At least once a week
Cuisine: Dessert, Bakery
20B Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Banh Xop Jambom Hawai (4,000 VND)
Banh Ngot Dau Xanh (3,500 VND)
Bong Lan Muffim Tao (5,000 VND)
Banh Xop Pateso Bo (4,500 VND)
Banh Mi Crossand (3,000 VND)
Banh Mi Phap (3,500 VND)
The Astronomer: Back in Philly, one of my favorite traditions was walking to Chinatown to visit K.C.’s Pastries, a bakery offering delicious 60¢ sweet or meat-filled buns. When I arrived in Vietnam, I was pleased to discover that the K.C.’s experience was authentic—Asia really does feature numerous bakeries featuring pastries made of the same light, mildly sweet dough. Several large chains dominate the scene in Saigon: the biggest, Kinh Do Bakery, offers a decent selection and flashy advertising, but charges several thousand dong more than its competitors for a nearly identical product. The other two major players in the market, Pham Nguyen Bakery and A Chau Bakery (ABC), have become consistent standbys in my diet.
When I go out to dinner in HCMC, I almost always find that a standard Vietnamese rice or noodle portion is simply not enough food for a growing American boy. Occasionally I order a whole new entrée, drawing bewildered stares from the restaurant owners, but most of the time I head on my way and hope that I’ll find a little something extra on the road home. In these situations, I’m particularly thankful for Pham Nguyen and ABC. Whether I’m in the mood for something sweet or savory, I can always find a snack that will hit the spot for around 4,000 dong (25¢).
Among my favorite offerings are the flaky pastries filled with a thin layer of meat or pate: the exact names vary, but good ones have included banh pateso, banh xop thit, and Banh Xop Jambom Hawai. The dessert selections generally fall into two categories: big and fluffy and not as sweet as they look, or stuffed with mung bean paste or cream. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I haven’t quite bought into the whole beans for desert thing, but I must admit that the mung bean pastries can be pretty delicious. The big sweet ones are also satisfying, but generally all taste the same despite their widely diverse shapes.
One of the greatest disappointments from my numerous visits to Pham Nguyen has been the bong lan muffim tao (apple muffin), which looked quite appealing but tasted nothing like a muffin should. It had a light, springy texture (strangely resembling the rather uncomfortable pillows in our new apartment) and no fruit chunks or discernible apple flavor. This attempt at a muffin provides further evidence for The Gastronomer’s theory that the Vietnamese often emulate Western foods by copying their appearance, without having the slightest idea of how the final product should taste (see hamburgers and ice cream).
Another interesting interpretation of a Western pastry was the banh pho mat (cheese). I expected a melted, creamy filling, but instead found nothing for several bites and then finally a small chunk of mild cheddar resembling a half stick of string cheese.
One day when I was feeling particularly bold, I bought a banh oc, a huge snail-shaped sweet pastry filled with an enormous quantity of cream. As one might expect, it was tasty to start out with, but by the time I finished I wanted to vomit.
There are even stranger offerings with names like banh pizza and banh mi hot dog, with only a vague resemblance to what you might imagine, but so far my desire for a satisfying snack has outweighed my sense of adventure, and I’ve stayed away. The bakeries also offer a selection of fancier cakes topped with elaborate icing and funny-looking animals made of sugar. A review of these will have to wait until The Gastronomer’s birthday in February.