We went to Hoi An in search of great cao lau. We ate the dish all over town, but the version served at this stall (above) in the market is hands down the best (a version served at a shop not far away runs a close second; unfortunately for anyone squeamish about eating in the market or at a local-style eatery, every version we sampled in a proper restaurant or cafe disappointed).
A proper cao lau - a noodle dish that allegedly originates in Japan - is a porky tour de force, featuring slices of stewed shoulder or leg, a rich dark broth imbued with porcine goodness, and crunchy squares of lard-ified dough (the crispies that top inferior versions are fried in regular cooking oil).
Though pork figures prominently in the dish, its noodles - made with wheat flour; hearty and pleasingly rough-textured; and cut thick, wide, and square - are just as important. (The crunchy 'croutons' are made from the same dough.)
Last but not least the dish incorporates bean sprouts (blanched with the noodles, which have already been steamed before they're sold) and a characteristically Vietnamese mix of fresh greens and herbs, the components of which vary vendor to vendor. Curly leaf lettuce is a mainstay; Thai basil, rice paddy herb, sprouts of one sort or another, wild pepper leaf, mint, and fish mint might also make an appearance.
So what makes this vendor's version Number One? First, her pork is tender and shot through with the flavor of soy and whatever else she stews it in; many others top their cao lau with roasted or boiled pork that has little flavor on its own. Second, her 'broth' is rich and intense enough to call a 'gravy' (have a gander at the dark goo in that pot above). Cao lau is served just enough broth to cover the bottom of the bowl, so it really needs to taste of something besides Maggi sauce or msg-generated umami to make the dish shine.
Third, she adds a nice variety of greens. Elsewhere we were served versions that included only lettuce and a token leaf of Thai basil or two - pretty shoddy, in our book. Also, this lady's cao lau boasts appropriately al dente noodles and crisp-tender sprouts. Finally, she offers alongside an exquisite chili sauce. Ruby red, a little sticky and slightly sweet but quite spicy as well, it might more appropriately be called a chili 'jam', it's a concoction I'd love to spread on garlic toast or dribble onto scrambled eggs.
Definately a cao lau to remember. By the end of our last morning grazing the market we had absolutely no room for a final bowl. Poor planning on our part, and we're still regretting it.
Cao lau, 7am-late afternoon, Hoi An market 'food court' (Look for the blue and white sign; this stall also consistently has the most customers of all the stalls offering cao lau.)