Cao Lau Spotting On The Lower East Side

When we last caught up with NYC chef Leah Cohen, a C.I.A. graduate and former Top Chef finalist, she had been putting in unrelenting 100-hour weeks to ready to opening of her Southeast Asia-inspired restaurant Pig & Khao. Eight months later, she is starting to hit her stride in the kitchen. And with packs of young Asian food fans lining up for a table — as I witnessed during a visit on Saturday night — it's clear that she's speaking to the people.

Since opening, I had stopped by the restaurant a handful of times — but never for a bowl of cao lau, a fabled dish found only (well, until now) in the Vietnamese coastal city of Hoi An. In the 18th Century, Chinese and Japanese merchants would travel to the harbor town from throughout Southeast Asia, with some arriving from as far as Africa. The culture mash has played a role in the city's culinary landscape, looking at two noodle dishes served in particular — turmeric-laced mi quang and the slightly smoked flat noodles called cau lau, which are made daily at dawn by only a handful of families. During my February trip to Vietnam, we visited one such factory at six in the morning, greeted by a three-generation assembly line grinding, boiling and cutting away.

In Vietnam, the chewy cao lau noodles are very similar to udon and come served in a broth of coriander and Chinese five-spice. Slow-simmering pork is sliced thin and placed atop the bowl of steaming noodles. A garnish of Thai basil and mint is added, as well as a powerful chili jam that can haunt you — one seed at a time. Cohen's version is aesthetically similar. There's a bed of herbs (Thai basil, cilantro, shredded lettuce) and deep-fried croutons wedged next to thinly sliced pork loin (rubbed with a five-spice mixture). It all covers noodles that peek out, revealing an off-white shade. Cohen serves hers with more broth than the version I found in a market stall in Hoi An. I also ate mine at 8 a.m., the peak noodle soup hour in Vietnam.

My friend David Farley, a man who once beautifully wrote 3,790 words on the topic, was skeptical about Cohen's noodles:

This makes sense. And in the chef's defense, my Instagram filter was pretty lousy. But Farley brings up an essential point. The noodles are in fact the most important part, which makes Cohen's facsimile all the more commendable. Springy and cut with a similar thickness as the Hoi An version, the noodles are pretty near close to the original. I even detected a hint of smoke, which is a crucial step back in Vietnam.

And if you're interested in attempting your version a home, here's a recipe from Vietnamese video blogger Helen's Recipes.