Cao lau (the first word is pronounced like “cow” and the second word is kind of like “how” only with an “L” although, apparently, they pronounce it “cow low” in Hanoi even though they don’t make it there) is a dish you can only find in Hoi An. It is made with firm and chewy rice noodles that legend says must be pre-soaked with water from one particular well in Hoi An and lye made from ash from trees grown on one of the Cham Islands. (I’m calling BS on the idea that all the cao lau noodles in town are still made this way….I’m pretty sure the well would have run dry and there wouldn’t be a single tree left on any of the islands otherwise. But, who knows?). In addition to the noodles, the dish includes grilled pork, lots of local greens (which are supposed to come from one particular village), bean sprouts, a small amount of a light broth, and crispy crackers made from rice flour (my favorite part).
I used to LOVE cao lau. I used to dream about cao lau when I wasn’t in Hoi An. Last time we were in Hoi An, I ate cao lau for nearly every meal. We decided to visit Hoi An yet again (I think this is our 4th visit) largely so I could eat more cao lau (Robert doesn’t mind the return visit because Anthony Bourdain says that the best banh mi in Vietnam is here — more on that in a future post). I even made a list of restaurants that were supposed to have the best cao lau in town and planned to eat at all of them. But, you know what? My first few bowls of cao lau sucked. Like “why am I wasting stomach space on this” sucked. Like “why did I ever think this was good” sucked. Can you believe one restaurant didn’t even include the crispy crackers? That is sacrilege! And, for awhile, I thought that I was no longer in love with cao lau. I though perhaps khao soi had completely stolen my heart and that cao lau just couldn’t compete. And, then I stopped into Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang and my taste buds sang. And, I realized something: cao lau is still a special dish, but now that nearly every single restaurant in town sells it, you have to really look long and hard for a good bowl of cao lau. Because the vast, vast majority of them aren’t even worth eating.
But you know what? Finding a good bowl is worth the search. Because a good bowl of cao lau is one of the best foods on earth (OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration, but still, it is worth it). So, here is where I think you should go.
Cao Lau Thanh at 26 Thai Phien. This is just a tiny little stand with a few small tables and chairs behind the stand, and I’m pretty sure the only dish they serve is cao lau. The locals flock here (both to eat in and to take away on their scooters) and for good reason. This bowl of cao lau was delicious. The pork was sweet and meaty and chewy and downright amazing. And, they put just a tiny little dab of hot sauce on top, which makes the whole dish sing. They are only open for lunch and close when they run out, but they are 100% worth visiting. If you only eat cao lau once, eat it here. Trust me on this. We paid 30K Dong a bowl, and I’m pretty sure we paid the “tourist” tax — it looked like others paid 20K Dong — but I don’t begrudge that extra 10K even one teeny, tiny bit.
Cao Lau Khong Gian Xang at 687 Hai Ba Trung. You are going to look at this restaurant and think “it is dark, it is dirty, there is trash on the floor, they only have six things on the menu, the lady looks annoyed that we walked in, I don’t want to eat there.” Ignore all of those thoughts. Sit down and order a bowl. Look at how that pork glistened. Look at all those crunchy crackers. This is what a bowl of cao lau should be. And, at only 30K Dong a bowl right in the Ancient Town, it is a bargain.
Golden Lotus Cooking School. OK, this one comes a bit out of left field, but the cao lau we made at the Golden Lotus cooking class was actually really good (although the photo doesn’t make it look that way due to my awful knife skills on the pork and the fact that the noodles aren’t visible because there was so much pork). Other than the noodles, which were purchased fresh at the market, everything was made from scratch. The broth and pork were by far the most flavorful we have had. And, I even got to fry up the crispy crackers.
Morning Glory. Are you feeling shy about eating on a stool or at a place where napkins litter the floor? Do you need a large menu with choices for a host of picky eaters? Do you have to have wine with your meal? (I feel you on that one). But you really want to try cao lau? Then, I would hesitantly recommend Morning Glory, which is a relatively famous restaurant right in the heart of the Ancient Town. The cao lau here wasn’t life-changing, but it was solid and the best we had at a “fancy” restaurant (“fancy” being a highly relative term in Vietnam). The pork in the cao lau was very good and there were not one but two types of crispy crackers. The main thing letting this dish down was that there was very little broth. If you do go to Morning Glory, I highly recommend trying the chicken rice as well — it was amazing (by far the best we had in Hoi An).
I’m sure there are other places with good cao lau and we didn’t make it to all of the places I had on my list. But, try one of these places first so you have a good basis to judge what cao lau SHOULD taste like. And, if I missed your favorite, please be sure to tell me so I can try it next time.