What's real from Rocket City

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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Epic search for something "real" ends at a street stall in Tan Binh District


 Thuy and her son Ha sell a stellar mì Quảng, every morning, on a sidewalk in Tan Binh District's Ward 11
I fell in love with mì Quảng - the official noodles of Quang Nam Province - during two visits to Da Nang. No one in Ho Chi Minh City believed that I'd be able to find a bowl that would live up to the noodles served in Rocket City.
Ho Thuy, a marketing executive from Da Nang, told me she'd eaten mì Quảng here just once.
The meal proved such a disappointment that she resolved never to eat them outside her hometown.
The notion of a real bowl of mì Quảng may be something of a mirage. According to Nir Avieli, an Isreali anthropologist who spent years studying food in Hoi An, the dish is more of an idea than a hard and fast recipe. Traditionally, he tells us, a seasonal jellyfish was considered essential to the broth. Nowadays, the jellyfish is seldom used and mì Quảng is served year-round throughout central and southern Vietnam
"Even in neighboring Da Nang, [mì Quảng] broth tastes remarkably different from that sold in Hoi An, a point that is always stressed by the Vietnamese whenever talking about eating their quê hương dishes away from home," Avieli wrote in his recent book Rice Talks.
After several disappointing meals in Saigon, I began to lose hope that I'd find noodles that would bring me back to Rocket City - until I met Minh at the I'm Yours café in Phu Nhuan District.
With little provocation, Minh began a lecture on the subject of his hometown's noodles.
"You cannot eat a good mì Quảng in a restaurant," he said, grinning through his thin mustache. "All good food in Vietnam must be served on the street, in a dirty market stall. Otherwise, there will be no flavor-we have been eating that way for hundreds of years."
Minh pointed to his Da Nang pedigree and corpulent midsection as evidence of his expertise in this matter.
Address: 233 Bau Cat Street, Ward 11, Tan Binh District (oppsite Overking café)
Hours: 6 a.m.-10 p.m. everyday
Price: VND17,000 for special
The mì Quảng đặc biệt (special noodles) dish costs VND17,000. It comes with pork, shrimp, a quail egg and a Proustian flight back to Da Nang 
He described mì Quảng as cheap fuel-a meal designed to power Quang Nam's farmers through long days in the field. By mixing a scoop of old broth, cheap greens, thick rice noodles and leftover meat (quail eggs, unpeeled shrimp, etc) the meal's inventors aspired only for survival.
But they had created something beautiful, he said.
In the end, Minh promised to take me to a market in HCMC's Quang Nam core: Tan Binh District, Ward 11.
"That is the source for all the town's mì Quảng," he said, almost in a whisper.
Two weeks later, Minh guided me through a maze of alleyways toward Ba Hoa's Market at the end of Tran Mai Ninh Street.
Even late in the morning, the place felt busy. Middle-aged women flipped bánh tráng (rice cake) over glowing charcoal braziers, fish flopped on open tin trays and an army of Central Vietnamese housewives tromped through the muddy lanes carrying the elements of hefty Sunday suppers home in pink plastic grocery bags.
Wads of fat mì Quảng noodles sat piled on counters all over the market.
We sat down at a tile counter at about 11 a.m. and ordered two bowls.
Our squat cook placed a few slices of boiled pork belly and sweet crunchy shrimp on her last handfuls of noodles. She was fresh out of quail eggs and gave us a double portion of aromatic herbs, just to get rid of them.
"Come earlier next time," she said, as she set out a massive tray of tiny lettuces, bean sprouts and herbs. "Mì Quảng is better in the morning."
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"That's a real one," Minh said, digging into his bowl. The noodles brought me halfway back to Da Nang-they were heavy and hearty, full of good things. But something was missing.
After paying for our breakfast, Minh apologized. Our cook had been from Quang Ngai.
"The style," he said. "It's different."
We had planned to go on a mì Quảng binge of sorts. But, by the time we both reached the end of our bowls, neither of us had the stomach for another.
So we went back to I'm Yours café and sped along our digestion with US$1 drafts. "That's how you know it's the real thing," he said. "When you can't eat more than one."
For the next few weekends, I continued to head to the market in search of the genuine article.
Finally, a kind family of noodle (Danangese) vendors pointed me away from the market and out onto a sidewalk off Bau Cat Street.
Signs for mì Quảng jutted out of every corner for a dozen blocks. Many more hung above temporary stalls in front of vacant lots and along long walls.
In the end, I sat down on a crowded sidewalk opposite a sleek coffee shop called Overking where poor girls from the countryside flirt with lonely men while they sip overpriced drinks.
There, under a pair of beach umbrellas, a pale Quang Nam beauty named Thuy and her son Ha served a rotating crowd of sweaty businessmen bowls of pure nostalgia.
Thuy's mì Quảng đặc biệt (special noodles) come with a stewed pork joint, a tender spare rib, a sweet prawn (still in its shell) and a hard-boiled quail egg. The noodles, cooked to a yielding al dente, arrived in a warm, shallow pool of lemony broth.
Mixed together, it became the super meal of Minh's legend-a salad in a plate of pasta in a bowl of soup.
A crisp piece of rice cracker (toasted fresh that morning) got me all the way to Da Nang for just VND17,000.
I was only slightly disappointed to find that Ha and Thuy are from elsewhere in the province.

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