Despite being a former French colonial hill station high up in the Annamtie Mountains, Dalat isn’t a pretty city. Like Saigon, Dalat’s charms are in the details; one of which is the food. Dalat’s altitude and cool climate make it ideal for growing vegetables and this has earned it the epithet ‘vegetable garden of the south’. However, it was only after many visits to this mountain city that I began to discover local eateries and restaurants that are worthy of its reputation for food. Part of the reason it took me so long to find good places to eat here is because, unlike the scorching lowlands where great food is served outside in full view of passers-by, in the chilly mountain climate of Dalat most places – street food included – are indoors, and therefore not always obvious from the street. Dalat is also famous for its coffee, which is grown locally, and there are plenty of enticing cafes where you can try it. Below is my guide to eating and drinking in Dalat.
Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc: B14 Hoàng Văn Thụ Street, Dalat
Nem nướng: a Dalat specialityDalat is one of a handful of places in Vietnam where nem nướng is a speciality. Nem nướng is a fresh, roll-your-own spring roll. Fill thin sheets of rice paper with a variety of herbs (including perilla leaf, sweet basil, chives, mint), add the nem nướng (grilled pork patty), then some chả ram bắp (crispy, fried sweet corn and rice paper rolls), pickled radish, carrot, and shallots, and roll it all up before dipping it in a thick, peanut sauce. Like all the best Vietnamese dishes it’s a brilliant balance of textures, flavours and colours. Nem Nướng Dũng Lộc is a small, clean, friendly and unfussy place on a quiet corner. I prefer this to the famous nem nướng giant of Dalat, Bà Hùng Restaurant, which is just around the corner. This local favourite is superb value at 30,000VND ($1.50): it doesn’t get much more ‘Dalat’ than this.
Liên Hoa Bakery: 15-17 3 Tháng 2 Street, Dalat
Beef stew: hearty cold weather foodThis bakery and restaurant is a Dalat institution. Popular with families and foreign tourists the downstairs is filled with all sorts of baked goods, from croissants to cakes to Vietnamese baguettes (bánh mì). If you’re looking for something more substantial than a pastry, head up the stairs to the first floor restaurant. The menu is extensive, but for a good, warming, hearty mountain breakfast order the bò kho (beef stew). This is a chunky, spicy and aromatic broth with diced beef, carrot and lemongrass. Eaten on its own with a warm baguette for dunking or served over noodles, this dish is perfectly suited to Dalat’s cool climate – especially the cold mornings. One of the nice things about eating here is the constant buzz of customers coming and going – always a good sign when choosing a place to eat in Vietnam. A bowl of bò kho is 40,000VND ($2).
Hoa Sen Vegetarian Restaurant: 62 Phan Đình Phùng Street, Dalat
Excellent vegetarian food at Hoa Sen RestaurantDalat is full of nhà hàng chay (vegetarian restaurants), most of which are very average. Hoa Sen Restaurant is an exception to this rule because of the variety of dishes on their menu and the delicious, colourful and fresh food. Unlike many of the other vegetarian restaurants in Dalat Hoa Sen doesn’t focus on ‘fake meat’ dishes. Instead, they use the fresh vegetables that Dalat is famous for and cook them simply and beautifully. My favourites are steamed mustard leaf with ginger, aubergine fried in a light ginger and lemongrass batter, and lotus seed rice. They also serve vegetarian versions of Vietnamese classics, such as phở. Anyone who thinks vegetarian food is bland should try dipping their food into the chilli and ginger sauce here to change their minds. The restaurant is big, bright and airy with wooden furniture. Prices here are very reasonable: 20-60,000VND ($1-3).
Ms Tâm’s Bánh Tráng: Alleyway between No.32 & 34 3 Tháng 2 Street, Dalat
Ms Tâm cooking bánh trángIn the evenings, at the beginning of a narrow, dark alleyway between numbers 32 and 34 on 3 Tháng 2 Street, there’s an old woman in a conical hat sitting around a charcoal stove selling another Dalat favourite; bánh tráng. A Vietnamese friend once described this to me as the ‘Dalat pizza’: bánh tráng is a thin circle of rice paper with various ‘toppings’ on it that’s grilled over coals until crispy. It’s a popular snack all over Vietnam, particularly with children. Ms Tâm has been cooking bánh tráng for years in this spot. The dark, graffitied alleyway is warmed by her charcoal stove, lit by a naked light bulb hanging from a tarpaulin, and enlivened by passers-by stopping to exchange a few words with Ms Tâm before continuing on their way. The ‘toppings’ on Ms Tâm’s bánh tráng are simple but delicious; quail eggs, spring onions and tiny – almost tasteless – shrimp. Each one costs just 12,000VNĐ ($0.50). On cold Dalat nights, in the fine Dalat rain it’s warming and comforting to sit by the coal stove here – this is my first food stop whenever I visit Dalat.
Mì Quảng Thành: 58C Phan Đình Phùng Street, Dalat
Mì quảng: a central dish also popular here in the highlandsThis is just the kind of place I love: totally unassuming – and unpromising to most western eyes, no doubt – but totally delicious, Mì Quảng Thành makes no effort to advertise itself from the street; people know the food here is good, and that’s all that counts. Mì quảng is a central Vietnamese dish but it’s also very popular here in the highlands. On its way up from the coast to the mountains the dish has changed slightly. One big difference is the gigantic pig’s trotter in the middle of this soup! This trotter has been slow cooked until the meat and fat are so tender they melt in your mouth. Part of what makes mì quảng so unique are the thick yellow noodles. However, in the mountains this noodle is usually replaced by a thinner white one. Fortunately, Mì Quảng Thành offers the choice of either of these noodles. The broth is rich but not too sweet or salty, and the mint leaves, banana blossom and lime add crunch and tang to it. Very satisfying and cheap (30,000VNĐ/$1.50) Mì Quảng Thành is open from 4pm.
Bánh Căn So 7: 22 Tăng Bạt Hổ Street, Dalat
Bánh căn: a warming snackAnother central dish that’s made its way up to the highlands, bánh căn is served in many different ways, but here in the mountains it’s simple, straightforward comfort food. Bánh căn are little rice flour cakes cooked in small, round ‘pods’ over hot coals. A quail egg is dropped in the middle and sprinkled with spring onions. Once cooked these little cakes are crispy on the outside with a bubbly, spongy consistency on the inside which makes them perfect for absorbing the salty-sweet dipping sauce. Bánh Căn 14 is a small, brightly lit hole-in-the-wall place that opens from around 4pm (20,000VNĐ/$1).
Tiệm Mì Tàu Cao: 217 Phan Đình Phùng, Dalat
Chinese influence: wonton noodle soupThis is a great place for a Chinese classic that’s popular all over Vietnam. Mì hoành thánh (wonton noodle soup) is an egg noodle soup with pork dumplings, ground pork and pork slices in a sweet, clear broth. This is another hearty soup for those cold, grey Dalat days. Tiệm Mì Tàu Cao is a small, busy place that’s open to the street. It’s open all day but gets particularly busy in the mornings when locals dressed in heavy coats huddle over their steaming bowls for warmth. The price for a bowl of soup is 40,000VNĐ ($2).
Ốc Nhé! 21 Lê Đại Hành Street, Dalat
Scallops on the grill at Ốc Nhé!Eating snails and shellfish and drinking beer is a popular night out for many Vietnamese. Ốc Nhé! has a large menu of snails, cockles, clams, scallops and oysters, most of which are grilled over coals on the sidewalk. This place attracts a young crowd and prices are higher than other eateries in this list (40-60,000VNĐ/$2-3 a dish). Try the steamed clams with lemongrass and chilli, and the grilled scallops with peanuts and onions.
Café 13: 13 corner of Trương Công Định & Tăng Bạt Hổ streets, Dalat
Cafe 13: a great space to relaxThis café, restaurant and bar is located on a quiet corner under an avocado tree near Dalat’s ‘backpacker’ area. In a cool, relaxed environment – similar to the more bohemian of Saigon’s trendy cafes – Café 13 is a nice open space with a bright interior and a leafy patio with potted plants and flowers. Portraits of famous sportsmen, musicians and movie stars adorn the walls, and secondhand books lie on tabletops. The coffee is sweet and rich, and the menu here includes some western favourites for those missing the comforts of home. At night fairy lights and lamps illuminate the patio, decent music is played, and good alcoholic drinks are available. Prices for food and drink are between 30,000-100,000VNĐ ($1.50-$5).
Café Năm: 13 Phan Bội Châu Street, Dalat
Cafe Năm: old time coffee shopThis is a real ‘old time’ café: a small place open on two sides, a tiled floor, a half dozen little wooden stools and tables, with mostly older men smoking, chatting and reading newspapers: no Wi-Fi here! Hot, chocolaty coffee (8,000VNĐ/$0.50) is served in tiny shot glasses with a pot of jasmine tea on the side. It feels like it’s been open for generations and, judging by the steady flow of customers, it’ll continue for many more years to come. It’s interesting that many of the new ‘youth’ cafes in Vietnam’s towns and cities seem to have taken their cue from ‘old time’ cafes like this one: adopting the low wooden stools and chairs and making them trendy and contemporary.
Windmills Coffee Shop: 133 Phan Đình Phùng Street, dalat
Windmills: great local coffeeWindmills now has 3 locations in Dalat and over the last few years they’ve deservedly gained a reputation among tourists and locals for good quality western-style coffee and cake. Staffed by young Vietnamese (often students at Dalat university) all the Windmills outlets have a friendly, youthful and bright ambience. The décor is comfy, cutesy and very ‘Dalat’ – wooden chairs and floorboards, colourful cushions, pretty flowers in vases, peppermint-green and white awnings, and smart lamps. The menu is chalked up on a blackboard in swirling writing next to sketches of some of the items and famous Dalat landmarks. Coffee here is excellent and reasonably priced (20-40,000VNĐ/$1-2). Like most coffee shops in Dalat Windmills uses coffee grown locally in Lâm Đồng Province, but the difference is that Windmills uses the arabica bean which has a smoother flavour than the bitter robusta bean that most other Vietnamese coffee shops serve. Despite being a chain Windmills retains the intimacy of a local café; let’s hope they don’t expand too much and end up losing this vital quality. (Wednesday and Friday nights at Windmills No.7 3 Tháng 2 Street there’s an acoustic ‘jam’ session where anyone can join in).
Café Ngoại Ô: No.31/1 3 Tháng 4 Street, Dalat
Coffee with a view: Ngoại Ô CafeDalat lies in the middle of a beautiful landscape of pine-forested mountains, but there are very few places in the city where you can glimpse the natural surrounds. Cafe Ngoại Ô is located at the top of the Prenn Pass just as you enter the city limits. From the seats in its garden and log cabins there are views over pine forests, mountains and valleys. Mid afternoon till sunset is a great time for a strong coffee (20,000VNĐ/$1) while watching the light play across the landscape.
Quán Hoa Sữa: 64 Tăng Bạt Hổ, Dalat
Warming drinks at Quán Hoa SữaThis place serves a variety of warming drinks for those cold Dalat nights: hot soy milk, green bean ‘brew’, and peanut ‘coco’. The latter is a bit like drinking smooth peanut butter but without the sweetness. There’s a selection of little pastries to dunk in your hot drink. Quán Hoa Sữa is not much more than a hole-in-the-wall but there’s usually a good crowd here sitting on the tiny plastic stools on the pavement from sunset. Drinks and pastries are very cheap: 5,000VNĐ ($0.25).
Le Café de la Poste: 7 Trần Phú Street, Dalat
Colonial ambience: Le Cafe de la PosteThis café and restaurant is housed in the old French post office. It’s a superb building in a great position in the middle of an intersection which I call the ‘French Triangle’: to the south is the Hotel Du Parc, to the west the French cathedral, and to the east the grand old Dalat Palace Hotel. Inside there’s plenty of colonial charm: wooden booths with padded seats next to stained glass art-nouveau windows, a grand bar, chandelier, and black and white photographs of turn-of-the-century Dalat. Late afternoon on a sunny day is a good time for coffee and cake outside, when the sun sets behind the pink cathedral flooding the triangular patio with fresh, clean, clear, warm Dalat sunlight. However, there is something cold about this place: service is shaky, prices (100-300,000VNĐ/$5-15) are far too high for the quality of food and drink, and there are rarely any customers. What’s more, they play terrible instrumental arrangements of sentimental pop songs in the bar – I can’t think of anything more at odds with the general ambience of this café.