There’re only two reasons you’ll see an expat come to this part of town. To buy knock-off DVDs/CDs and software or because he stuck a pin in a map as part of an experiment in dining. This is the corner of De Tham and Bui Vien Streets in the thick of what is known locally as ‘backpacker ghetto’. Bui Vien Street is crammed with four-storey mini-hotels, trinket shops, bad restaurants, dodgy tailors and dodgier taxis. The garish ‘Go’ bar hogs the street corner, with an inviting ‘Buy 5 Tiger beers and get 1 T-shirt free’ offer and a conversation killing sound system deafens punters. However, if you look hard enough, there are signs of local life even among these heavily touristed barracks.
My nostrils snatch the scent of these pork slabs sizzling a good thirty seconds before my eyes lock on. Grills like this tempt kerb crawlin' gourmets all over town from as early as 9am. The Com binh dan shed, pictured below, with its small alleyway eatery attached, is just next door to the grill at the eastern end of Bui Vien. Interestingly, this joint is packed with Vietnamese scoffers, not a ghetto dweller in sight. The food here looks better and is no doubt cheaper than the sanitized servings down the main De Tham drag. I'm tempted, but we've covered Com binh dan at the beginning of this Moveable Feast and for the sake of variety and all that... I move on.
The first and only Pho restaurant I come to is at number 96. The fact that it's empty is a worrier and the three woman running the show were of the agressive, hard-sell, drag you in by the arm whether you're hungry or not variety that tends to unsettle my stomach. But, Pho, more than any other Vietnamese dish, is known the world over and I'm eager to fit this Saigon stalwart in during this week somewhere - good or bad.
This restaurant is actually a stall in a restaurant. The stall can be wheeled around the streets and the broth served alfresco if needed. Not that the owners would need to do that these days. Just bring the stall in off the street - smart. I order Pho bo tai (Raw beef noodle soup). It arrives with a three herb plate, blanched beansprouts, slices of lemon and sliced yellow chilies. Certainly looks like bonkers good broth from where I'm sitting, but let's dive in and see what's under the bonnet.
Plenty of meaty vapour powering through, however as with many other Pho I've had in town, it lacks a distinctive character to separate it from the rest of the gruel gang. Having said that, it's far better than I was expecting. I did think the restauranteurs in this part of town would veer towards laziness what with their clientelle mainly consisting of clueless foreigners, like me. However, the noodles aren't fresh enough and taste as if they've been out in the sun too long. This is commendable Pho, if not great Pho. The main gripe being chewy beef. Buy a tenderiser, I've seen them on the market, cost less than a buck and does wonders for meat heading brothwards. 12,000VD a bowl, about 80 cents.