To a great extent, we – Westerners - judge the quality of restaurants by the window dressing of their external package. A beautiful setting, an ocean view, sparkling silverware and glassware, clean table cloths. The food comes out beautifully presented, with smears of sauce forming savory artworks so delicate you feel guilty when disturbing it with your forks. But none of this tells the story of how food is prepared, whether anyone washes their hands in the kitchen, whether the seafood or meat that you are being served is one, two or three days old or older and on and on and on and on. You could be served someone’s left over’s from the night before and NEVER know it. You can be served someone’s left overs and pay a bill that covers the nights cost in help! The number of middle men involved pumps up the price while ensuring a profound lack of accountability by diffusing responsibilities through a complex network of restaurant services offered at competitive rates by third party vendors. As American’s, we are a gullible lot, easily guiled by the corporate establishment bent on draining every penny out of our wallets for their own benefit. Is this a cynical view or a realistic portrayal?
Then its no wonder that - when you dine at a restaurant like Be Nhi across from the beach in Hoi An, Vietnam, what you see is what you get. You walk into this open restaurant setting glaring with lights from all angles whose physical front is completely open or missing. Across the street is the beach but its too late in the evening to see anything there. There are small aerated basins filled with water that are found in a slightly sunken area that house the evenings selection of fish and other ocean dwellers I could not identify. You find a table and then you march back to the area with the basins to select your fish. I selected one that looked like fish – it actually looked a little like a snapper making me feel comfortable with my selection.
You retreat back to your aluminum plated covered table (fairly common in Vietnam) and look at the menu for other goodies. We chose some clams which my friend really enjoyed, and a fried noodle, shrimp and bok choy dish to work the fish down with. We ordered two Larue beers and one bottle of water and waited for the fish to be grilled. In the meantime, we were served this crispy rice cracker the size of a small pizza called banh trang, which was quite tasty. Obviously a substitute for bread.
Needless to say, by the five-star ranking of this review, I enjoyed the meal immensely. Eating fresh fish has never carried the implications as it did that night – selecting your meal in person and not by proxy – or after trying to decipher the intimidating description of the preparation which adds another fist full of your dollars into the bill.
The fish was indeed fresh and absolutely delicious. The noodle dish was also a perfect accompaniment. The fish came splayed down the middle with skin and bone baring fragments of partially burned surface from the grilling. Picking through to the fleshiest part was no problem; the fish was moist and tender. What more can I say.
The restaurant looked more like a bare-boned cafeteria than a restaurant. The decor was very basic except for some cute ceramic pictures of fruit that were overwhelmed by the vastness and blinding lights of the restaurant footprint. Service was basic but very friendly. It looked reasonably clean and well-kept and certainly not pretentious. I can only surmise that this is a family owned and operated business including the daytime activity of catching the fish, and the chores revolving around the restaurant. No middle men, no extra expense, and good value for the money. As this was my third visit; I can only remember once where there were any visible tourists anywhere.
If you want to enjoy FRESH fish in a family restaurant, Be Nhi is one place to go. In addition, you may learn a thing or two about a real seafood restaurant and what it means to be served fresh fish. You will also experience a true Vietnamese restaurant experience worthy of remembering.