China South of the Clouds

Traveling and Cooking in China's Yunnan Province

Elsewhere in Asia: 6 Great Places to Eat in Saigon

March 11th, 2014

This article about was first published in the food journal the Art of Eating, Issue 91, in June of 2013 under the title “Six Addresses in Ho Chi Minh City.” Josh provided the photography for the article, and I’ve included a few more of his lovely photographs from that photo shoot here.

Quán Com Bình Dân Every day at exactly noon, the shopkeepers, clerks, taxi drivers, and laborers of Saigon (as residents still call the city), head to their local com binh dan or “common man’s rice” restaurant. These bare-bones places serve an array of pre-made lunch dishes, ranging from fried fish to pork-stuffed tofu stewed in tomato sauce to eel in lemongrass and chile, all of which come with tea, rice, a small soup, and a banana. This particularly popular spot, located in a glorified shed, has one of the city’s largest selections of dishes, and the proprietors are happy to let you try two or three on the same plate. 17/34 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, 17 Bis, Quan 1; no phone

The lunch offerings at Quán Com Bình Dân. (Above, the outside of the restaurant.)

The lunch offerings at Quán Com Bình Dân. (Above, the outside of the restaurant.)

Cuc Gach Quán Hidden behind discreet wooden doors on a residential street, this restaurant feels like someone’s beautifully decorated townhouse full of dark wood, flowering plants, and eclectic art. The food is in equal parts homey and elegant, like something your epicurean Vietnamese grandmother might have made. My favorites include a rich soup of briny clams, sweet star fruit, and tender fennel; meaty fried sea bass with sweet passion fruit sauce; squash blossoms stir-fried with garlic; and creamy cubes of tofu with crisp, deep-fried exteriors dusted with bits of lemongrass. Also excellent are the fresh juices, such as the tart, vegetal ambarella (a crunchy, green fibrous fruit also known as a “golden apple”), which is served with a little jar of honey. 10 Dang Tat, Tan Dinh, Quan 1; 08-3848-0144;

Nam Giao From northern-style noodle soups to French-inspired bahn mi, Saigon’s food is defined by its mix of influences from other parts of the country and the world. In recent years, the foods of Hué, the old imperial capital, have made their mark. This modest restaurant in the center of the city serves exquisite versions of Hué classics, including mit tron, a warm salad of jackfruit, Vietnamese basil, and tiny shrimp accompanied by a large sesame seed-studded rice cracker; com hen, a briny, slightly spicy mix of rice, tiny clams, fried pork skin, peanuts, fermented fish paste, and chile sauce; and báhn beo, small, flat, tender cakes made of steamed rice flour batter and topped with dried shrimp, bits of fried pork skin, and a touch of fish sauce. 136/15 D Le Thanh Ton, Dong Khoi, Quan 1; (08) 825 0261

The many varieties of sweet, hot chè at Khán Vy (listing below).

The many varieties of sweet, hot chè at Khán Vy (listing below).

Xu Saigon is Vietnam’s most cosmopolitan city as well as its commercial and financial center, and this sleek, modernist restaurant exudes the nightclub aesthetic popular with the city’s businessmen and newly wealthy upper class. Downstairs, the moguls do business over cocktails loaded with tropical fruit. Upstairs, the restaurant serves the city’s best fusion and modern Vietnamese dishes, such as coconut-braised pork belly with red cabbage slaw, shrimp and pork filled “ravioli” made with clear tapioca-starch wrappers, and soft-shell crab on a salad of vinegary cauliflower offset by black sesame purée. 75 Hai Ba Trung, Quan 1; 08-3824-8468;

Khán Vy Sweet chè — the dessert-like treat made from combinations of fruit, nuts, tapioca, grass jelly, sweet beans, and coconut milk — is the city’s favorite snack. This stand, really nothing more than a grouping of plastic tables and huge soup pots heated by wood coals along the side of an alley, is renowned for its 14 kinds of hot chè, like banana, cassava and tapioca, sweet beans with sticky rice, and even balls of glutinous rice stuffed with mung beans and ginger, all of which are topped with a scoop of rich coconut milk. Portions are small, so customers usually order a few kinds at a time, and groups of friends order at least one of each dish and share. No. 032 Block H, Ngo Gia Tu Apartment Building, Su Van Hanh St, Quan 10; no phone; open 4pm to 11pm


A whole crab in tamarind sauce at Quan 94, below.

Quan 94 This 30-year-old family-run restaurant, identified just by its street number, specializes in crab dishes from all over the country: fried crab-stuffed spring rolls, steamed crab claws with just salt and pepper, deep-fried soft shell crabs, crab meat stir-fried with glass noodles or fried rice, a decadent (if messy) whole crab topped with sweet-sour tamarind sauce, and more. Quan 94 is so popular that an imitator opened up two doors away and blocked out its address to fool customers. For the real thing, check the numbers on the adjacent buildings carefully. 94 Dinh Tien Hoang, Quan 1; 08-3825-8633 

Photos: Josh Wand