Summer Le is a Danang-based chef and entrepreneur. Her passion for the cuisine of central Vietnam led her to launch her Danang cuisine website in 2009 to expose the area’s unique food to an international audience.
Summer Le’s culinary commitment to Danang has also motivated her to conduct food tours of her hometown. More recently, she opened her own restaurant, Nen, offering a contemporary twist on traditional Vietnamese food. Nen quickly secured a dedicated following and was a go-to destination for guests visiting the APEC Leaders Summit last year.
Visits by the New Zealand Prime Minister and a number of dignitaries during the APEC Leaders Summit were followed by a call from Chef Dominique Crenn who, along with three Michelin stars at her restaurant, Atelier Crenn, was voted the World’s Best Female Chef in 2016. Crenn is the first woman in the U.S. to receive three Michelin stars, the highest possible rating.
“I was starstruck by her visit,” admits Summer. “She is very much about inspiring and nurturing female chefs which I particularly respect.”
Thankfully she enjoyed the meal. Afterwards she posted on her Instagram, “The ingredients shine on the plate and it’s quite a delight to see a chef that is not afraid to elevate Vietnamese cuisine to a unique dining experience. A must go to if you are in Danang.”
Summer Le recommends Danang’s best breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots
So we start off at Nen. “Other food culture evolves over time but Vietnamese food has not really changed. So I decided that with Nen I need to get creative and try something new, utilising traditional Vietnamese ingredients but in a different way,” Summer Le explains.
While enjoying a bite to eat and learning more about her culinary journey we also got Summer Le’s guide to the best breakfast, lunch, and dinner spots in Danang.
“My favourite breakfast is the bo ne or bo kho served at Minh Trang,” Summer Le says. Vietnamese beef stew and beef steak dishes, like bo ne, are distinctly French influenced. This one’s name means “ducking beef” because it sends diners dodging the splatters of boiling butter coming from the hot plate.
The chef here at Minh Trang is also a women—although Summer Le doesn’t think that’s uncommon.
“I don’t think it’s much of an issue here in Vietnam, although perhaps women have to work harder than men to gain respect and prove themselves,” she adds.
“It can be tough, I work hard to show my expertise and authority to my great team at Nen,” she remembers, “and it’s especially challenging to be a head chef and a boss!”
Mrs. Van Nguyen opened Minh Trang Restaurant twenty years ago when her children left for university in America. She runs the restaurant in the mornings and teaches high school chemistry in the afternoons. Her specialities are bo ne and bo kho.
“This is a very popular breakfast dish, particularly at the weekends when families have more time to go out for breakfast,” Summer Le explains.
“There are lots of versions of this everywhere, from the cheapest one on the pavement at just VND20,000 to this version which is bit more expensive but high quality and a bigger portion. The sauce is so concentrated and has really good flavours from the beef—at cheaper places the gravy is largely soy sauce based,” she adds before confessing that she loves this dish so much that she decided to serve her version of it at Nen.
What: French-style “ducking beef” served on a hot plate in a twenty-year old restaurant run by the venerable Mrs Van Nguyen. Location:14 Lê Thánh Tông, Thạch Thang
As a food blogger turned food tour guide turned restaurateur, Summer Le is well placed to promote Danang’s cuisine to the world. She explains that her blog began because she noticed “all the English language information about Da Nang’s food was published by foreigners.” She felt that “it was important to have a Vietnamese voice promoting the amazing food we have in central Vietnam.”
So naturally for lunch, Summer Le chooses mi quang. “This is a special dish from Quang Nam Province and the name simply means ‘Quang style noodles.’” she explains. “I’m really proud of central Vietnamese cuisine, so I have to recommend a dish from the region for lunch.”
“Mi Quang is the best known dish here,” Summer explains of Mi Quang Ba Vi. The restaurant’s original owner, Mrs. Vi, is now over 80 years old, and her daughter has taken on running the restaurant at the new location.
Summer Le says that the dish is the equivalent of pho in the north. It’s half noodle soup and half noodle salad and while it looks easy to make, it’s really quite complicated to get right.
“You can find mi quang everywhere in Danang but I’m always on the look-out for the home-cooked taste. Mum’s mi quang is always the best and this is the closest to it that I have found,” she enthuses.
The dish’s unique flavours come from its fresh herbs, such as basil and coriander, which grow in home gardens ready to be picked fresh each day. Besides that are fresh rice noodles and a broth flavored with tumeric, which gives it a distinctive yellow-ish color.
Mi Quang is garnished with peanuts and toasted sesame rice crackers called bánh tráng mè. Only mi quang uses these toasted rice crackers, which also distinguishes it from other noodle dishes.
“Danang is famous for seafood but most places serve very similar versions,” Summer Le begins.
The coastline around Danang, including the remarkable Son Tra peninsula, make it an ideal fishing location. The city’s official fishing fleet consists of 583 vessels with an annual catch worth around 1,750 billion VND.
“The abundance of seafood means you are spoilt for choice in Danang, however I would recommend Hai San Be Anh because they have the freshest produce!”
Summer Le uses the same supplier for her fine-dining restaurant Nen and so has first hand knowledge of the seafood’s freshness. “You have to pay the fisherman more to get in there first and buy the best of the catch…but it’s worth it,” she smiles.
It’s best to dine with friends at Hai San Be Anh so you have an excuse to sample the wide variety of dishes on offer. Summer Le’s top pick is the abalone.
“It’s so fresh it’s still moving. Then they take it away and slice it up like a sashimi with a squeeze of lime,” she nods. Another dish topping Summer’s seafood list is cua rang me—crab with sour and sweet tamarind sauce. It’s a dish that is similar to Singapore’s famous chilli crab.
Here, fresh crabs are stir-fried in a semi-thick, sweet and savoury tamarind and chilli based sauce.
“You have to get your hands messy with this one, you cant be clean and pretty when eating it,” Summer laughs. “Most restaurants bring you a bowl of water and herbs to wash your fingers but you don’t want to waste any of the sauce!”