A special thanks to Graham Holliday, a.k.a. "Pieman," for his five-part Moveable Feast exploring the flavors of Saigon. From egg-stuffed breakfast baguettes to "Len Len" snails to sweet, coconut-laced Che Chung, his pin-sticking theory of gastronomical discovery turned out to be a winner. You can continue following Mr. Holliday's journeys at his weblog, Noodlepie.
The fifth and final installment of this Saigon Moveable Feast finds us on the corner of two one-way streets, Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Pasteur in District 3. I spend a good fifteen minutes scoping the area for a suitable joint. As I promised at the beginning of our culinary tour - "Stick a pin in any Vietnam city map and I guarantee you’ll find something interesting to eat [nearby]" and today's no different. There's four Com binh dan, drink stalls, one of seven Saigon branches of the Korean Lotteria burger chain and mobile Pho floggers. I opt for a Com binh dan that promises Chao muc (Squid rice porridge), but I'm outta luck. They don't serve squid til 3pm and that's 4 hours away. I need a filler, not a feast to tide me over beforehand.
At the traffic lights on Nguyen Dinh Chieu I find this stall with a camera shy seller. Vietnamese motorbike drivers have issues with red lights i.e. they ignore them. However, enough do stop on this street to keep in her business. She sells Che - the sweet bean and coconut stuffed desserts so loved in the south of Vietnam. You'll find far more sweet-stuff down south than anywhere else in Vietnam and it's probably fair to say Che are top of the sticky snack charts for most Saigonese. Although her stall is mobile, she's been dishing out her 1,000VD (about 6 cents) desserts for the past four years from this same spot. She has premixed Che rammed in those metal pans above and regularly bags up takeaway portions which are displayed storefront and warmed by the sun.
Che, not only look like tart-tastically top deck tucker - they are. This stall has five varieties on offer. I buy three and taste test all of them. Although, I would advise you stick to just the one. They can be quite heavy after lunch numbers, although they are healthier than a Hershey's. Exactly what goes into each Che is something of a blogger's dilemma, but I'll do my best.
This is Che Chung. In the mix we have, sweetened coconut milk, yellow corn, a couple of haricot beans, thick translucent rice noodle, a scattering of Tapioca and some black rice jelly. It's sweet, it's soft, it's a super, sugary snack.
Che Dau Trang is thick with coconut milk and there's bags more, slightly bitter, beans along for the ride in here. Thicker and more viscous than the Che Chung, it's also a smidgen salty. It's tasty, but the Che Chung gets my vote thus far. The Dau Xanh Hot, pictured below, is by far the most liquid of the lot. It's mung bean packed with an earthier flavour and a subtler sweetness. I could swear I'm tasting seaweed in there and young coconut juice, but this dissection process is tough and I'm starting to hallucinate, so don't quote me on that. Dau Xanh Hot is the most intriguing of the three, but a return visit would find me collaring the first on the list again, Che Chung.
That brings this Moveable Feast to a close. Hope you enjoyed the show. I'm happy to say the Noodlepie theory of Saigon scoffing works. But don't take my word for it, try it out for yourself. Meanwhile, it's getting near Chao Muc opening time... check out Noodlepie next week to see if squid and porridge really do make sense when served as one.
Tu Xuong Street in District 3 is a narrow strip often used during rush hour to avoid the clogged junctions of Saigon's over-motorbiked streets. The fourth installment of 'Sticking pins in Saigon' finds us in among big houses, office space, the odd cafe, four or five street vendors and a scattering of basic restaurants. I skip the three, ever present, Com binh dan restaurants and pop inside what looks like the classiest lunch spot of the lot, Quan An Thien An, at 6A Tu Xuong. Thien An is a half-covered, open air joint. The al fresco section has a retractable blue canopy. The kitchen area is hidden behind a flimsy partition and lines the entire length of one side of the restaurant. Plastic chairs, rickety fans, pot plants and naff paintings add bags more boom to the aesthetic bomb, but bad looks don't always mean shoddy nosh. Not in Vietnam.
There's an extensive, budget friendly English/Vietnamese menu with shrimp, crab, eel, frog, beef, squid and fish dishes. There are four house specialties; Chim se se nuong moi (Special plain grilled sparrows), Chao luon dua xanh (Eel green bean porridge), Chao ca rau dang (Fish porridge with rau dang) and Oc len xao dua (Braised "Len Len" snails with coconut milk). I have no idea what a "Len Len" snail is, but I do like my snails and so this is the dish I plump for. A bell rings and the food appears from a small serving hatch. No less than six pairs of eyes bear down on me wondering whether the clueless white guy knows what to do next. He doesn't.
I try, but without the usual 'snail-picking device' I'm floundering. One of my watchers takes pity and shows me the way. It turns out the trick is to suck both ends. The pointed tip of each snail is already broken off for you. You suck this end first to dislodge the snail. Follow this up with a hard suck on the wide end and the small rubbery gem should pop straight into your mouth. Simple. Well, not quite. It's messy, it's noisy and it's embarrassing to fluff your lines in front of an audience. However, it's worth the labour intensive scoff-out because this is an excellent snail dish. The sweetened coconut milk is mixed with lemon grass, chopped Rau ram (a spicy Vietnamese mint-like herb) and a little chili. I'm a big snail fan, but let's face it - snails are bland. Fortunately, the sweet, hot coconut sauce at Thien An gives the grunt these snazzy mollusc wannabes need. It's a fabulous find and I'll definitely be back for more. 30,000VD or just under $2.
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.
I was quite pleased when I saw I'd be sending my taste buds down Mac Dinh Chi Street in District 1 for The Food Section as I've blogged this way before. Last time I scored a beltin' good beefy Vietnamese Pho and I glugged back Asia's best beer in Vietnam's first genuine Czech micro-brewery. There's plenty more mastication to be had along this lengthy street. There's a decent Korean restaurant, Saigon's best Malaysian shack, a not so good Thai joint and a rack of Vietnamese lean-to restaurants serving noodle soups like Bun bo Hue and Hu tieu. On this visit I skirted the lot and took the alfresco option at the stall pictured above at 6 Mac Dinh Chi Street, just over the road from the US Consulate.
There's nothing much to Banh my opla (Fried egg filled baguette), other than a couple of slack-fried eggs, a dose of greens and a crispy baguette. This frying frauleine hammers out quality cholesterol fayre from 6am til 6pm, seven days a week and she's had her stall in the same spot for the last ten years. Vietnamese chicken eggs are far tastier than those I have had in Europe. I'm not sure why that is, but it was the same story the last time I had Banh my opla down Chinatown way. The price might have gone up sharply since bird flu sent a chill through the land, but the taste remains topnotch.
This stall also sells Banh my pate (Chicken liver pate baguette), Banh my phomai (Cream cheese baguette) and slabs of cold meat tucked away inside banana leaf wraps on the table. For a Banh my opla, there's a whole bundle of add-on choices; spring onion, sliced cucumber, pickled carrot and raddish, red chilli slivers and a splash of hot sauce. I ordered everything minus the cucumber and chili. It's a barnstormin' baguette. You'd be hard pressed to find finer, fresher street scoff than this. And at 5,000VD (30 cents) you won't find cheaper either.
The first pin stuck in our map of Saigon finds us out in the hinterland of District 10 at a Com binh dan restaurant at 264 Hoa Hung street. This stall is two steps and a hop up the road from a large prison and around the corner from a soldier compound. Com binh dan is a 'type' of fast-food restaurant. It translates roughly as 'Food for workers'. These shacks are more plentiful than Mickey D's in Manhattan - not to mention healthier and cheaper. I've covered a similar spot in District 1 before and it's no surprise to find another offering near my number one pin. It's midday, and the two Pho restaurants along this street are closed, so it's a 'worker's lunch' for me. This joint doubles up as a Pho shack from 4pm onwards, but it's the standard rice, meat and veggies on offer from the glass cubicle shop front come lunchtime at number 264.
The Saigonese are early scoffers - 11am on the dot - and even though it's only midday, the selection is sparse. Fish, tofu, pork chops and sautéed beef. I plump for the caramelized pork chops and a slab of minced pork stuffed tofu, pickled greens, a bowl of cold pondweed soup called Canh rau bo ngot and a Nuoc Thit Kho dipping sauce which is a sweet chili fish sauce dipper. The earthy Canh (soup) gets its flavour from the bo ngot leaf. This set is as basic as it gets at these cozy-up-to-the-pavement-lean-to's. It won't win any gourmet competitions, but it's a quality fresh filler that'll see you through to the next scheduled stop, which without fail is at 7pm for Saigon's eight million-plus stomachs. As with other lunchtime lean to's the tucker at these kerbside truckstops is rustled up that morning. In the heat of Saigon, where fridges are still a luxury for many restaurateurs, freshness must come first. This lot'll set you back 8,000 dong or about 50 cents.
This week, The Food Section travels to Vietnam for the fourth edition of Moveable Feast. Earlier installments of this ongoing feature have taken this site to Montreal, Canada, Florence, Italy, and Washington, DC, for a peak into local food culture beyond New York City.
Guest editing this virtual vacation is "Pieman," a.k.a. British freelance hack, copywriter, and blogger Graham Holliday, who has lived in Vietnam for the past eight years. He used to scrub the posh plates of the Euro-glitterati in Monte Carlo for a living, but now he prefers the other side of the kitchen. He writes about travel, food, conservation, and wildlife. You can find his published writings in the pages of TIME, Guardian, Sunday Herald, South China Morning Post, Destinasian, CNN Traveller, and FORTUNE.
At his weblog, Noodlepie, Pieman stalks the streets of Saigon for all the "scoff and swill" he can find. "Noodlepie is a hobby in words and pictures," he says. "But, I hope it's useful to both visitors, and residents, just as a no-nonsense nosher's guide. It works as a kind of 'living archive' of what to eat and where to eat it. Over time I hope it will become a pretty big resource."
Sticking Pins in Saigon
For this Moveable Feast, Pieman gives you "Sticking Pins in Saigon." "Southeast Asia is the streetfood center of the world, nowhere more so than Saigon," he explains of the city known as Ho Chi Minh City since 1975, but still called Saigon locally. "Stick a pin in any Vietnam city map and I guarantee you’ll find something interesting to eat," he says. To prove the point, he stuck five pins in a Saigon street map (see below) and numbered them for Moveable Feast. For the next five days, follow Pieman as his sidekick and digital dining companion as he tests his pin-sticking theory of gastronomical discovery.