Archive for the 'Restaurant Review' Category

Bún Chả Hà Nội

Firstly, hats off to Wandering Chopsticks for pointing me to this awesome bun cha joint on Ly Tu Trong Street. I hardly ever eat in District 1 unless its fancy or sushi and would have never found this place otherwise.

A group of new (Olivia) and old friends (The Astronomer, Zach and Tom) headed here for lunch right before the Lunar New Year shutdown, which is unfortunately still going on. The Vietnamese sure do know how to relax after a year of hard work! I hope my xoi vendors start dishing out the goods soon.

During our visit, the eatery was sold out of the cha gio cua be (crab eggrolls) WC raved about, but the manager promised me a complimentary one the next time I stopped in.

Our group ordered five portions of bun cha at 25,000 VND each. Generally, I find that bun cha portions veer toward meager, especially in the bun (vermicelli rice noodles) department. The Astronomer usually has to request two extra plates of bun to round out his meal. This restaurant served up the perfect amount of food.

The flame-grilled pork patties with bacon bits (not Bacos) were dunked in a mild fish sauce vinaigrette with thin slices of pickled daikon. The smoky patties were packed loosely, contained a satisfying ratio of meat to fat and took on the sauce’s sour flavors well. Truly, excellent. I can’t wait to compare and contrast bun cha Saigon with bun cha Hanoi when I visit later this year.

Since I’m in the south, I assembled my bun cha in a southern fashion—small bowl + herbs + greens + meat + sauce. Definitely the best I’ve had so far.

8 Ly Tu Trong Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City


One Broth, Two Dishes

January 29, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

193 Ly Chinh Thang Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Canh Bun (8,000 VND)

Bun Rieu (8,000 VND)

Chao Muc (5,000 VND)

Ca Phe Sua Da (5,000 VND)

Another day, another new noodle soup to try!

The Astronomer, our pal Cathy and I lunched at a not-so-pretty eatery on Ly Chinh Thang Street advertising canh bun, bun rieu and chao muc. We ordered one of each for variety’s sake, but I was particularly interested in the canh bun because I have never tried it before.

Canh is a light Vietnamese soup eaten with rice, while bun are vermicelli rice noodles. Surprisingly, canh bun is not a combination of the two. Tricky, huh?

It turns out that canh bun is exactly the same as bun rieu (vermicelli noodles in a sour crab-based broth) with the addition of blanched spinach served alongside the essential herbs and greens. Not the most innovative dish, but I can find no fault in extra nutrients and fiber. Anything for 5-a-day.

The bun rieu here was very good. Unlike my family’s version or the one at Thanh Hai, this one came with spongy squares of deep-fried tofu that soaked up the sour broth nicely and contained cubes of blood jello that are much tastier than they look.

The chao muc was my personal favorite of the meal. The smoky squid porridge was topped with ground black pepper, chopped scallions and pieces of fried dough. Similar to the tofu in the bun rieu, the fried dough soaked up the porridge with its oily goodness. There were several pieces of actual squid, but they blended in with the hot porridge.

After three steamy dishes, we headed to a drink vendor several blocks down for some ca phe sua da (Vietnamese coffee with sweetened condensed milk on ice). Although I usually passed on this stuff back home, I am officially a huge fan. What’s there not to like about drinking melted coffee ice cream? I have seen the light.

Sizzlin’ Crêpes

January 26, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

607 Nguyen Kiem Street
Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: none
Website: none

Banh Xeo (25,000 VND for 10)

Bo La Lot (28,000 VND)

“Look for the flames on the left-hand-side of the road,” instructed Zach.

With such spot-on instructions, The Astronomer and I easily located this banh xeo and bo la lot joint in an unfamiliar part of town.

Phu Nhuan District is a good 30 minute ride from District 4, but one bite of their banh xeo, and the long trip is completely worth it.

Unlike the giant, paper-thin, slightly soggy, ton-o-bean sprouts banh xeo served up at 46A and Long Huy, the ones in Phu Nuan are more like those I ate in Da Nang.

The banh xeo are made in front of the restaurant in small griddles over large flames. The smoky environs lend a welcomed char to the saffron beauties.

Measuring four inches in diameter, these banh xeo are wonderfully crispy and filled with grilled pork pieces similar to thit nuong, a few bean sprouts, and a smattering of whole mung beans.

Wrapped up in mustard leaves and dipped in nuoc mam, these banh xeo were so so good. Without the help of Zach’s ESL students, we would have never found this place.

The Astronomer and Zach are both very fond of bo la lot—grilled seasoned beef wrapped in betel leaves. The ones made here are grilled out front next to the banh xeo and have a nice ratio of meat to leaves.

Whereas I like to eat bo la lot without adornments, the boys take the time to wrap theirs in lettuce, herbs, and rice paper and dip them in nuoc mam. Either way, they’re a great complement to the banh xeo.

Ngự Viên


January 18, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese

40 Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 8437670
Website: none

Banh Beo – steamed rice cakes with minced shrimp, scallion oil, nuoc mam

Goi Mit – jackfruit salad with sesame rice crackers

Cha Gio – deep-fried rice paper with pork filing

Com Hen – rice with baby clams, herbs, sesame crackers, star fruit

Ca Hu Kho – fish braised in a clay pot

Sticky rice cakes, chicken sauteed with lemongrass

The Astronomer: The Gastronomer and I recently paid a return visit to Ngu Vien to celebrate our friend Zach becoming Ashton Kutcher. All-in-all, the event was a success: the new girlfriend looked a bit younger than I had imagined and seemed surprisingly comfortable socializing with a bunch of recent college graduates, and the food was excellent. We were sufficiently inspired to follow up the luncheon with a triple date at the Saigon Superbowl, but that’s another story.

We started off the meal with some banh beo. I would have preferred to save it for Yen Do and order something more unique—why pay more for a dish that a streetside eatery does perfectly—but I couldn’t really complain about ordering an imperial classic at a restaurant specializing in Hue food. The banh beo was served individually in small dishes. It was well-executed, but I’ve decided that I prefer the version with all the cakes together in a large platter, drowning in sweet nuoc mam.

Next up was some goi mit and a plate of cha gio. The cha gio were hot out of the frying oil and quite tasty, but once again I would have been happy to wait and get them streetside. Served warm, the goi mit was really a standout. Less juicy and much heartier than most fruit-based salads, the dish’s flavors melded perfectly. The crunchy sesame crackers were an ideal vehicle for the mixture of jackfruit, pork, shrimp, and basil. We gobbled it right up.

In another foray into central Vietnamese cuisine, we decided to try the com hen. We’ve been told that this dish sucks in Saigon because the clams aren’t fresh, and indeed Ngu Vien was unable to recreate Hue’s magic. However, it was the best effort I’ve tasted around here–a worthwhile side dish.

Ever since our first meal at Ngu Vien, the Gastronomer has been raving about the ca hu kho, and she couldn’t resist ordering it again. It didn’t disappoint—although I find the plethora of small bones in the fish annoying, I would order it just to be able to pour the extra sauce on my rice.

Finally, we decided to try the chicken with sticky rice cakes. I really loved the little sweet pillows of fried sticky rice, and the chicken was delicious as well, if not particularly memorable. I’ve been impressed by the consistency of Ngu Vien’s cooking; I can’t help comparing it to Com Nieu Saigon, where the occasional horrendous dish nearly ruins the memory of the better ones.

While not entirely devoid of the typical Vietnamese eccentricities, the service at Ngu Vien is solid. They generally give you time to look over the menu without a waitress waiting awkwardly hovering over you, and the food comes in discrete courses rather than all at once. On this occasion we had a bit of trouble getting our white rice to arrive, but it was pleasant getting to savor a couple of dishes that actually felt like appetizers.

If I had a complaint, it would be that the place is somewhat lacking in atmosphere. It’s clean but not beautiful, and it has been nearly empty on both of our visits. This saddens me, because the food is terrific. Maybe toning down the neon signage and building a roof over the tables drove away their Vietnamese clientele. Or perhaps there are better crowds at dinner. In any case, I would choose the Ngu Vien experience over the gorgeous decor and hit-or-miss cuisine of the new Com Nieu Saigon any day. We’ll certainly be back.

Bé Ốc

January 12 and 20, 2008
Cuisine: Vietnamese, Seafood

58/53 Vinh Khanh Street
District 4, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 0903658293
Website: none

Chao Ngheu – clam porridge (20,000 VND)

So Huyet Xao Toi – blood cockles fried in garlic (20,000 VND)

Oc Mo Xao Me – snails sauteed in tamarind (20,000 VND)

Chem Chep Nuong – grilled mussels with scallion oil and peanuts (20,000 VND)

Ngheu Hap Xa – clams steamed with lemongrass (20,000 VND)

Hot Vit Lon Xao Me – fertilized duck with tamarind (5,000 VND)

Cua Rang Muoi – crab prepared with salt and garlic (80,000 VND)

So Huyet Xao Me – blood cockles sauteed in tamarind (20,000 VND)
Bé Ốc is a bumpin’ sidewalk seafood joint in District 4 I discovered a few weeks back while taking a xe om. The Astronomer and I, along with our friends Zach and Tom and Tom’s GF Vuong, came here for dinner last Saturday after a long day of pretending to be tourists at the Cu Chi Tunnels and the Cao Dai Temple.
Sidewalk seafood eateries in Saigon usually begin setting up shop at around 5 PM. Their menus tend to be heavy on the protein, light on the carbohydrates and cheap in the beer department. Talk about the perfect formula for getting extremely wasted! The restaurant’s main clientèle are chain smoking, beer guzzling, middle-aged guys looking to relax after a hard days work. Woot to that! There’s also a spattering of families and women, and the occasional expatriates.
I have found that it is really difficult in Vietnam to get waiters and waitresses’ opinions on the best dishes of the house. I’ve pretty much stopped asking because their response most of the time is “everything is good,” which isn’t the least bit helpful.
Directionless, we decided to order a slew of shellfish and crustaceans prepared in a variety of ways. We also ordered a large bowl of clam porridge to share and a couple hot vit lon for good measure.
Everyone thought that the snails sauteed in tamarind were stellar. In fact, Zach proclaimed them the best thing he’s tasted in the country! The spicy, sweet and sour flavors hit all the right notes, and the little bits of rendered pork fat and garlic paired tastily with the tender snails.
Another highlight were the grilled mussels with scallion oil and crushed peanuts. The mussels were lightly cooked and smoky, while the peanuts and scallions provided depth and texture to the dish. It’s incredible how such simple ingredients can yield deliciously complex flavors!
One of the most interesting dishes of the evening was the duck fetus. Hot vit lon, which is usually eaten fresh out of the shell with herbs, salt and pepper, was dressed to the nines at Bé Ốc. The tamarind, fried shallots, peanuts and basil completely overpowered the defenseless duckling, which was actually not a bad thing because without adornments, the fetus looks like unappetizing gray matter.
We finished off our seafood feast with piping hot clam porridge, which had an abundance of clams and subtle ginger and cilantro undertones. While hot porridge doesn’t usually appeal to me in the intense Saigon heat, the cool breeze blowing through District 4 this evening made it quite palatable.
Bé Ốc is good times. Bring your friends.