The Quintessential Vietnamese Food Guide

The Quintessential Vietnamese Food Guide
Photo by Hưng Nguyễn Việt / Unsplash

When anyone thinks about Vietnamese food, Pho is a dish that would often come to mind, a delicious bowl of soup-noodle that acts as comfort food for many. Today, we will provide you with a food guide that will not only educate you more about Pho, but tons of other delicious Vietnamese food that we hope you will try the next time you go to a Vietnamese restaurant.

Pho is considered the national dish of Vietnam and is the most famous Vietnamese dish internationally by far. Pho can be eaten, at least in Vietnam, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or even as a late-night comfort food or early in the morning (3 - 4 AM).  However, not a lot of non-Vietnamese people know that there are quite a few variations of Pho. First of all, there are distinct differences between the Northern Vietnamese style of Pho and the Southern one. The significant distinction between the two is that Northern Pho is served exclusively with sautéed medium-rare beef sirloin or beef sirloin. On the other hand, Southern Pho features a wider variety of toppings, such as beef flank, beef tendons, beef brisket, beef tripe, beef balls. Southern Pho also has a wider range of garnishes, such as onions, green onions, chili peppers, cilantro, lime, bean sprouts, Thai basil, chili sauce, hoisin sauce, etc. In contrast, Northern Pho usually comes with (much more) diced green onions, cilantro, pickled garlic, chili sauce, and fried dough (Youtiao). The broth for Southern Pho is also usually much more transparent than that of its Northern counterpart. In the US, Southern Pho is much more popular and widely served in Vietnamese restaurants as most Vietnamese-Americans immigrated to the US from South Vietnam.

Northern Pho: Saigon Fusion; 201 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA, 02115
Southern Pho: Le’s Vietnamese Restaurant; 35 Dunster St., Cambridge, MA 02138

Pro Tip: Authentic Pho will use little to no MSG, as the flavor of the broth comes from the tedious process of simmering beef bones, oxtails, and charred spices for hours (often overnight), so if you feel the MSG aftertaste 1-2 hours after eating Pho then you are missing out on the authentic taste of Pho broth.

Banh Mi is perhaps the 2nd most popular Vietnamese food internationally. Banh Mi became a staple food in Vietnam after the baguette was introduced to the country by French colonialists in the 19th century. Banh Mis is a toasted baguette with layers of fillings stuffed in the middle. Typical fillings include Vietnamese pork sausage, various Vietnamese cold cuts such as ham, sliced pork or pork belly, pâté, barbeque pork, grilled chicken, pork floss, shredded pork, or pork skin, pork meatballs, fried eggs, etc. Accompanying vegetables for Banh Mi include cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots, and white radishes, while condiments include butter, soy sauce, chili sauce, sliced chili pieces, and mayonnaise. Banh Mi is perhaps one of, if not the most flexible Vietnamese food ever. It can be eaten with almost anything, savory or sweet, as it is very common for Vietnamese (especially kids) to eat it plain (without any fillings), dipping it with condensed milk.

Pho Viet's; 1022 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215

Pro Tip: Banh Mi is a versatile dish, as the fillings can be pretty much anything that suits your taste, but authentic Banh Mi will always have a layer of butter and pâté, along with vegetables like cucumber, cilantro, pickled carrots, and white radishes, as these elements are what make the Banh Mi such a distinct food compared to other sandwiches that exist around the world.

Com Tam is a dish that originated from Southern Vietnam. It is broken Vietnamese rice with grilled pork. Com Tam is a breakfast staple in Southern Vietnam, and it is very common to see Com Tam restaurants jam-packed during the morning hours (6-8 AM) as people grab a dish of Com Tam before heading to work. The dish was Westernized a long time ago, so it is among the most famous Vietnamese dishes outside of Vietnam. First of all, it doesn't require chopsticks to eat, which is a major plus for a lot of non-Vietnamese people who don't know how to use chopsticks, but instead can be eaten with a spoon and a fork, making it very accessible to Westerners. Pro tip: Authentic Com Tam will also have "Bì," which are thin strands of pork mixed with pork skin cooked and seasoned with roasted rice powder, and "Tóp Mỡ", or chopped pork rinds.

Anh Hong Restaurant; 291 Adams St, Dorchester, MA 02122

On the other spectrum, we have Xôi Mặn, which is a breakfast staple in Northern Vietnam. Xoi Man is a savory Vietnamese dish made from glutinous rice served with toppings such as caramelized braised pork belly, egg, Vietnamese pork sausage, Chinese pork sausage, pork liver (Pâté), meat floss, chicken, and usually served with cucumber and drizzled with a generous amount of braised pork juice and a glass of unsweetened iced tea. Like Com Tam, this dish is quite simple. Vietnamese people commonly eat it on their way to work in the morning or bought as an on-the-go breakfast item/snack for later during the day.

Ba Le; 1052 Dorchester Ave, Boston, MA 02125

Pro tip: Authentic Xoi Man will have a perfectly braised pork belly (the meat should be incredibly tender), Vietnamese pork sausage, and liver.

Bun Bo Hue is perhaps the most popular Vietnamese dish from Central Vietnam. Bun Bo Hue is a Vietnamese soup with rice vermicelli, beef (usually thin slices of boiled beef shank and chunks of oxtails), pork knuckle, Vietnamese pork sausage, Vietnamese crab paste, cubes of congealed pig blood, and served with lime wedges, cilantro, diced green onions, thinly sliced banana blossom, mint, and basil. The dish has its distinct broth prepared by simmering beef bones and beef shank with lemongrass and then seasoned with fermented shrimp paste. It is also usually eaten with added spicy chili oil. Note that the rice vermicelli in this dish is quite different from that of Pho, as it is usually thicker and rounder than Pho's flatter noodles.

Pho Basil; 177 Massachusetts Ave, Boston, MA 02115

Pro tip: Authentic Bun Bo Hue would have a distinct lemongrass taste in the broth, and the beef shank should be incredibly tender. The massive piece of pork knuckle and the cubes of pig blood is also a must-have for this dish.

Originating in North Vietnam, Bun Dau Mam Tom is a dish that, as the name suggests, comprises three main ingredients: vermicelli, fried tofu cut into cubes, eaten with fermented shrimp paste. As you might have imagined, the part of this dish that Westerners tend to avoid is the fermented shrimp paste, as the taste and smell of this condiment can be overwhelming for many people, even for some Vietnamese. Popular toppings for this dish include boiled pork belly (Thịt Luộc), fried Vietnamese pork/rice cake (Chả Cốm), fried Vietnamese sour pork sausage (Nem Chua Rán), fried crunchy Vietnamese pork sausage with cartilage (Dồi Sụn Rán), and boiled pork intestines (Lòng Luộc).  As the portion size is usually huge, Vietnamese people love to order this to share with their friends and family for lunch or dinner.

Pho Le; 1356 Dorchester Ave, Boston, MA 02122

Pro tip: Authentic Bun Dau Mam Tom will have cubed vermicelli, cubed fried tofu, and the boiled pork belly should be tender and moist; the more toppings the dish has, the better!

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