Oakland's Chinatown isn't just home to great Chinese food. You'll also find numerous Vietnamese restaurants in this diverse neighborhood and in the adjacent Southeast Asian enclave of East Oakland. Whether you're craving phở or bánh mì, check out these five favorite Vietnamese restaurants that are beloved by Bay Area natives. And be sure to tell us which places are at the top of your list in the comments.
Located in the Clinton neighborhood of East Oakland, Bún Mam Sóc Trang has some of the tastiest Vietnamese food you'll find in the East Bay. While the exterior of the restaurant looks like a nondescript office building, the wonderful smells emanating from the kitchen will draw you in. If you arrive after 4pm, you'll have to take your food to go (like on my last visit) -- but that doesn't detract at all from its deliciousness. Their namesake fish soup, bún mam dóc trang, is one of their most popular dishes and made with fish, shrimp, steamed pork belly, roast pork and noodles. If you've never tried this soup before, the friendly proprietor recommends that you sample it for the first time in their dining room. She'll happily bring you an alternate dish if you find the pungent nature of its fermented fish paste too overwhelming. The cơm tấm, or broken rice plates, are accompanied with great sides such as egg cakes (quiche-like squares filled with translucent noodles) and fried shrimp cakes with a light, crispy crust. If you're in the mood for BBQ, try the grilled pork that's topped with scallions and crispy pork belly bits. Stir-fried lemongrass beef with mint and vermicelli is also a solid choice or the mi kho, an egg noodle dish sauteed with ground pork, shrimp, BBQ pork and fried fish cakes.
It's worth making the trek to the industrial section of International Avenue for Banh Mi Ba Le's Vietnamese sandwiches. While it's their specialty -- you'll be greeted by a colorful poster-sized menu of their full selection behind the counter -- they also offer a ton of lunch plates, dim sum and other delectables that are pre-packed and ready to go. Their standard bánh mì thịt has sliced ham, garlicky pate, jalapeños, pickled radish, carrots, lemongrass and cucumber packed into a warm, crusty French roll. You can't go wrong with their grilled pork with lemongrass, and there's several vegetarian options also.
A homey spot with cozy cabana decor, Binh Minh Quan offers a wide array of Vietnamese dishes. You can choose from their more adventurous offerings like grilled wild boar or deer, goat fire pot or curried frog. Or you can take the DIY route and roll your own bánh hỏ at the table. A server will bring you a bowl of hot water to steam the rice paper, and you can add grilled meat (there's also a shrimp and pork version) from the overflowing platter of accompaniments: peanuts, fried onions, green onions, lettuce, mint and basil leaves, cucumber, pickled carrots and bean sprouts. Mini summer rolls made with ground chicken, mushroom, carrots, taro, onions and garlic, rice paper, lettuce, mint leaves and fish sauce are a tasty starter. And for a traditional stomach-warming entree, you can go with a big bowl of beef pho.
Right around the corner from Binh Minh Quan is Tay Ho, which has an equally delicious selection of classic Vietnamese fare. I'm partial to their delicately flavored tumeric-coconut crispy crepe that's stuffed with pork, poached shrimp, mung beans, green onions and bean sprouts. A heaping plate of lettuce and fresh herbs accompanies the dish as well as their housemade nước mắm, a sweet, fish sauce-based dressing. The same dressing is used on their green papaya salad which is topped with poached shrimp, fresh herbs and garnished with roasted peanuts. I also recommend their Buddha crispy spring rolls filled with tofu, taro, shiitake mushrooms and carrots. And if you'd like an alternate version of beef pho, try their roasted chicken pho that's made with rice noodles and a chicken-based broth. It's also served with roasted chicken on the side so you can savor its crispy skin.
This tiny, no-frills Vietnamese deli is usually packed with hungry customers, especially during the lunchtime rush. And there's no shortage of food to choose from: a hot buffet of curries, soups and stir-fries; spring rolls and dozens of other street snacks; there's even a small assortment of dim sum, too. If you're looking for some bargain eats in Chinatown, their bánh mì sandwiches are a hard deal to beat. They're all priced under $4 each, including the thịt nguội -- their classic pork/pate combo (and there's grilled pork or chicken versions, too.) And they have a wide selection of sweet (and visually stunning) pearl teas in their coolers, too. If you're in East Oakland, stop by their International Blvd. location.