My first impression of Highway4 on Phan Boi Chau was one of surprise because it was immediately different to any restaurant I’d been in Hoi An before. An interesting observation, considering that it’s Vietnamese through and through.
Named after the main road up north that connects various ethnic groups, this place serves up a grand ol’ slice of Vietnamese culture, among other treats.
I spent my first 15 minutes marveling at the restaurant’s unusual, and very creative, decor. Like the giant table complete with an overflowing wooden rice pot and ‘lucky money’ underneath. Or my own table – a former school desk which still bears the doodles, scrawls and love letters of bored students. All to the soundtrack of music from a battered Panasonic stereo, reclaimed and renovated by Nam and her enthusiastic team.
Proudly Nam showed me an ancient weighing scale in the upstairs area – the gorgeous setting for cooking classes and private parties, with low tables on raised platforms straight out of a Japanese izakaya – and explained how the family behind Highway4 Hoi An has painstakingly collected these special pieces.
If you saw this kind of place in New York, or London, or Tokyo, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was merely a hipster’s dream, an affectation. Indeed, many of those places spend a lot of time and effort making something look antique, restored and distressed … when they’re really buying these items in bulk from their local IKEA equivalent. Not so with Highway4. Sure, it’s a franchise – the other 4 are in Hanoi, and thriving – but the Swiss founder and his wife obviously had a different vision.
The bicycle on the wall and the exposed brick bar may scream “hipster” but in fact, this restaurant is a lot more authentic. And as Nam told me, each piece of furniture and bric-a-brac dotted around tells a story. In fact, the team created this rustic setting so that visitors would feel comfortable; not like they were in a fancy restaurant but at home, with family.
Highway4’s menu goes into further detail about their story: that the owners wanted to replicate a traditional tửu quán (‘liquor eatery’), or a place where ‘the consumption of food and alcohol go firmly hand-in-hand’. Hence that exposed brick bar I mentioned, teeming with a range of interesting-looking bottles. All contained a variation of rượu, the traditional Vietnamese spirit made from sticky rice. It would’ve been rude not to indulge …
I was sort of in love with Highway4 even before trying the food. And then I tried the food.
The catfish spring rolls were on special – and they were very special indeed! The whack of wasabi in the dipping sauce was a surprise … but definitely a delight. A Japanese influence on a Vietnamese dish and the crunchy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside fish was just beautiful.
Catfish was king of the mains, too – served in a claypot with chunks of pork, it was an impressive dish in flavor and in quantity. (As Nam explained, Vietnamese people believe that guests should never leave hungry. We certainly didn’t!)
The caramelized fish was also different to anything else I’d had in Vietnam. And I’d definitely return for it again. Sticky on the outside, tender and flaky on the inside… yum!
Unfortunately, the Szechuan ribs were a little overdone and quite tough to eat. But the flavors were good and had just the right amount of spice. Any more and we might’ve had to turn to more of the rượu, while one 50ml measure was definitely enough. Not that it wasn’t tasty – but at lunchtime in the scorching sun, we decided that juices were a safer bet!
Everything about Highway4 is pure Vietnamese: from the WIFI password (cam on) to the fact that we were advised to share our food, as is custom here. Not to mention its decor, from all over Vietnam, and its traditional dishes – although I do feel like these were internationally inspired, as they’re quite different to any other Vietnamese cuisine I’d had. (Then again, I may have missed out on some classic northern Vietnamese dishes before … if they were as good as these, more’s the pity!)
But the most Vietnamese thing about Highway4 is its hospitality. Nam was a charming host, sharing insights, stories and legends from a culture of which she’s clearly very proud. And rightly so. We had the warmest of welcomes from everyone there and felt like we were in a family home, even though it’s part of a franchise.
So if you’re looking for an authentic Vietnamese restaurant, that’s much more reasonably priced than many of the Old Town’s options – and far more interesting/friendly, in my opinion! – you can’t go wrong with Highway4.
Photos: Andy Barker