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Hẻm Gems: Quy Nhon's Unique Take on Bánh Khọt and Peanut Sauce

You’ve probably never had bánh khọt like this before.

One of the great joys of traveling is exploring local specialties: bánh mì xíu mại in Da Lat, cao lầu in Hoi An or chả rươi in Hanoi. When Saigoneer recently took a trip to Quy Nhon, one would assume the top restaurant on our list would be serving the bánh xèo, bánh hỏi or cháo lòng the city is famous for. And indeed, that has been the case in the past. But this time we were most eager to sample some bánh khọt.

Bánh khọt, those crisp discs of dough topped with shrimp and accompanied by herbs and dipped in fish sauce, is popular in the south, with Vung Tau at the epicenter. So when a colleague tipped us off that there was a popular place in Quy Nhon serving them up, we were intrigued, but a little skeptical.

The nameless bánh khọt spot at 19 Han Thuyen didn’t immediately instill confidence. Situated across the street from a school and surrounded by a familiar scramble of tạp hóa, eateries and shops, it contains only four tables and none of the telltale signs of a popular eatery, like a gaggle of Grab drivers waiting for delivery orders. If it hadn’t been recommended, we probably would have passed by without giving it a second look.

When the first “mixed” plate of bánh khọt arrived, however, we knew we were in for something special. In addition to the familiar bánh khọt topped with little shrimps and quail eggs, were ones with full squids and others that featured a large smattering of beef with wood-ear mushrooms. 

Beef bánh khọt?

Bánh khọt isn’t one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. Too often the subtle crustacean flavors are overwhelmed by the pork lard used to fry them, resulting in grease pucks whose only enjoyment comes from the herbs and fish sauce they are dunked in. Tasty, but I might as well just make fish sauce herb soup.

The addition of beef and mushrooms changes everything. The stronger flavors cut through the grease, producing a more significant dining experience. It helps that this location doesn’t overdo it on the oil to begin with, and thus the more conventional shrimp or egg varieties will certainly thrill bánh khọt enthusiasts. 

While praising the inclusion of beef, the novelty of the squid must not be overlooked. I have a theory that animals can be either interesting or delicious, but not both (jellyfish are fascinating but not tasty; catfish are boring but scrumptious). Some squid’s internal organs produce phosphorescent light that distracts predators, some squid ink contains the dopamine that gives humans a natural high, and the end of a male squid’s arms serves as a penis. Incredible, right? Which means it isn’t especially delicious. Sure, it can be involved in great dishes, but on its own, it’s dull. 

So while the lackluster cephalopod bánh khọt might not be on par with the beef version, its texture adds a new dimension to the dish. And if you subscribe to my theory, seeing the bright purple creatures on your table at least provides a chance to marvel at the species’ many charms.

But the joys of XYZ restaurant, as I'll call it, don’t stop at the beef. As I already noted, I love the fish sauce typically served with bánh khọt, but what I love even more is the peanut sauce confoundingly relegated to the central region. The rich, nutty sauce adds great complexity to whatever one dips into it, and bánh khọt is no exception. It was a great joy to see a large container of it on the table.

But back to the beef. How did this delightful regional remix happen? The establishment’s owner, Huy, explained that he is originally from Vung Tau. Four years ago he gave up his job as a bike mechanic and moved to Quy Nhon and opened up shop, tailoring the bánh khọt to local preferences and thus the peanut sauce and the squids. And once any semblance of traditional flavors were abandoned, you might as well add beef because of how good it tastes.

Such stories of migration, availability of different ingredients and innovation explain how Vietnamese cuisine is ever in flux with new versions and dishes taking shape all the time, like phở cuốn in Hanoi or bánh tráng nướng Đà Lạt. A meal at XYZ is a nice reminder that it’s worthwhile to explore how different regions interpret dishes that may have strayed far from their places of origin. 

Moreover, if dozens of these Hẻm Gems over the years haven’t quite convinced you that some of the best meals are found in the most mundane locations, XYZ could do it. A few plastic tables and chairs on the street, dozens of mismatched chopsticks clustered in a cup, a giant jar of fish sauce and, best of all, thin pieces of paper serving as napkins: this place provides all the many charms of Vietnamese street food. And that includes affordability. A plate of the mixed bánh khọt, which could satisfy the average diner, runs just VND25,000. The husband and wife team are exceedingly accommodating as well, checking on if you need a complimentary refilling of any of the herbs or pickled vegetables that pair with the bánh khọt

But there’s even more to a trip to XYZ! Situated next door is a juice stand that serves incredible sữa chua nếp cẩm (fresh yogurt with black sticky rice). Not only is it delicious, but it’s a healthy dessert that can make you feel better for having had an oily meal. 

If you go during the afternoon, you can enjoy the nostalgic scene of parents parking their motorbikes waiting for their children. When we visited, a few families had decided to stop at XYZ for an after-school snack. It’s possible that for some of the young children the beef and squid bánh khọt dipped in peanut sauce might be the only version of the dish they know, and they’ll be disappointed to learn one day that it’s not found elsewhere. That is a pretty cool way to think about the evolution of cuisine.

Bánh Xèo Bánh Khọt Hàn Thuyên is open from 2pm to 8pm (could close sooner if stock runs out).

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Paul Christiansen is a Saigon-based writer. Read more at his website.

Bánh khọt

19 Han Thuyen, Hai Cang Ward, Quy Nhon