by Benjamin Seto/Focus:Snap:Eat
I’m a fan of Vietnamese cuisine with its comforting pho noodles and fresh herbs. But much of my food experience has been restricted to Southern Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh City, which is the only city I’ve visited in Vietnam.
Like any other country, Vietnam has a diverse culinary scene that differs from region to region, whether it’s the delicate dumplings of Hue or the comforting heartier soups of the north. While most pho restaurants in America lean toward the traditional Southern styles, you can find a few that stretches one’s perception of Vietnamese food.
Such is the case of Da Nang Quan, a year-old restaurant along Oakland’s ethnic-centric 12th Street. The modern-looking restaurant serves the food of Da Nang, a central coastal city in Vietnam. While you can find familiar dishes such as pho and spring rolls, there are a lot more dishes that represent the heart of Vietnam.
I visited recently with my brother, who was visiting from Hawaii. Like I said, we’re both familiar with the popular Southern style of pho (you know, with the fresh herbs tossed into hours-long cooked bone broth), so I suggested Da Nang to expand our horizons.
The first unique dish was a starter of banh beo nhan tom thit ba chi, or steamed rice cakes ($6.50), a specialty of Hue. Four tiny bowls come to the table, each filled with a rice batter that’s been steamed and topped with fried shallots, a bit of ground pork, shrimp and a light fish sauce dressing. You scoop out the rice cakes, which are soft and comforting but still firm with a bit of chew. It’s like eating the rice noodles before they’re formed into strips of noodles.
I ventured into another specialty, which is the bun hen, baby clams with shrimp sauce over vermicelli noodles ($7.50). The baby clams are chopped finely (in fact, I didn’t even notice that familiar chew of clams) and mixed with various toppings for a funky, light dish. (It’s served with a shrimp chip, which I’m not sure is traditional. I felt it didn’t really add anything to the dish.)
A bowl of warm clear broth is served on the side that you can sip between bites. This is definitely a nice light dish to try in hot weather, although I wanted more of a punch in flavor. (Of course, there was a nice tray of fresh chili sauces and pickled onions that I could add for more spice.)
My brother got a more familiar soup noodle dish, bun bo hue ($9 for large), which is known for its hot and spicy broth loaded with beef, pork balls, and pork slices with thick vermicelli noodles. He enjoyed the bowl, saying that the broth was spicy but not overly so, and the ingredients seemed hearty.
I actually felt the urge to try another bowl so I went with another one of my favorites, bun rieu ($7.50 for medium), which is a tomato broth-based noodle soup with crab meatballs, tofu and pork blood cubes. It traditionally is made with the thick rice vermicelli noodles, but I always request to replace them with the chewier and flatter pho noodles, which to me feel lighter.
The bun rieu came out looking impressive and hearty, with many of the ingredients fresh and nicely done. But I felt it lacked a bit of finesse compared to other restaurants who make the dish with added shrimp and a richer tomato flavor.
Still, the soup was comforting and satisfying in the same way you feel when you’re eating at the home of a generous host who offers you the best ingredients — and lots of them.
There’s a lot more specialties to try at Da Nang Quan, from marinated wild boar to pork cakes. There are also vegetarian options such as a vegetarian pho, bun noodle bowls, and stir-fried chow fun.
The service at Da Nang Quan is friendly and always ready to help you navigate the menu. If you want to expand your knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine beyond pho, this is a great place to start.
The rating: 2.5 out of 3 camera snaps
Da Nang Quan is at 615 E. 12th St. (at Sixth Avenue), Oakland. 510.268.1368. Open daily from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. (except Wednesday). No reservations. Major credit cards accepted.