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Hẻm Gems: In Đà Nẵng, Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng's Sauce Is Good Enough to Drink

The secret is the sauce. And the sauce is a secret. The owners of Đà Nẵng’s Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng refuse to reveal the recipe for the rich, meaty, and multi-faceted sauce that falls somewhere between hex colors #A07212 and #A0522D. It elevates a familiar bánh xèo into a meal that draws in enough guests to have essentially taken over an entire downtown hẻm.

Bánh xèo is a love-it-or-leave-it dish for me. Homemade in miền Tây-style with rich coconut milk and generously prepared so it’s light, crispy and overflowing with plump shrimp and it is one of my favorite meals, especially when accompanied by fresh, countryside herbs. But purchased at an average street food spot in the city where it's frequently little more than a folded grease ascot smothering fatty pork tatters, wilted bean sprouts and crustacean carapaces? You can miss me with that.

The secret is the sauce. And the sauce is a secret. It elevates a familiar bánh xèo into a meal that draws in enough guests to have essentially taken over an entire downtown hẻm.

So I admit that I was a bit skeptical when our photographer suggested that we spend one of our preciously few meals during a recent Đà Nẵng trip at Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng. But he then explained that the savory crepes were not served with the familiar sweet nước mắm one customarily finds at Saigon eateries, but instead a special sauce unique to the central region. A year living in Quy Nhơn has endeared me to the central coast’s condiments and I was convinced to check it out. After looking at the reviews online, at the very least it would be an opportunity to test notions of expectations and living up to the hype.

The utilitarian but clean kitchen of Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng.

Chipped tile flooring, water stain-streaked ceiling, faulty lightbulbs and faltering fans: Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng’s utilitarian interior is instantly recognizable as the type of restaurant that pays all its attention to the food it serves. The practically sheer paper napkins, bare walls, flimsy rubbish bins beside metal chairs and clamorous kitchen offer a comfortable familiarity. Typically there would be nothing to distract from the meal in front of us, but we happened to visit on a day when there was a charmingly content cat nestled up against the wall under a table. It only emerged from its slumber to stretch, shift and return to snoozing while we ate. It foretold the food coma awaiting us.

"Con bé đó dễ thương. Mắt nó đẹp nhưng biếc. Nội sợ sau này nó sẽ khổ."

Diners will not need to waste any time dithering over the menu nor wait long for their plates of bánh xèo, vegetables and nem lụi to arrive. Cut into convenient halves, the modest crepes are filled with a satisfactory amount of acceptable beef, shrimp and bean sprouts while their exteriors are crispy and oil-slick with a suggestion of charcoal smoke. The grilled meat sausages are tender. None of that matters, really. They are all simply texture vessels for the sauce.

How to assemble a bánh xèo roll.

One does not make a meal out of sauce alone. I am not entirely sure why we have agreed upon this as a society; perhaps it has something to do with the extravagant salt and fat content and lack of nutritional value found in most condiments and dipping liquids. But if there were a sauce I would risk becoming a pariah for and gobble up by the ladle-full, it would be the one at Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng. Peanuts, pate, fish sauce and garlic in some uncertain ratio are all likely joined by a few sprinkles and dashes of secret ingredients. Simply put, it’s a lavish, umami-laden delight that you will likely find yourself drenching the bánh xèo in past the point of recognition.

The crepe assembly line.

Due to its appeal, the kitchen at Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng functions like an assembly line. The crepes made with Quảng Nam rice and turmeric are cooked on one of six charcoal stoves, piled up to cool and crisp and then cooked again with the addition of prepared fillings. If one visits during the busier evening hours, the flames are worked by older women experienced in the fast-paced process of churning out an impressive amount of bánh xèo per minute.

Beef, a shrimp, and bean sprouts are the toppings here.

But when we visited this past summer, the comparatively quiet mid-afternoon shift was held down by young men seemingly still learning the process. It’s sweaty, repetitive work that makes one appreciate the meal all the more. Unfortunately, the sauce was prepared out of a sight and the giant vat of the unctuous liquid provided no guidance on how to reverse-engineer it at home.

What's in the sauce????

Unlike their closely guarded sauce recipe, however, Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng is no secret. Foodie sites are filled with reviews and local media outlets have covered the eatery countless times. Their success is so complete as to have transformed the humble hẻm in which they are situated at the end of. In classic Vietnamese fashion, success invites imitators, and the brightly lit and decorated alley is home to several other bánh xèo places, though all were completely empty while Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng was packed, even at 2pm on a weekday. It gets so busy that they’ve expanded to include a separate house used exclusively for parking.

One successful bánh xèo place can turn a hẻm into a conglomerate.

In addition to the copycat joints, the hẻm contains numerous small shops specializing in tourist goods. Dried fruits and seafood, jams, biscuits and baubles aimed at travelers in need of gifts to bring back for family, friends and co-workers all point to the type of clientele that frequent Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng. But while many Đà Nẵng locals may have other venues that they frequent when they don’t want to deal with the crowds there, Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng should not be confused with a tourist trap that sprang up to offer profitable facsimiles of famed local specialties to tour bus occupants that wouldn’t able to tell the difference. Rather, it's been in operation for more than 30 years, and its fame grows with each successive generation that maintains its stellar reputation.

Of course, one successful bà will spawn a host of imitations.

So in summary, am I really recommending you visit Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng to eat sauce? Yup. That's exactly what I am doing. Out of respect, I won’t suggest you attempt to order nothing but sauce to slurp up with a spoon. It’s tempting, I know, but we are living in a society and societies have rules. So, get the bánh xèo, nem lụi or bò lá lốt and smother it so fully you might as well be drinking sauce.

Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng is open from 9:30am to 9:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5
Price: 4.5/5
Atmosphere: 3.5/5
Friendliness: 4/5
Location: 4/5

Paul Christiansen only writes and edits because he can't afford a durian farm, yet. Read more at his website.

Bánh Xèo Bà Dưỡng

K280/23 Hoàng Diệu, Hải Châu District, Đà Nẵng

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