Five Unsung Saigon Eateries Worth Singing About

Nafi Wernsing

09:19 03/09/2019

Here are five examples of not so well-known Saigon eateries that put their own stamp of delish on different Vietnamese dishes.

Five Unsung Saigon Eateries Worth Singing About

Banh mi with BBQ pork meatballs at 39 Nguyen Trai, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.

If you are not so hungry, they will whet your appetite and if you are hungry they will fully satisfy your cravings.
Got your number
Along the busy Nguyen Trai Street in District 1, a numerical puzzle hides a treasure. Banh Mi 37 is located at 39 Nguyen Trai. Why? An I-don’t-know shrug.
As it is just around the corner from one of the city’s most popular banh mi places called Banh Mi Huynh Hoa, it feels as though Banh Mi 37 is hiding in its shadow.
In the alleyway off 39 Nguyen Trai are two hard-working women who run a banh mi stall that only opens at 4 p.m. and closes when they are sold out – in three or four hours.
The banh mi here stands apart from other stalls serving the same dish. It is not the conventional banh mi with pate, cold cut meats, vegetables and sauce. It consists of BBQ pork meatballs, vegetables and a delicious homemade sauce. 
The homemade pork meatballs are out of this world. They are so tasty on their own that they beat the cold cut layers of meat hands down. The homemade sauce, which complements the dish superbly, remains a mystery. 
It is not one of the most well-known places among foreigners, yet it is one of the busiest. Those in the know will tell you that one can wait up to half an hour to get a sandwich here. The queue can start from well inside the alleyway and run along the road, some people will tell you. Half an hour is a long time, but that is the time people are willing to wait for the reward waiting at the end. All you have to pay is VND20,000 ($0.85).
Taste dynamics
Sizzling fried pancakes served at Banh Xeo Nga at 251 Nguyen Thien Thuat, District 3, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
Sizzling fried pancakes served at Banh Xeo Nga at 251 Nguyen Thien Thuat, District 3, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
Banh Xeo Nga has stood the test of time, serving the delicious Vietnamese fried pancake for nearly 40 years. 
It is a small eatery with just a couple of tables. Its location in a competitive hub with many other restaurants means that it has to be good enough to stand on its own – which it does easily.
An interesting piece of information: the dish’s name apparently derives from the sizzling noise the rice batter makes when it hits a hot skillet.
Shrimp, pork belly, mung beans and bean sprouts are ingredients that fill up the yellow banh xeo with flavors and textures.
The dish lends itself to some creativity when you eat it. It is served with several leafy vegetables and a fish sauce dip. The combination and sequence is your choice, but typically, take a large enough mustard leaf in one hand, tear off a piece of the stuffed pancake with the other, add a few other greens (perilla, basil, mint etc.), roll the whole thing, dip it in the fish sauce and take a bite. 
The taste that greets you, with the dynamics of pork, shrimp, sprouts, the spicy tinge of the mustard leaf, textures and flavors of other leaves, is nothing short of magical, if the dish is well made, as it is at Banh Xeo Nga, where one serving is also quite filling.
Banh Xeo Nga opens daily from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. at 251 Nguyen Thien Thuat, District 3. Prices range from VND45,000-65,000 apice ($2-2.82)
Colorful plate for the palate
A bowl of bun thit nuong cha gio served at Chi Tuyen restaurant at 175 Co Giang, District 1, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
A bowl of bun thit nuong cha gio served at Chi Tuyen restaurant at 175 Co Giang, District 1, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
One the most vibrant meals you can have in Saigon is perhaps the bun thit nuong cha gio. This rice noodles dish is served with grilled pork, vegetables as well as a spring roll. One look at the dish and one wonders if they will all go well together. It does, and how! 
Like other meals, this is also commonly found in Vietnam. There are many restaurants in Saigon that serve this, but you are in luck if you stumble on to Chi Tuyen (Sister Tuyen) in District 1. The restaurant has two floors, with the food cart where all the magic happens greeting you at the entrance.
Old customers say a recent change in location has made the place less spacious, but despite being crowded, the service is so speedy that it almost beats us to our seats.
This colorful plate is very tasteful and instantly ready to eat. All one has to do is add the final piece of the puzzle, the fish sauce dip, to one’s bowl, stir up the other ingredients and tuck in.
This dish is also served without the spring roll, but personally, the spring roll is the cherry on top of the cake.
The restaurant opens between 7 a.m. - 10 p.m. every day at 175 Cô Giang, District 1. Each portion costs VND40,000 ($1.72).
The chicken & beef story
A bowl of pho ga at 14/5Bis Ky Dong, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
A bowl of pho ga at 14/5Bis Ky Dong, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
There is no argument that Vietnam’s most iconic dish is pho, the rice noodles soup. And when you mention pho, most Vietnamese (and foreigners) immediately assume that you are talking about pho bo, the traditional noodle soup with beef.
However, a bowl of good pho ga, the rice noodes soup with chicken, will certainly give its beefy cousin a run for its money.
There is one place in Saigon’s District 3 that has been serving delicious pho ga for 40 years: Pho - Mien Ga Ky Dong.
Accordingly, many locals flock to the place every day. The combination of the fragrant broth with soft, richly textured noodles and fresh herbs will bring you back to this place for more, each time.
In fact after a large bowl of pho ga here, one feels that not going for a repeat order is a crime. For me, this pho ga can take on any pho bo, even though the former is more easily available.
Alternatives with the transparent noodles mien or rice vermicilli bun are also popular.
The restaurant opens from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. at 14/5Bis Ky Dong, Ward 9, District 3, for VND55,000 ($2.37) a bowl.
The Wizards of Oc
A dish of snails with butter-based sauce at Oc Loan, 166/1 Ly Thai To, District 3, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
A dish of snails with butter-based sauce at Oc Loan, 166/1 Ly Thai To, District 3, HCMC. Photo by Nafi Wernsing.
To be spoilt for choice, I would heartily recommend a visit to one of the oc restaurants. Oc actually means snails, but an oc establishment also serves all kinds of other mollusks, fish, octopus, squid, crabs and more.  
Since these are extremely popular haunts among locals, curious and excited foreigners should take a local along, for not much English is spoken at such establishments. The locals can tell the foreigner what’s worth trying where.
A typical oc restaurant menu can have 100 dishes or more – and you can choose whether you want your seafood steamed, fried or grilled. Then, there is a selection of sauces to choose from, and how you choose and combine them makes each dish unique.
Oc is a big part of Vietnamese culture. Snails are particularly prominent on a Friday night menu, cos it is part of the nhau culture – going out, drinking, eating and socializing with family, friends and/or colleagues.
The snails come in all shapes and sizes from rice paddles, rivers, lakes and from the ocean. They tend to have a chewy, rubbery texture, and once you get your hang of it, from the smallest steamed snails that are prised out with toothpicks and dipped into a fish sauce with sugar, vinegar, ginger and chilli, to a tomato flavored soup, you will clamor for more. And you will be back.
One popular destination among locals is Oc Loan at 166/1 Ly Thai To, District 3. It opens daily from 5 p.m., with prices ranging from VND50,000 - 150,000 ($2.17-6.52).

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