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More than pho: An expat’s top 5 favorite foods of Saigon

Tuesday, February 13, 2018, 10:03 GMT+7
More than pho: An expat’s top 5 favorite foods of Saigon
Foreign tourists try Vietnamese banh mi. Photo: Tuoi Tre

After spending some months in Saigon and trying out different food stalls and restaurants there were lots of dishes that I liked and some I returned to, leading to a very personal list of favorite foods in Saigon.

1. Bun cha

Bun cha is a dish that I never knew I loved, before I tried it. Its components are rather clear-cut and could also be found on the plate of a European dish, which might be the reason I like it so much.

The ingredients of bun cha come on different plates and add up to an insanely tasty composition that is simultaneously savory and sweet, and just the right amount of filling for a hot Saigonese day.

Ordering bun cha, you will be served a plate of fresh noodles, a plate of herbs and fresh salad, and a bowl of grilled pieces of pork, pork patties and some vegetables that are swimming in a sweet and sour sauce that – and this is important – is not a soup.

A bowl of bun cha at Bun Cha Hanoi. Photo: Nadine Wolter
A bowl of bun cha at Bun Cha Hanoi. Photo: Nadine Wolter

Along with the dish comes another bowl, in which the ingredients can be mixed with each other. Putting the noodles and the garnish into the sauce and eat it right away seems to be an easier and also legitimate option to enjoy your bun cha.

Originally being from Hanoi, decent bun cha can also be found in Saigon. If you don’t mind waiting for at least have an hour for a table you can have your bun cha at bun cha 145 Bùi Viện in District 1 which is rated quiet positive on Tripadvisor.

A more relaxed option is Bun Cha Hanoi, at 135 Vo Van Tan, District 3, where bun cha is just as tasty plus you won’t have to line up for table. It will cost you about VND45,000 (roughly US$2)

2. Vegan food

After spending my first days in Saigon, I was surprised by how meat-based the Vietnamese diet was. Regardless if it was for lunch, dinner or breakfast, every dish I tried contained pork, crab, beef or a combination of them.

Saigon, however, also provides some delicious vegan restaurants. A good option for vegan food with reasonable prices is Hoa Thien - Am Thuc Chay at 1M Ba Trieu, in District 5, where you can choose from various options of sauteed, grilled, fried and deep-fried vegetables that are a accompanied by rice, a soup and an iced tea for VND20,000.

Hoa Thien Am Thuc Chay offers various kinds of vegetables. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele
Hoa Thien Am Thuc Chay offers various kinds of vegetables. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele

The restaurant offers a wide range of vegetables and I still haven’t figured out what some of them they are. However, as everything here is fresh, well spiced and tasty, it doesn’t matter if you are not fully aware of what kinds of vegetable you are exactly eating.

3. Banh mi

According to TIME magazine, banh mi has already been “America’s Hottest Sandwich” last year.

Since this food trend unfortunately hasn’t arrived in Europe yet, I had to make sure to eat as many of those delicious Vietnamese sandwiches as I could before returning home. What makes banh mi so popular among Western tourists is probably that its ingredients are not really exotic to expats, but the combination of them is.

Different banh mi’s from Banh Mì Anh Phan. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele
Different banh mi’s from Banh Mì Anh Phan. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele

During my stay in Saigon, I had banh mi at least two times a week and tried different places. Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng, District 1) seems to be very popular among locals as well as expats, its banh mi costs about VND36,000 and is a little more expensive than in other places.

The banh mi at Banh Mi Huynh Hoa is topped with numerous kinds of cold cut meat which may justify its price, but were a little too much for my taste.

I preferred the chicken banh mi at Banh Mi Hong Hoa (62 Nguyen Van Trang, District 1) or the chicken banh mi at Banh Mi Anh Phan (145 Cong Quynh District 1) who also serves tasty vegetarian and other kinds of banh mi for around VND20,000.

4.  Banh tam bi

The following recommendation is something that especially coconut-lovers will enjoy: Banh tam bi.

It is a dish from the south of Vietnam and at first glance could basically be described as coconut-based pasta garnished with pork and herbs.

The first time I tried banh tam bi was in District 1 at banh tam bi To Chau (271 Nguyen Trai). A sweet smell comparable to the one of cotton candy combined with coconut lured us into this small restaurant, where we ordered the dish that seemed to be the source of this mouthwatering odor.

A plate of banh tam bi from Banh Tam Bi To Chau. Photo: Nadine Wolter
A plate of banh tam bi from Banh Tam Bi To Chau. Photo: Nadine Wolter

It turned out that it wasn’t the source of it, but still, or portion banh tam bi was delicious.

The dish consists of thick noodles that even chopstick-beginners can easily pick up. The noodles are garnished with thin strips of pork and shredded pork skin, vegetables such as cucumber or bean sprouts and chopped fresh herbs.

Most significantly, a reasonable amount of sweet coconut-sauce and fish sauce is poured over the dish giving it a sweet taste that is freshened up by the herbs. The freshness and sweetness of this still also kind of savory dish made it one of my favorite foods in Vietnam.

5. Vietnamese fries

I am from Germany and if there is one stereotype that is actually true about us than it is the one that Germans love potatoes. We just love them.

Therefore, I was thrilled when I had my first portion of deep fried wedges of khoai lang, which translates to purple yam in English.

Yam’s taste is to a certain degree comparable to the one of sweet potatoes, even though the two plants are not related. Yet its structure is more firm and similar to the one of waxy potatoes.

The food stall Khoai Lang Lac Xi Muoi offers delicious wedges of deep fried yam. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele
The food stall Khoai Lang Lac Xi Muoi offers delicious wedges of deep fried yam. Photo: Johannes Christian Karl Thiele

My first deep fried wedges of yam at Khoai Lang Lac Xi Muoi (7 Nguyen Thuong Hien in District 3) were so good and surprised me with a delicious sweet and saltish seasoning that I returned there frequently to enjoy a little snack in the evening for VND20,000 VND.

While the outside of the deep-fried wedges is crispy and well fried, the wedges are cut big enough so that the inside of the yam is merely well cooked, but not soaked in with frying fat.

6. Com tam – a dish I felt sorry for

Com Tam is insanely popular among the Saigoneers and people seem to be really proud of what is more or less a local specialty in Saigon.

The broken rice dish, however, did not convince me. I tried it several times and can say that the pork chop was always extraordinarily marinated.

Apart from that the com tam dishes I had usually were a combination of steamed egg cake, pickled vegetables, garlic chive oil, a fried egg – and most important: broken rice which to me didn’t taste any different than any other rice.

Com tam is not bad, it is just not as good as other food I had in Saigon.

A dish of com tam. Photo: Son Luong
A dish of com tam. Photo: Son Luong

As you have to try and cannot miss all the com tam stalls wandering around in Saigon, I decided to still include it this guide, even though it did not leave an impression on me.

Com Tam Cali is a chain that offers different versions of com tam for about VND60,00-80,000.

At the food stalls you will get com tam or com tam dem, as the late night version it the broken rice dish is called, for around VND20,000.

Nadine Wolter / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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