Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Ahh, the South. Everything is hotter: the air, the chiles, the woks, the fashion. Beer is served with a big chunk of ice; it melts before you’re finished. Compared with the food up North, the dishes are generally lighter—the heat, again—and sweeter. (Southerners have a predilection for coconut milk, sugarcane, and saccharine desserts.) And while Northerners might call Southern cuisine unsophisticated, its origins are varied and complex. Unlike Hanoi, a more insular city whose identity is decidedly Vietnamese, Saigon has always had one foot in the outside world—just as the world has always had at least one foot in Saigon. Foreign influences are readily absorbed here, from the Indian and Malay flavors that inspired Southern-style ca ry (curry) to the Singaporean noodle shops now favored by Saigon teenagers.
This is an upwardly mobile city, consumed with money and ways to show it off, and its dining scene is accordingly flashier, more cosmopolitan. Alas, things change quickly in these boom times; every year or two I return to Saigon to find that more old favorites have disappeared. Thankfully, some touchstones remain—including my beloved crab joint, Quan Thuy 94. With an industrial fan roaring in the corner and a Jason Statham movie cranking on the TV, it’s short on visible charm. But the staff is adorable, and the kitchen knows the hell out of crab. The soft-shells, coated in lip-puckering tamarind sauce, burst in the mouth to unleash a creamy, tangy sweetness. Cha gio cua (crab spring rolls) are fried to an unerringly calibrated crunch. The unmissable order is mien xao cua be: glass noodles sautéed with crabmeat, mushrooms, chiles, and vermilion-colored crab roe. (A word about the name: Quan Thuy 94 used to be at 94 Dinh Tien Hoang. When it moved down the street to No. 84, it kept “94” in its name. Confusing things further, a whole new crab joint has taken the old No. 94 storefront—but it’s No. 84 you want. Got that? Onward.)
While the city evolves relentlessly around them, Saigon’s traditional street-food stalls provide a rare sense of continuity. High-rise hotels and IMAX theaters might shoot up next door, but the iconic sidewalk cook keeps plying her trade, unfazed. Case in point: Nguyen Thi Thanh, known as The Lunch Lady. For 13 years, Monday through Saturday, she has set up shop on a patch of pavement on Hoang Sa Street near the zoo—working from 11 a.m. until she runs out of food, which happens quickly. Office workers, schoolkids, and lazy housewives queue up for whatever Lunch Lady is serving that day: usually noodles of some sort, invariably delicious. Wednesdays she often cooks up a knockout hu tieu, a Southern noodle soup laden with roasted sliced pork, prawns, peanuts, and soft-cooked quail eggs; the smoky broth is flavored with shallots and dried squid. It’s a family affair: from an adjacent stand, Lunch Lady’s cousin sells goi cuon, fresh summer rolls filled with sweet shrimp. Nearby, another relative blends ripe, fragrant tropical fruit into icy sinh to (smoothies).
Fruit, in fact, might be the single best thing about eating here. Saigon’s proximity to the Mekong Delta—which supplies fully half of Vietnam’s produce—means the city overflows with papaya, mango, coconut, jackfruit, soursop, and other exotic treats. Wildly colorful fruit stands are on every other corner, their artfulness rivaling the displays at Takashimaya. Even at Ben Thanh Market, where rapacious vendors sell watered-down food, the sinh to stands are uniformly fantastic. I’ve had few more refreshing drinks than the smoothie I tried at Ben Thanh one sultry 97-degree afternoon, made with sapodilla fruit and avocado.
Hanoi may lay claim to its invention, but plenty of pho lovers (including myself) favor the Southern incarnation, which uses fresh herbs and raw greens for a broader range of textures. For years I’ve scoured the back alleys of Saigon, trying to find a better version than that served at Pho Hoa on Pasteur Street, but to no avail: this tour group–friendly institution really does serve the tastiest pho in town. To get the full experience you need to come early for breakfast, when the clientele is all Vietnamese. Pho tai nam is your order, with rare beef and well-done flank (recalling a thick-sliced pastrami). In genuine Southern style, dress it with bean sprouts, hoisin sauce, chili sauce, a squirt of lime, and leaves from the heaping platter of basil, sawtooth coriander, and rice-paddy herb, whose tiny leaves pack a cumin-like punch. Now it’s 7:15, and you’re ready for your first cup of coffee.
Herbs and greens are also integral to a Saigon banh xeo (pronounced bun say-o, meaning “sizzling cake”). This rice-flour crêpe is reminiscent of an Indian dosa, but wider, and yellow with turmeric—bright as the sun and nearly as big. Guidebooks will send you to 46A Dinh Cong Trang, an alley-side joint in District 3. But a better version can be found at the newer Banh Xeo An La Ghien (loosely translated as “eat and be addicted”). Into an outsize wok the chef tosses a fistful of bean sprouts, pork, shrimp, and/or mushrooms, then pours in a slick of marigold-yellow batter, rich with coconut milk. The resulting crêpe is the size of a Monopoly board—so large it overwhelms the table, let alone the plate. Its crisp, lacy edges break off with a satisfying crackle, complementing the moist and savory fillings. The key elements, however, are the pile of fresh herbs to tuck inside the crêpe and the giant mustard leaves to wrap the thing in; their aroma and bite are as powerful as a jarful of Dijon.
It’s not hard to find great street food in Saigon: just walk 10 steps in any direction and pull up a stool. Nor is it hard to find, say, some sumptuously decorated dining room in some gorgeous 19th-century villa where the waft of jasmine incense and a warble of jazz help distract from the blandness of the food. The hard part is finding atmosphere and authenticity in the same package. According to what I call the Law of Inverse Relation, the tastiest food is served in the least inviting venues, and vice versa. (A good rule: incandescent lights = order drinks only; fluorescent lights = eat here now.)
That all held true until, by some blissful accident this April, three friends and I stumbled upon the exception: 10-month-old Cuc Gach Quan (“the brick house”), owned by architect Tran Binh and his French-Vietnamese wife, Thai Tu-Tho. Binh acquired a derelict colonial mansion and reimagined it as an indoor-outdoor fantasia, blending historic details (antique armoires; a wall map of 1960’s Saigon) with contemporary touches (gorgeous lighting; a floating staircase) to create a strikingly romantic space—a gauzy, soft-focus realm that plays with one’s sense of time. Pre-1975 Vietnamese folk plays on a vintage reel-to-reel tape machine. A flowering cherry tree in the courtyard provides the fragrance.
But again: graceful interiors are a dime a dozen in Saigon. It’s the cooking that makes Cuc Gach Quan remarkable. From an open kitchen, the chefs, Co Diep and Chi Bay, sent out a phenomenal thit kho to, or clay-pot-stewed pork belly; intensely flavored but not at all heavy, it tingled the tongue then melted in the mouth. Eggplant cooked in scallion oil was deliciously smoky and tender. Diep’s cloudlike house-made tofu was lightly fried with lemongrass, shallots, and chiles, creating a sauce worth bottling and smuggling home. This was not showy, dazzle-me cuisine, like Boi Tran’s cooking in Hue, but more like the com binh danh (worker’s food) that Vietnamese enjoy every day. “My grandmother used to cook like this,” said my friend Anh with a sigh. “Just not as well.”
It was clear that every detail had been considered, from the handsome tin canister that held the chopsticks to the fresh juice service, with a stalk of morning glory for a straw. Yet nothing felt labored or pretentious. There was an ease and simplicity to the service and the food that belied the elegance of the setting. Most of all there was joy. And as Duy Khanh crooned a sweet nostalgic ballad on the reel-to-reel, we all felt entirely at home.
Peter Jon Lindberg is T+L’s editor-at-large.