First published September 2023 | Words and photos by Luke Digweed
Luke Digweed is a contributing writer for Vietnam Coracle. He has been living in Vietnam since 2011, mostly in Huế but also in Đà Nẵng & Sài Gòn. While living in Huế, he ran the Huế Grit Tour & co-organized events & small concerts between 2017-2020. His most recent ongoing project is Festivals of Vietnam which documents ceremonies, rituals & processions around the country….read more about Luke
Phan Thiết is one of Vietnam’s biggest and busiest local fishing ports. During the day, hundreds of colourfully painted wooden boats fill the harbour; at night their lights form a constellation on the horizon out at sea. As you might expect, there’s some great seafood to be devoured from Phan Thiết’s fishing catch. But travellers to this coastal region tend to turn their back on the charms of Phan Thiết, preferring the resorts and restaurants of nearby Mũi Né. This is a great shame and I would encourage people to spend more time to get acquainted with Phan Thiết, especially its streetside seafood treats. While Mũi Né has the beaches and the resorts, Phan Thiết has the coastal culture and local dining scene.
SEAFOOD TREATS PHAN THIET
Streetside Dishes in a Bustling Fishing Community
In this guide, I introduce some of Phan Thiết’s delicious seafood speciality dishes, all of which are served on streetsides in an informal, local atmosphere at very cheap prices. I give a description of each dish and a recommended location for trying it – all marked on my map.
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Seafood Treats in Phan Thiết
Bánh Căn Lân Nguyệt: 8 Hải Thượng Lãn Ông [MAP] 20,000-50,000vnd | 11.00am-9.30pm
The origin of bánh căn is unknown, but it’s often associated with the Cham people. Bánh căn can be found in a few different locations along the south-central coast, but Bình Thuận Province (of which Phan Thiết is the capital) claims to be its home. Cousin of Vũng Tàu favourite bánh khọt, while it is similar in shape and also made from rice flour, the cooking process differs in that the batter is exposed to intense levels of heat with less oil, resulting in a soft, puffy, cake-like texture. The bánh căn cakes only make up part of the dish which also includes accompaniments and condiments.
Bánh Căn Lân Nguyệt is one of the most popular places for bánh căn in Phan Thiết. Their floorspace is populated by numerous staff cooking the bánh căn and pockets of guests rotating in and out of the red tables and chairs. The bánh căn cakes are served with mango and xíu mại dipping sauce (made from oil, chilli, eggs and fried breadcrumbs). Braised cá nục (mackerel) is an optional add-on but really ties all the flavours together. Split your bánh căn cakes in half then dunk and drown them in the different bowls of dipping sauces to enjoy the full spectrum of flavours on offer.
Bún Gỏi Cá Mai:
Bún Gỏi Cá Mai: 21 Nguyễn Văn Cừ [MAP] 35,000-100,000vnd | 11.00am-5.00pm
Ever since researching my Quy Nhơn Food Guide, I have craved cá mai. Raw sardines isn’t a dish most people are enthusiastic about, but I recommend everyone try it at least once in Vietnam. Arriving in Phan Thiết, I quickly came across a new dish: bún gỏi cá mai (white sardine vermicelli noodles). “Only I sell this dish!” claimed the vendor. In fact, a few other locations do serve bún gỏi cá mai around Phan Thiết, but this location is the most revered.
Bún Gỏi Cá Mai is split between two sidewalks on a narrow street deep in Phan Thiết’s fishing community. The vending station is on the south side of the street, while seating lines the sidewalk on the north side. This vendor sells two dishes: bún cá mai (white sardine noodles) and gỏi cá mai (white sardine salad). Bún cá mai is made with rice vermicelli noodles, shredded banana flower, a few shards of bánh tráng (rice cracker), shredded pig skin, thick tomato sauce, peanuts, chilli jam, fresh tomatoes, fermented pork rolls (nem chua) and white sardines. Similarly, the salad (gỏi cá mai) is made from peanuts, banana flower, tía tô (perilla leaf) and more generous portions of raw white sardines. The salad is more expensive than the noodles because of the larger quantities of fish. Bún Gỏi Cá Mai is open from early lunch to early dinner: 11am-5pm. It’s a spicy, fresh, acidic dish.
Chả Cuốn Cá Trích:
Chả Cuốn Cá Trích Dung: 104 Võ Thị Sáu [MAP] 20,000-80,000vnd | 10.00am-10.00pm
Fried spring rolls (known in this context as chả cuốn) are one of the most famous dishes in East Asian cuisine. The Phan Thiết variety stand out due to their use of cá trích (commonly translated as herring or sardine) as a filling, hence the name chả cuốn cá trích.
For more than three decades, Chả Cuốn Cá Trích Dung has been a part of Phan Thiết’s culinary scene. The restaurant carefully sources herring from the nearby fishing harbour each morning. The restaurant’s reputation has grown steadily over time due to its excellent food but also thanks to its online presence, including a visit from Vietnamese food influencer ‘Color Man’.
The fried spring rolls are served with rice paper along with fermented meats, grilled pork skewers, and a combination of mango, cucumber, and boiled egg slices. This dining experience involves wrapping a mixture of these elements in the rice paper and using the dipping sauce to create your own ‘personalized’ roll. This dish makes for a delightful mid-afternoon snack or a late-night bite.
Cháo Cá Nga: 67 Phạm Văn Đồng [MAP] 20,000vnd | 6.00-9.30am
The inlet of the Cà Ty River functions as a harbour for Phan Thiết’s fishing fleet and community. The roads running either side of the river (Phạm Văn Đồng and Trưng Trắc) serve the needs of boat workers before and after their time working the ocean. Phạm Văn Đồng Street in particular is a fascinating window into the lives of Phan Thiết’s fishing community: in the evenings, the street is lined with beer drinking restaurants; in the mornings, there’s a string of casual eateries offering hearty, cheap breakfasts. Cháo Cá Nga is one of the more popular places for breakfast here.
From 6.00am to 9:30am Ms. Nga, the restaurant owner, serves only one dish: cháo cá (fish rice porridge). The dish consists of a bowl of cháo (rice congee) and a bowl of cá kho (braised fish). The fish (either mackerel or tuna) is very tender thanks to a 15-hour cooking process which begins the previous day. The cháo is cooked with pandan leaves and green peas, giving it a light green colour. Stewed banana blossom is added to the braised fish to complete a unique, rich and flavoursome breakfast.
To eat cháo cá use chopsticks with the right hand and a spoon in your left hand. Take pieces of fish and banana blossom with the chopsticks and add it to the green rice congee. Some condiments are available but it’s unlikely you will need them as the dish is very well-balanced. Cháo cá’s simple appearance belies its depth of flavour, which is an interplay of the light, pandan-scented porridge and the rich, salty braised fish. Eating at Ms Nga’s was my favourite dining experience in Phan Thiết. The atmosphere is informal and unpretentious, and the dish is rooted in local tradition, using local ingredients.
Răng Mực Loan: 202 Võ Thị Sáu [MAP] 20,000vnd | 2.00pm-9.00pm
A unique Phan Thiết specialty, răng mực means ‘squid teeth’. Yes, that’s right, squid actually have teeth and, contrary to one’s expectations, they are remarkably tender little morsels, cooked is a variety of creative ways to make fun, grilled snacks.
Răng Mực Loan is a streetside eatery serving up an assortment of squid teeth delights, ranging from steamed, grilled, stir-fried and battered. Given the petite portions, diners are encouraged to explore a variety of dishes rather than restricting themselves to just one or two. Presented on dainty silver plates with small metal forks, each dish is accompanied by various marinades, including butter, onions, pickles and chilli. The spread is complemented by bánh tráng, a rice cracker for dipping and adding crunch.
All the răng mực dishes are very cheap, so there’s no harm in ordering lots of different ones. I went for chiên mực (essentially squid nuggets), grilled squid teeth on a stick (răng mực nướng), and squid teeth sautéed with butter and garlic (răng mực xào). An intriguing addition to the feast was trứng mực, boiled squid eggs. All of these are unique and delicious.
The restaurant is often bustling with customers, resulting in occasional delays in service and the need for gentle reminders to staff. Răng Mực Loan is an excellent choice for a group of diners or solo travellers alike. However, securing a seat during weekend evenings might prove a bit challenging due to the substantial crowds. Nonetheless, it remains an outstanding opportunity to savour this distinctive Phan Thiết specialty.
Hải Sản Nướng Cô Mai: 32 Nguyễn Tất Thành [MAP] 20,000-100,000vnd | 7.00pm-til late
Seafood is the lifeblood of Phan Thiết. Many people come all the way here from Hồ Chí Minh City just to buy and eat seafood. Restaurant owners and businesses capitalise on the waves of visitors who are looking for a fresh taste of the sea. The choice of restaurants is overwhelming and since most of them are targeting large groups of travelling diners, menus can be a little overpriced. While riding around Phan Thiết, I came across Hải Sản Nướng Cô Mai, a sidewalk seafood set-up, unlike the big touristy restaurants.
Ms. Mai and her family set up their stall with a pair of charcoal grills on the sidewalk, platters of fresh seafood propped up on polystyrene boxes, and clusters of plastic chairs and tables on the street. Diners approach, take their pick of the seafood on offer, and wait patiently for their food to arrive under the dim streetlighting of Nguyễn Tất Thành road.
There’s no permanent structure for Cô Mai’s streetside seafood eatery. Everything you see is transported by cart to the vending location everyday. “My address is my phone number!” Ms. Mai beams, with no certainty of when she will have to move to another location. The menu changes daily depending on what’s available, and prices and portions change accordingly. Ms. Mai’s contact number is: +84 368 892 140.
*Disclosure: Vietnam Coracle content is always free and independent. Luke has written this guide because he wants to: he likes Phan Thiết’s street food and he wants readers to know about it. For more details, see the Disclosure & Disclaimer statements and my About Page