The Battle for Trip Advisor
Yes, it’s a battle royal for top restaurant spot on Trip Advisor in Hoi An. For a couple of months now Restaurant & Cafe Tuan (Vietnamese/Western/Italian) has reigned supreme. At the time of writing, 91 per cent of 864 reviewers rated it excellent, the highest possible rating, while almost all others rated it very good. There is apparently no downside.
Arch rival, Nhan’s Kitchen, is holding on to second spot with 92 per cent excellent (I know, don’t ask, it’s clearly very complicated), having been deposed from the top spot a while back. See Hoi An Now’s review of Nhan’s Kitchen here.
The similarities between Restaurant & Cafe Tuan and Nhan’s Kitchen are astounding. Both have their own pizza ovens – this is a big differentiator, at least for Trip Advisor reviewers. Both feature a gushing welcome and farewell to all customers, working hard to make you feel they are terribly interested in you. And both are technically in the backblocks – away from Old Town and high rents – on Cam Thanh Island, but in close proximity to a number of homestays and on the main artery into town – Tran Nhan Tong.
Both have a fairly even mix between Western and local food and importantly, both are very, very keenly priced. This last factor combined with low overheads (like rent) enables them to employ ‘high volume, low margin’ models.
But it’s not just backpackers and budget conscious nomads that come. On my last lunch visit – doubtless influenced by the stellar TA #1 rating – a flashy limousine with impenetrable mirror windows deposited a small party of Koreans who were dressed to the nines.
Although it was cheap, my fried rice with seafood was a monster that could have fed two. It came quickly and was delicious as well as filling. Like Nhan’s Kitchen, everything was very fresh and playing it safe with nothing too spicy (although my dish was gently and aromatically laced with pepper). Additional chili of course is available in many forms on request.
There were only two other tables occupied when I started lunch but 45 minutes later only one free table remained in a drastic transformation. Pizza and pasta were flowing as were local staples like Pho, Cau Lau and Mango Salad with Steamed Seafood. There was a general hum of contentment across the room and everyone was tucking in. It was also clear there were several regulars for whom Restaurant & Cafe Tuan is a home away from home.
There is no ambiance at Restaurant & Cafe Tuan. Indeed, it’s so plain and functional that when you see it chockers, as it often is, you simply figure the food must be very good. Good-sized bamboo tables are stuffed into this relatively small space almost to saturation point, like school desks in strict rows, but they get away with it because the relatively wide frontage has no wall at all, leaving it airy with the street outside in full view from any table.
The Wash Up
Of course, it’s ludicrous to say Restaurant & Cafe Tuan is the finest restaurant in Hoi An. Nevertheless, it puts many of its much pricier competitors to shame, and it is a clear market leader along with Nhan’s Kitchen at the head of Hoi An’s budget cafes. And, like Nhan’s Kitchen, you can eat here all day, every day, almost as cheaply as you can at home.
My stay was sprinkled with oft-interrupted conversations on a number of topics with owner, Ms Hiep. Frustratingly, newcomers kept arriving just as it was my turn to speak but Ms Hiep kept coming back when she could. Finally, as I donned my helmet Ms Hiep felt we were well enough acquainted to put her arm around me with a little squeeze and keep it there, seemingly willing me to stay longer as she continued to greet even more patrons and farewell others. This ingredient, literally a personal touch, married with well-prepared, solid, cheap food means the lack of ambiance is of no account, after all, you’re home with family – even if it is a little like the woman who lived in a shoe.