Partly because of Delaware’s perpetual shortage of full-menu Vietnamese restaurants, and partly because of maddeningly unhelpful menu descriptions, journeys into Vietnamese cuisine can be fraught with frustration and filled with mysterious side dishes and dips that are generally impossible to pronounce. This list of must-try dishes (along with an approximation of the pronunciation) should help you get started:
Phó (pronounced, unconfidently, fuh). To call this soup does some injustice to this complex, stock-based dish, which is available in endless varieties. Typically fortified with rice noodles and either beef or chicken, phó should arrive with a plate of fresh bean sprouts, basil and other additions, and can be spiced to taste from the chili pepper concoctions on every table. Slurping is not only tolerated—it is expected.
Bánh mì (say bahn mey). Think of it as a sub sandwich, but a sub that’s made with impeccably baked French bread smeared with good pâtê, then layered with roast pork (or even meatballs) and a tangle of fresh vegetables and herbs, ranging from cucumbers to cilantro to pickled daikon.
Bún chá (bune tcha). Seemingly invented to hopelessly addict all who try it, bún chá is simple, but poetic: char-grilled marinated pork (yum) served over rice noodles (yum) with a sweet-and-salty dipping sauce that ties every flavor together.
Café da. No coffee addict can ever face their favorite barista again after being won over by this bracingly strong treat, with sweet milk, that puts chain-café iced coffees in their ho-hum place.
Bò lúc lác (attempt bow luke lack). Sometimes referred to as shaking beef or beef salad on Vietnamese menus, this is another food that will strike most Western palates as somehow familiar. Sautéed cubes of filet mignon are served on a bed of fresh watercress and tomatoes, perked up by a judicious touch of salt-pepper-lime dip.
Gói cuón (pronounced, roughly, goy kwan, a.k.a. summer roll). These beautifully translucent rice-paper rolls of rice noodles, shrimp or pork, pickled daikon, and carrot, lettuce and mint are best appreciated dipped into the traditional salty-sweet peanutty sauce.
It’s a shame Vietnamese restaurants are a relative rarity in an age when light, fresh, healthy food is in such high fashion, for perhaps no single cuisine embraces those concepts so well and with such harmony. Like Thai food, Vietnamese dishes frequently encompass sweet, sour, salty and spicy accents working together, and they most typically arrive with an array of suite-your-taste condiments, dips and herbs.
Owner and Vietnam native Thinh Pham fulfilled his lifelong dream with stylish earnestness, chocking the menu with phó and other labor-intensive Vietnamese soups, but also lacing it nicely with herbal rice-noodle dishes, or bún ($14-$16), and shaking beef ($18), a wok-fired, sweetly salty mix of filet mignon cubes, salad and tomatoes—quite possibly Vietnam’s most delectable culinary creation ($18).
18949 Coastal Hwy., Rehoboth Beach, 703-6626 • website
Friendly service and the best French bread in town elevate the simple beauty of so-called Vietnamese subs, which are stuffed with ham, pâtê, meatballs and other meaty delights, then perked up with pickled carrot and daikon and perfumed with cilantro. Lighter moments can be found in the crisp-and-meaty salad with chicken (gói gà) or the impeccable summer rolls with shrimp.
209 E. Main St., Newark, 525-6145
Since the beginning of time, it seems, this oddly located outpost (tucked between interchanges in Newark’s subdivision netherland) has stood as a fairly dependable destination.
2938 Ogletown Road, Newark • 737-6832
Yet another strip-center phó specialist, Pho Cali keeps its prices low and its ambiance suited more for a quick lunch than a leisurely meal—but it’s still well worth it.
4373 Kirkwood Hwy., Wilmington, 999-8107 • website
Be ready to choose from some 30-odd phó recipes. The menu is bolstered nicely with classic grilled meat dishes (served with either vermicelli/bún or rice). Some Yelpers grumble about sagging standards; while others treasure its rare-for-Bear presence.
1146 Pulaski Hwy., Bear, 595-2529 • website
This newcomer is already rated well ahead of its local rivals in the simmering phó battles, a status that’s reinforced by a menu that offers five different types of summer rolls, three different sate skewers, rice-or-vermicelli bowls, and even bánh mì.
2671 Kirkwood Hwy., Newark, 369-3993 • website