If you're looking for the perfect summer meal, something light, cool and flavorful, gỏi vịt, or duck salad, is the way to go. This Vietnamese dish embodies summer and is exactly what you'd want to eat on a hot day.
Shredded cabbage and red onions are the traditional base for the salad with tender duck meat topping it off. The dressing for the salad is a tangy concoction of nuoc mam, or fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Along with the base ingredients, additional fixings such as carrots, bean sprouts and cucumber can be tossed in according to taste to make different variations of the salad.
For this food fight we take a look at the two different versions offered at Thien An and Huynh. Both distinctly their own and both very good.
Thien An was sorely missed by many when it closed in November of 2012, but it's back and it's bigger and better. And if we're talking about bigger - their version wins on sheer size alone -- $9.50 gets you a plate that will take up most of the space on your table.
Thien An's includes shredded pickled carrots along with the cabbage and the onions. A gluttonous amount of duck meat is set on top and is sprinkled liberally with a combination of chopped mint and coriander leaves. The final touches to the salad are crushed peanuts, slithers of crispy fried onions and slices of fresh jalapeno. A small bowl of fish sauce accompanies the salad for further dipping and for those who like to drench their salads.
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Though the cabbage itself has little flavor it really takes on the flavors of the dressing, yet it remains crunchy enough to have texture and the peanuts add crunch. The onions add slight sweetness and the coriander a slight bitterness. The mostly dark meat duck adds just enough fat to the crispness of the vegetables and the tanginess of the dressing.Thien An's stands out because each component holds its own flavor profile but comes together beautifully.
Admittedly, Huynh comes into this fight as the front runner. Their duck salad has been talked about, written about and lauded over by critics and the general public alike. It's just that good. There is the same base of cabbage and red onions but instead of carrots Huynh adds red cabbage for the burst of color. There is no mint in Huynh's, just coriander adding its full spicy bitterness. The duck, a good mixture of light and dark meat, is not placed on top but rather mixed throughout, letting the fattiness work it's way through the entirety of the salad.
The biggest difference in this version is the cabbage, shredded much thinner, its able to completely soak up the dressing, which is much lighter than the one at Thien An. Huynh's has less texture because it's taken on so much of the liquid, with the fried onions the only added bit of crunch. Each bite is bursting with flavor but the real kicker is the side of ginger fish sauce, nuoc mam gung-- traditionally served with duck and chicken, the aromatic spicyness adds even more pungency.
So who wins this food fight? It's a close one but Huynh comes up on top. It's simpler, more traditional, with fewer ingredients, but those ingredients pack a punch. There really are no losers is this fight, except those who don't go out and try both versions for themselves.