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When in Da Lat, All Roads Lead to Bánh Mì Xíu Mại

Which rendition of bánh mì xíu mại you prefer may say more about you than it does Da Lat’s beloved meatballs.

Read the article in Vietnamese here.

How xíu mại ended up in Vietnam, let alone the mist-soaked hills of Da Lat, is up for debate, but there is no doubt the bread-accompanying meatballs are the vacation destination’s most ubiquitous dish. On nearly every street corner, one notices food carts filled with fresh baguettes resting above a pot of pork orbs simmering in sauce.

Regardless of where you’re standing in Da Lat, a delicious bánh mì xíu mại usually awaits within a few hundred meters. The simple sandwich is pretty hard to screw up, so you’ll probably be content with a purchase made out of convenience. But Saigoneer was curious to explore a couple of restaurants that people will travel across town for. Thus, on consecutive mornings during a recent stay, we visited Bánh Mì Bé Linh and Quán Xíu Mại Chấm 47.

Bánh Mì Bé Linh is a testament to simplicity. The menu posted on the wall of the old wooden home makes your options clear: you can eat xíu mại with bread, or you can leave. The handmade pork balls come bobbing in a small cup of hot soup with slices of chả lụa and a scattering of green onions. The meatballs are lightly seasoned, with peppery notes complimenting the tender ground pork but, unlike other versions, there are no tomatoes in the sauce. The result is an exceedingly fresh and understated bite. It’s not extravagant, but provides a perfect lesson in the glories of keeping life uncomplicated.

The real standout at Bánh Mì Bé Linh, however, is the accompanying bread. Arriving at the table still warm from a nearby bakery, their crispy exterior that cracks more than flakes conceals a soft, fluffy interior. At only VND2,000 per loaf, I strongly recommend you take an extra to go.

It’s worth noting that despite the minimal menu, a breakfast at Bánh Mì Bé Linh isn’t necessarily fast. Single-dish restaurants and humble street-side spots typically put together meals almost instantaneously, but here you may have to wait for more than ten minutes, your anticipation heightened by the aromas lingering in the air and the sight of fellow patrons scarfing down their meals on plastic stools next to you. The wait is partially explained by the sheer size of the two-story venue, and partially because each meatball is made fresh when ordered. No one seems to mind the delay, however, as the three-generation-old operation is routinely packed and recently had to move to this larger location in response to its popularity. 

If one were to compare xíu mại restaurants to music, then Bánh Mì Bé Linh is a single graceful note coaxed off an elegant violin string, while Bánh Mì Xíu Mại 47 is a clamorous collision of sounds issued by an accordion played by a drunken child. Located just meters from one another, the two shops couldn’t be more different in their approach to the dish. 

Upon sitting down on one of the low-slung wooden seats inside Quán Xíu Mại Chấm 47, you’ll be given a paper menu to make your order with. Consisting of 20 or so options, it's a veritable match and mingle of breakfast staples including bread, eggs, pate, steak, sausage and, of course, xíu mại. Looking around the room at what others have selected reveals that the all-inclusive “special plate” is by far the most popular choice, so that’s what we go with. 

Before taking a bite, we stop to try and identify exactly what's on the plate in front of us: a single meatball, some steak in a gravy sauce, a smear of pâté, a clump of shredded chicken, a scrimmage of grilled onions, and a glob of mayo all lightly drizzled with hot sauce and placed atop a sunny-side-up egg. A baguette is, of course, offered on the side. 

Identifying each item on the plate is easier than trying to enjoy them as isolated bites. They overlap, intercede, co-mingle and coalesce, swapping sauces, flavors and textures. The hodgepodge nature of the meal makes it impossible to fully assess the merits of any singular item, and it thus must be appraised as a collective unit. The group effort certainly succeeds, with the warmth and richness placing it squarely in the realm of comfort food perfect for a long day strolling the city’s damp streets. And while not as good as the bread at Bánh Mì Bé Linh, tearing off tatters of crust to sop up the meal provides a great texture that reminds us why we don’t just blend all our breakfast food together and drink it like a milkshake.

So which version of these two popular xíu mại spots is better? That would be like trying to compare squids and sunflowers. Do you want to smother your taste buds in a smorgasbord of flavors, or let nuances whisper across them? There is no right or wrong answer. Squids and sunflowers are both glorious organisms worthy of our admiration.

1. Bánh Mì Bé Linh: 26 Hoang Dieu, Ward 5, Da Lat
2. Quán Xíu Mại Chấm: 47 Hoang Dieu, Ward 5, Da Lat

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