The city of Hue is a cradle of central Vietnamese cooking, home to a once-royal cuisine dating to when the city was capital of the Nguyen Dynasty. These imperial dishes are unlike any other in the nation: bold, idiosyncratic, and unbound by the traditions of the north or the south. In Little Saigon, a growing cast of restaurants specializes not only in central Vietnamese cooking, but in the region’s fondness for out-of-this-world dumplings.
Ngu Binh has grown in stature and size to become one of Little Saigon’s culinary epicenters. And it’s no wonder—the dumplings are fantastic. There are combo plates of banh beo and chewy banh bot loc (translucent tapioca dumplings filled with shrimp, above) as well as banh nam, a pane of glutinous rice loaded with pork and shrimp and steamed in a banana leaf. But nothing delights (and confounds) like the banh it ram, a puck of fried mochi topped with a sticky ball of steamed mochi stuffed with shrimp. It’s both crispy and resiliently springy.
At Quan Hy, trays of banh beo are shuttled to and from the kitchen with startling speed. The dish is one of central Vietnam’s most iconic: eight tiny saucers carrying thin, steamed rice cakes showered with minced shrimp, chopped scallion, and fried shards of shallot. A cup of nuoc cham, the ubiquitous Vietnamese dipping sauce, sits in the center. Splash a bit of it on the banh beo, loosen them from their diminutive dishes, and slurp them like oysters.
On the edge of Little Saigon is Hue Oi, specializing in central Vietnamese cuisine. And although dumplings aren’t essential to its menu, there are good versions of banh bot loc and banh nam, the latter wrapped in banana leaves. Unfold the dumpling and sprinkle it with bits of chopped chiles to bring it to fiery life.
SOMETIMES YOU CAN’T make a meal of dumplings alone. So at Ngu Binh, try the mi quang, too. It’s another quintessential central Vietnamese dish: a skein of wide, turmeric-tinted noodles entwined with shrimp, pork, peanuts, and a couple black sesame crackers in a shallow, spicy sauce.
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