Vietnamese food (and drink) mashups you MUST try

They’re creative, they’re unique, and, despite how they sound, they’re all delicious.

From the cronut to the ramen burger, the world is in love with the mashup. Here are five home-grown Vietnamese offerings you can go out and sample today.

1. Pho Beer, FURBREW (Hanoi & Ho Chi Minh City)

“When I moved to Vietnam to make craft beer,” says Thomas Bilgram, master brewer at FURBREW, a Hanoi-based brewery, “one of the goals was to use the many tastes and aromas of Vietnam. In our pho beer, I use the spices from the local market, and treat them like any local mother would, by roasting them over an open fire to release the oils.”

While it’s certainly not the kind of beer you’d want to drink all night (“It’s a good beer to drink when drinking good beer,” as Bilgram puts it), Bia Pho is much more than a marketing gimmick; don’t expect it to come with a side dish of beansprouts. Instead, each element has been carefully considered. It’s a standout beer in its own right, with deep, evolving and beautifully aromatic pho-inspired flavors. 

“It took me three months to make the right recipe,” adds Bilgram. “We play with Vietnamese flavors often. We have a lime leaf wheat ale on tap right now, and we just made a beer with lemongrass, ginger, black garlic, and tamarind.”

Pho Beer. Photo by Tim Scott

Pho Bia is currently available at FURBREW Beer Bar, 8b/52 To Ngoc Van, Tay Ho District, Hanoi, and The 100 Beer Garden, 68/238 Au Co, Tay Ho District, Hanoi.

For those in Ho Chi Minh City, FURBREW regularly ships barrels to BiaCraft Artisan Ales in Districts 2 and 3.

2. Fish sauce gelato, Ralf’s Artisan Gelato (HCMC)

In his backroom “laboratory”, as he calls it, using only a handful of high-quality, all-natural ingredients in the traditional artisanal way, German-born Saigon resident Ralf Ehresmann has been busy since opening his District 1 shop in August 2016. In addition to an ever-rotating lineup of “normal” flavors such as coffee, raspberry, chocolate, mango, and vanilla, it’s his more unusual creations that have caused the biggest stir so far. Beer gelato? Yes, that was his. Beef pho flavor? Yep, he did that too, blending three entire bowls of pho bo tai (including the meat) and adding them into the mix. “It was a bit too powerful!” he says laughing.

But it’s Ralf’s nuoc mam gelato that everyone’s talking about, and for all the right reasons: It’s amazing.

“Can we try your famous fish sauce flavor?” asks one young American-Vietnamese couple who have come to Ralf’s shop especially. “I have a nuoc mam fetish,” says the girl, her nose pressed to the glass of the freezer cabinet as our host scoops them up a small spoonful each.

Your regular frozen dessert is getting boring? Try this fish sauce gelato in Saigon

 “It’s really good!” comes their verdict. “It’s kind of salty but sweet. Almost like salted caramel. Delicious! Two scoops please!”

“People often say, ‘Oh, it really tastes like fish sauce’,” says Ehresmann. “But no, it doesn’t taste like fish sauce, it is fish sauce! I use only the very best ingredients so I can serve only the very best gelato.”

 Ralf’s Artisan Gelato is at 39 Dang Thi Nhu, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

3. Chicken skin nachos, BiaCraft Artisan Ales (HCMC)

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. That’s exactly how one craft beer bar came up with this finger-licking combo.

“We wanted to put nachos on the menu,” says BiaCraft’s co-founder Mark Gustafson, “but everyone in town uses expensive imported tortilla chips. We tried to make our own but they just didn’t work. My business partner, Tim [Scott], was pushing me to come up with something. ‘I know you can do it,’ he said.”

Taking inspiration from a Thai snack, and using readily-available chicken skins—an ingredient more commonly used in Vietnamese stocks and soups—Gustafson and his head chef set about creating what is now perhaps the best drinking snack the city has ever seen.

“I put together a plate of the nachos and sent it up to Tim in the office,” he adds. “‘We need to put this on the menu!’ came his response.”

Chicken Skin nachos. Photo by Simon Stanley.

Served in racks of nine, the skins are crisp and incredibly flavorsome, yet somehow stay light and moreish. Topped with pork, sour cream, gooey cheese, a slice of warming jalapeño pepper, and a beer vinegar barbecue sauce, they might be even better than the traditional nachos they were trying to emulate.

“We call them our ‘carb-free nachos’,” says Gustafson with a grin. “I wouldn't recommend that you eat them every day, but everyone loves them.”

BiaCraft Artisan Ales flagship location is at 1 Le Ngo Cat, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.

4. The goi cuon sandwich, Journeys Sandwich Cafe (HCMC)

As part of an eclectic menu of regional and global dishes, Journey’s signature sandwiches are the perfect examples of mashup cuisine. Taking inspiration from Southeast Asian delicacies such as Thailand’s tom yum shrimp soup, and a Malay beef satay, the evolution of the humble sandwich is nudged forward once again. And in every case, the authenticity of each dish is paramount. “If I haven’t been there and tried it for myself,” says owner and sandwich wizard Kevin Nagle, “you won’t find it on my menu.”

Summer rolls (goi cuon) are one of Vietnam’s tastiest (and healthiest) exports. Taking the traditional fillings of pork, prawn, fresh leaves, aromatic herbs, and a sticky peanut hoisin sauce, native New Yorker Nagle has swapped the rice paper pancake wrapping for a crispy Vietnamese bread roll to create the banh mi goi cuon. And it is divine.

Goi Cuon Sandwich. Photo by Simon Stanley.

Ignoring the mashup theme for a moment, loaded with pork and shrimp cooked fresh for each order, this is one seriously good sandwich, almost like Vietnam’s answer to a Louisiana po’ boy.

Likewise, Journey’s banh mi bun bo Hue, made with layers of tender braised beef and drizzled in a traditional bun bo Hue broth, is worth an honorary mention here. Wow.

Journeys Sandwich Cafe is at 21 Nguyen Van Trang, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

5. The Pho burger, East West Brewing Co. (HCMC)

After the stir caused by the Brooklyn-born ramen burger back in 2013, it was only a matter of time before someone made a pho version. Once again we’re in the world of craft beer, and while East West Brewing Co.’s pho burger isn't the first of its kind to appear in Ho Chi Minh City, it could be one of the best we’ve seen so far.

Opened in January 2016, this downtown spot is, as the name suggests, a mashup in itself. With all beers made onsite, their spacious industrial-chic bar and dining area is overlooked by the stainless steel stills and steaming pipework of a fully-functional microbrewery. And they’re not just about liquid invention here. Taking influence from all over the world, the food menu is full of inventive combinations, but there’s one item you really need to try, like, right now.

The pho burger. Oh. My. God. The beef patty alone is standout, cooked thick and juicy and with a subtle blushing of pink at its core. Then come the pho-inspired toppings: Hoisin sauce, spicy sriracha, white onions, fresh basil, cilantro, and crispy beansprouts. Proving that all successful mashups work well in their own right, this burger kicks ass. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the flavor combo is heavenly. The spice is just right: not too weak, not too strong, but enough to warrant more than a few sips of East West’s signature “Far East” IPA (a recommended pairing).

Pho burger. Photo by Simon Stanley

East West Brewing Co. is at 181-185 Ly Tu Truong, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.

So what’s next? Bun cha burgers? Goi xoai pizza? Hot vit lon tacos? In the world of mashups, there are no limits… as long as it works.

“I just made a pandan leaf gelato,” said Ralf Ehresmann when asked about what crazy flavors he has lined up for the future. “But it was not good. I threw it away.”

 Story by Simon Stanley

By Simon Stanley