who make it.

But this wasn’t going to be an easy task. Cao lau was a mystery. There’s one family who has been making cao lau noodles for generations and no one besides the immediate family knew the recipe. The only thing that people did know about it was that, technically, to make the noodle you had to use water from a certain well in town and ash from the bark of a tree that mostly only grows in the area. This was, as I later noted in the AFAR article, an example of reverse globalization: instead of ethnic dishes following human immigration patterns, tagging along to other parts of the planet where certain ethnic groups have gravitated, the traveler had to go to the place of the dish’s origin.

I left Hoi An after thoroughly (and, I might add, successfully) trekking the cao lau trail, thinking I’d never eat the delicious dish again until I some day return to this coastal city in central Vietnam.

But then, one day recently, while strolling through lower Manhattan, I stopped at a Vietnamese restaurant to look at the menu – And there it was, listed under noodle dishes on the menu of V-Cafe: Hoi An Cao Lau.

I went in and ordered it immediately. And then I asked to see the chef. A minute later, Lan Tran Cao appeared in front of me. She’s originally from Hanoi and grew up in Saigon but she says she’s been to Hoi An a few times – the last time was 2008 – and has a good friend who owns a restaurant there. She told me she takes pride in peppering her menu with dishes one doesn’t normally find at a Vietnamese restaurant in the United States. There are a few dishes from Hanoi, for example, that she cooks, which is rare to see because it was mostly southern Vietnamese who fled after 1975, taking with them a mostly southern Vietnamese recipe book as well.

“The rice noodle I use isn’t the real kind of cao lau,” she said. “But this one is a bit chewy, too, like the cao lau noodle.”

She paused for a long second and then shrugged, adding, “It’s impossible to replicate but I tried.”

When the big bowl arrived, it at first didn’t look much like cao lau at all, which is usually served in much smaller portions – this had the feel of a Korean bipimbap – nor were all the ingredients the same. Instead of the croutons that become an integral part of the dish for its texture, she sprinkled peanuts over the barbequed pork. There was no broth, which usually is shallow and lurks underneath the combination of noodles, pork and various green herbs.

But that didn’t matter so much because Lan Tran Cao’s version of cao lau was delicious. And in a weird way, it’s nice to know that if I want to eat “real” cao lau – at least the way they make it in Hoi An – I’ll have to go back to central Vietnam.

[Photo by David Farley]