Hoi An’s Best Cao Lau Restaurants
Every region of Vietnam has its own local style of cooking. These dishes are must tries for foodies, none more so than Hoi An’s cao lầu (cao lau). Cao lau, pronounced “cow lao,” is a mouthwatering noodle dish. Translated in English to mean “high floor,” its origins lead back to when it was an exclusive meal reserved only for those who could afford it. Hoi An’s upper crust would sit at the higher floors of restaurants, far away from the dirt and grime of the common people. A stark contrast to today where luckily it’s readily available to everyone.
It’s pretty impossible to miss all the signs advertising the availability of cao lau. At times, it seems you can’t move without the resounding calls for you to take a seat and sample a bowl from the many hawkers and restaurants offering a supply of the town’s speciality noodle dish.
Fortunately, through pavement-pounding and the enviable job of sampling street-side stops and restaurants, we’ve compiled a list of the city’s best cao lau and where to find them.
What is Cao Lau?
Locally sourced ingredients feature prominently in Hoi An cuisine. From the abundance of rice milled from the paddies surrounding the city to the crisp herbs and greens of the local organic Tra Que gardens. It is the freshness of these ingredients that give Hoi An’s local dishes their unique flavour.
Cao lau is a perfect example of this. Made up of sliced roast pork, squares of crispy pork fat, bean sprouts, herbs and greens. The famous Lau noodles then, of course, complete the dish. These noodles are traditionally made from well water, sourced from a few remaining wells in the Old Town, making cao lau unique to Hoi An. Vegetarian versions of this dish are also readily available.
History of Cao Lau Noodles
Traditionally, the water from the Cham wells, as well as lye, (a white ash produced from the burning of hardwood trees from nearby Cham island), were mixed together with milled rice from the local fields to make the lau noodles. They were made only by a few families, who carefully safeguarded these secret recipes from generation through generation.
Hidden Hint: One of these wells, the Ba Le Well, is still located within the Old Town. It makes for an interesting visit while exploring Hoi An. The well is located in an alley just up from 45 Phan Chau Trinh Street. Easily found due to the UNESCO sign at the top of the street leading to the turnoff to the well.
Cao Lau Ingredients
Five ingredients make up traditional cao lau:
Unique because of the water and lye mixture used to make them. This is also what gives them their distinct off-white colour. Broken rice is washed and soaked in the water-and-lye solution. Then ground into a thick paste before being put into cotton bags and any excess water squeezed out. This dough is then repeatedly kneaded by hand before being rolled out and cut into the noodle shape. Then steamed until cooked and left on racks air drying until needed.
The shoulder cut or loin is taken and treated in the same way as Chinese char siu barbeque. The meat marinates in a mix of salt, pepper, sugar, 5-spice, garlic, and soy sauce for a minimum of 45 minutes. Then seared in a pan to create caramelisation and seal in the juices. The pork then covered with water and braised until fork tender, sliced thinly, and then ready for eating.
The pork stock left over from braising the pork with all the spices and flavours reduced down into a rich sauce. Unlike other Vietnamese noodle dishes, the finished bowl will not be swimming in liquid. Instead, a couple of spoonfuls of this heavenly gravy pack enough flavour punch to not detract away from the other components.
To add a crispy texture to this dish, cao lau will have either fried squares of the same dough used to make the noodles or smoky pork rinds as part of the finished product. If you’re lucky it might have both.
Herbs and Greens
As featured in many other Vietnamese culinary creations, cao lau isn’t complete without the usual suspects. Including lettuce, bean sprouts, mint, perilla, ngo om (rice paddy herb), and fish mint (this one is an acquired taste), amongst others herbs and greens favoured by the chef.
Where to Find the Best Cao Lau in Hoi An?
The Vietnamese saying “Westerners eat with their eyes, Vietnamese with their bellies” should really be top of mind as you explore the eateries of Hoi An. Don’t be put off by appearances, often the best food is in the simplest setting. It’s not uncommon to order from a more upscale restaurant only to see a local burn-off on their motorbike to pick up your meal from the local street seller, operating in the most basic conditions. Most of the time you’ll be none the wiser and glad they did!
Below are our picks for restaurants dedicated to creating their own take on this famous Hoi An dish.
Address: 474 Cua Dai – Business hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily – Price: 28,000 VND (1.20 USD)
Situated just off the busy main road of Cua Dai, one kilometre outside the Old Town. This family owned and run restaurant is a favourite within the Hoi An expat community and for return visitors to Hoi An. Bon offers a pleasant home dining experience (probably because it occupies the ground floor of the family home). You can sit either on the front dining terrace, where you have prime position for watching the passing traffic or inside the restaurant itself. With an extensive menu catering to both those wanting a local dish or maybe something closer to home, friendly service from the elderly owner and 4,000 VND (.20c USD) fresh beer, you’ve got a recipe for success. The cao lau here comes in a big portion with the flavour of the xá xíu pork and the dark, rich broth standing out.
Trung Bac Restaurant
Address: 87 Tran Phu St. – Business hours: 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily – Price: 30,000 VND (1.25 USD)
Situated in the heart of the Old Town, it’s not unusual to see all three generations of the owner’s family going about their business. All while you relax watching the trickle of foot traffic pass by from the comfort of this historical building. Inside, the restaurant is decorated in traditional “Hoi An yellow” .It has the typical rustic wooden chair, glass table set-up from which you can comfortably park up for an hour watching the comings and goings on this busy central street. There is even a table outside on the pavement if you want to get closer to the action. The shining star of this bowl of cao lau is definitely the soft, fall-apart pork and the firm noodles. The broth is lighter than a lot of other city offerings but is still very flavourful.
Hidden Hint: Best avoid during lunch hour as this place can become very packed.
Quan An Ty Ty Restaurant
Address: 17/6 Hai Ba Trung – Business hours: 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Monday to Sunday – Price: 30,000 VND (1.25 USD)
Tucked away down an Old Town back alley, this place is easy to miss but worth the effort to find. Simple in its design this restaurant provides a very casual dining experience. Good for small groups as you can eat indoors or there are two tables outside. The former being an air-conditioned haven from the somewhat sweltering Hoi An heat. Like a lot of restaurants in Hoi An this place isn’t just a cao lau joint and offers a variety of other local specialities. So go with company and indulge in some menu exploration. This cao lau comes with more broth than usual but considering its rich balanced flavour, this is no bad thing. The crispy crackers also add a satisfying crunch and texture to the dish.
Cao Lau Khong Gian Xanh Restaurant
Address: 687 Hai Ba Trung – Business hours: 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday to Sunday – Price: 30,000 VND (1.25 USD)
Many unsuspecting travellers have walked past this Hoi An gem. We can personally attest to what a mistake that is. Almost hidden by a green canopy and built just back from the Old Town’s yellow walls, this gem is a must-try. Greeted with infectious warm smiles from the elderly cô (aunties), we were motioned to sit anywhere there was room in this no-frills cafe. The plastic chairs, metal tables, and fans create a true Vietnamese restaurant experience. The cao lau here comes in mountainous portions, and in our opinion, is one of the city’s best offerings. The pork here is sliced thicker and is deliciously gelatinous, with the dark sauce bursting in intense pork flavour. The chili jam well worth a small spoon or two added to the bowl and packs a dragon’s breath punch for heat seekers.
Hidden Hint: Arrive early or late afternoon as this place gets packed. A testament to its delicious noodle offerings.
Thanh Cao Lau Restaurant
Address: 26 Thai Phien – Business hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday to Sunday (Note: as these noodles are made fresh daily they will close when they are sold out) – Price: 30,000 VND (1.25 USD)
“Thanh Cao Lau” is well-known amongst local Hoi An chefs and is famed for its cao lau. This place has no menu and just an eager nod to the gentleman proprietor is all you need to do. He knows what you’re here for as this place focuses solely on cao lau. This is really a “local” street food joint, so expect no trimmings. You see everything cooked from the comfort of your simple metal stool.
Within less than a minute, the mouthwatering smell assails your nostrils, immediately followed by a bowl of bliss. The pork is tender and succulent, and the crackers/rinds must have been fried in pork fat further enhancing the flavour. Crunchy and salty perfection with every bite. This cao lau already comes with chilli on top. So for those whose palates won’t appreciate a little burn, say a kind “khong co ot” before delving into your cao lau.
Hidden Hoi An’s thoughts
So there we have it, a guide to the city’s five best cao lau restaurants. Each offers delicious cao lau in different settings.
- For a quick bite of street food to refuel (before they close at 3 p.m.), we couldn’t go past Thanh Cao Lau.
- A more central option for a quick bite before one of the town’s shows or some more shopping head to Cao Lau Khong Gian Xanh or Quan An Ty Ty. If your first choice is busy, simply try the other as they’re in the same street literally 60 seconds apart.
- But if you have a bit more time try Trung Bac for an early lunch or dinner. Stay for a while and people watch, again it’s right in the Old Town.
- If you would like to dine a little longer and have a family or larger group, head just to the outskirts of town and try Bon. It has a more suburban feel, away from the hustle and bustle.
Explore, go on an adventure, and don’t be afraid to get lost down tiny side streets in pursuit of gastronomic pleasure. If you find a place that we haven’t mentioned that you think makes the cut, please let us know. So that: one, we can try it out; and two, we can add it to our article in order to give the best suggestions for any and all who flock to stunning Hoi An.