Five Things You're Doing Wrong with Vietnamese Food

Maybe we're just overly sensitive because we live in a paradisiacal county where Vietnamese restaurants outnumber Chinese restaurants, where a bánh mì is easier to come by than a pastrami sandwich, where happy hour not only means cheap drinks but $2.99 phở. That doesn't stop people from making mistakes, though, so as part of our continuing series on how not to look like a schlemiel in various restaurants, here are five common mistakes people make with Vietnamese food.

5. Adding fish sauce to your phở.

On the left is fish sauce, on the right is soy sauce; neither belongs in your soup.
On the left is fish sauce, on the right is soy sauce; neither belongs in your soup.

Every table in every Vietnamese restaurant in America has a set of bottles on it. Pickled chile paste, sriracha ("rooster") sauce, and a mysterious and very, um, fragrant cruet that contains fish sauce. Fish sauce is a wonderful thing and adds a certain tang to most foods--but it does not belong in phở. It will completely take over the phở and you will think you're eating noodles swimming in a lake of krill.

4. Eating phở in a restaurant that doesn't specialize in it.

Five Things You're Doing Wrong with Vietnamese Food
Edwin Goei

There's so much more to Vietnamese food than beef noodle soup, yet it's common to see people walk into a restaurant specializing in, say, Central Vietnamese pounded-rice dishes (bánh bèo, mmmm...) and getting frustrated that there's no phở. Phở is served in restaurants that specialize in it; if it doesn't have "phở" in the name of the restaurant, chances are you should look at the other tables and see what others are eating. Otherwise, you risk looking like the guy who demands a hamburger at a barbecue shack.

3. Confusing Chinese egg rolls and Vietnamese spring rolls.

The gateway drug to Vietnamese food for those who've never had it must be chả giò (the southern term) or nem rán (the northern term); they're fat cigars stuffed with seasoned ground meat, often with black mushroom and noodles, and then wrapped in a rice paper wrapper that crackles as it fries. The result doesn't look--or taste--anything like the nasty, slimy egg rolls you get with your Chinese takeout order. Wrap them up with the lettuce and herbs provided, dip them in the salty-sweet-pungent nước chấm (dipping sauce), and try not to eat the whole order.

2. Complaining that it's not spicy enough.

If it isn't hot enough, these will be near at hand--spice it up yourself!
If it isn't hot enough, these will be near at hand--spice it up yourself!

All Southeast Asian cuisines use chiles, but it's the Thais, not the Vietnamese, who have fallen head-over-heels in love with capsaicin. Vietnamese food tends to be less spicy and more herbal, though there will normally be jars of various preparations of chiles on the table for those who want to amp up the heat.

1. Eating your food as is.

This is there for a reason--use it!
This is there for a reason--use it!

When the waiter sets down the food at the restaurant, take a look around. Chances are the Americans grab the chopsticks or spoon and dive right in. The Vietnamese, though, spend three or four minutes doctoring their dishes with the herbs, chiles, bean sprouts, lime juice and other accoutrements on the plate of "table salad." The best part about Vietnamese food is the ability to customize it to your own wants--but eating it plain is missing the boat big-time.

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