Quy Nhon, the capital city of Binh Dinh Province, is home to quite a large number of bánh xèo restaurants.
But foodies who love this crispy pancake-like dish never mind going deeper into My Cang, a small village 20 kilometers from the city downtown, to visit a little restaurant which they believe is serving the best banh xeo in the whole country.
Ly Thi Thu, who runs the place, is now 77 years old.
Thu, better known among regulars as Mrs. Nam, is extremely picky.
She is the closest thing to a celebrity chef in the village.
“When I began to make banh xeo, I thought I had to make it really different to attract customers,” Nam recalled.
“I set my own rules, and still follow them strictly. For my ingredients, I only buy the natural pink shrimp living in local rivers. If there's no shrimp, I stop selling that day,” Nam said.
She grinds rice at home to make the pancake mixture using a simple yet powerful hand-operated stone grinder.
The restaurant doesn't have a name or a signboard. Locals and tourists refer to it as “Bánh xèo tôm nhảy bà Năm” -- Mrs. Nam’s pancake shop with the jumping shrimps.
For the record, the fresh shrimps do jump up and down when she puts them on the hot frying pan.
Nam usually starts her day at 4:30 a.m.
She first goes to a local market to buy fresh vegetables. Her son, Tuan, visits another market to buy shrimps, caught by local fishers from Thi Nai Lagoon a few hours earlier.
BÁNH XÈO TÔM NHẢY BÀ NĂM
Near My Cang Bridge, My Cang Village, Phuoc Son Commune, Tuy Phuoc District, Binh Dinh Province.
Customers can make reservations by calling Mrs. Nam’s son, Mr. Tuan: 0905.425.556.
VND20.000 (US$1) per pancake.
6 a.m. -12 a.m. every day.
Her restaurant opens at 6 a.m.
When customers come, Nam heats up a frying pan before putting in some vegetable oil and around 10 jumping shrimps.
She then pours the mixture and adds bean sprouts and green onions. Finally she covers it with a lid and waits for a minute or two before serving it.
“I feel happy because at the age of 77, I’m still able to manage eight frying pans at the same time to serve my customers,” Nam said.
The pancakes are eaten with fresh lettuce, herbs and a fish sauce-based dipping sauce.
In southern Vietnam, the thinner banh xeo is fried on a larger pan, or wok, and then folded in half, looking more like a crepe.
In Binh Dinh, as the frying pan is not much bigger than a hand, it can be plated and served immediately.
The southern version has shrimp, pork and bean sprouts but the Binh Dinh recipe doesn't use pork.
As for the dipping sauce, Binh Dinh cooks, like Nam, mix chopped mango, garlic and chili with fish sauce. Southerners on the other hand use lime instead of mango.
Doan Huu Hoang Khuyen from Ho Chi Minh City said she always eats at Nam’s restaurant whenever she visits Binh Dinh.
Khuyen said she once took her parents from down south to the central province, just to enjoy Nam’s pancakes.
“Mrs. Nam painstakingly takes care of each pancake as if she were cooking for her returning children, not for guests,” Khuyen said.