Editor’s note:This story by Ray Kuschert is about quán, a type of small food outlet which is very popular in Vietnam in general and in Ho Chi Minh City in particular. Kuschert has been living in Ho Chi Minh City for the past ten years.
Mention 'street food' to any traveler and people all over the world instantly turn their minds to the amazing, cheap, and available street food in Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City is the street food megacity of Vietnam with almost every type of Vietnamese food imaginable available around the city.
However, hidden within this gem is a secret superhero that has been feeding locals and tourists for generations.
|People eating bò né (Vietnamese-style beefsteak) at a quán in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Bong Mai / Tuoi Tre|
Often confused with street food, the small business known as a quán is the very heart and soul of culinary culture.
Such small food outlets specialize in one dish and are the places to go for a sit-down meal or takeaway food for the family. Ho Chi Minh City is best known for the thousands of quán selling cơm tấm (broken rice topped with grilled gribs) and phở (Vietnamese beef noodle soup).
|Phở dishes are displayed on the menu at a quán in Go Vap District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
It is difficult to set an exact English translation of quán. Whilst the best translation is 'shop,' they are not street food and not a restaurant.
The quán food outlet is actually more common and more popular than street food in Ho Chi Minh City, plus it offers good quality, low priced meals at any time of the day and night.
Unlike most street food vendors that operate during a set period of the day, the local quán will almost always trade from early morning, to serve breakfast, until late at night, and sometimes you will find them open 24 hours a day. They are reliable and efficient places to buy good quality, safe, and fast food.
Your choice of food in Ho Chi Minh City is not limited to local options such as com tam. It is quite easy to find food from the countryside and the north being sold in Ho Chi Minh City.
From bánh khọt (Vietnamese mini savory pancakes), a specialty of the neighboring city of Vung Tau, to bún bò Huế (Hue spicy beef noodle soup) from the central city of Hue, and the famous bún chả (rice noodles with barbecue pork) from Hanoi, are just a few of the specialty foods that are available in every street around Ho Chi Minh City, and are there to serve local people who eat these amazing dishes almost daily.
|A set of nem nướng Nha Trang' (Nha Trang-style grilled pork skewers) is served at a quán in District 10, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre|
I recall, fondly, my first visit to Ho Chi Minh City a decade ago. I was taken to eat pho at a quán in Go Vap District. It was a hot morning and the sun was beaming down on the roadway. We stopped our motorbike outside the small place with six tables inside and two on the street. As I entered the shop, my Vietnamese friend asked if I wanted raw or cooked beef. In my confusion I had no reply, so she ordered for me. Then we sat at a table that had just been vacated by a family.
Within 90 seconds, a lady had removed all the dirty dishes, cleaned the table, restocked the bowl of fresh herbs and salad, and our steaming hot bowls of phở had arrived at the table. I was in a state of shock as I watched the operation work so fast and so efficiently. For the same food in my home country, I would expect to wait five to ten minutes for it to arrive. I probably would have cleaned the table myself.
|A bowl of phở is ready to serve at a quán in District 12, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Dong Nguyen / Tuoi Tre News|
This is the true meaning of fast food. Whether it is bánh xèo (Vietnamese savory crepe), phở, cơm tấm or any other Vietnamese dish, the speed at which food is delivered at a quán is equally as important as the freshness and taste.
The online world is awash with videos speculating on 'Street Food in Ho Chi Minh City versus the Fast-Food Industry.' The global giants of the fast-food industry have struggled for years to gain a major share in the local food market. Some believe their two biggest assets, speed and taste, are no match to the street food available in Vietnam.
It is the quán food service that is the real superhero in this area. Food that takes hours to prepare is on your table in minutes, sometimes seconds, of you entering the quán food store. This is real fast food.
|A woman prepares orders for customers at a chè (sweet dessert) quán in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Bong Mai / Tuoi Tre|
Just like street food options, the quán will also serve you from the street. All you do is ride up on your bike and place and order. Without even turning off your engine, the staff will present you with a total meal, in a carry bag, within a minute or two, and you are on your way home with a dinner for yourself or the family.
Home delivery services, also, have scored a major victory with the support of these local businesses. Whilst they offer delivery of all styles of food, the speed and cost difference between quán’sprepared food and the global competitors is obvious.
Drivers are in and out of the quán in a flash, having collected the meal, and are on the way to your home within minutes of you placing the order on an app. This is something that Western fast-food outlets are still struggling with in the local market, not to mention it is often more than 50 percent cheaper than many of those burger options.
|A delivery worker takes portions of frog porridge from a quán in Phu Nhuan District before bringing them to customers who placed orders through app-based services in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Bong Mai / Tuoi Tre|
There can be no faster service anywhere in the world, not even the American drive-thru can offer this speed.
In Western countries, the speed of fast food is usually measured in minutes. A drive-thru restaurant may aim to serve you within five to seven minutes, a pizza restaurant will cook your pizza in as little as 15 minutes or the local Thai or Indian takeaway will be happy to get your food to you in about 20 minutes, if you wait at the store.
Add another 15 to 20 minutes to your wait time if you are using a food delivery service and it's clear that the definition of fast food in most Western countries is 30 minutes to an hour from ordering to eating.
The quán is the real superhero in the fabric of Vietnamese cuisine. Cooks start their day well before sunrise to prepare the perfect tasting food that allows people to stop for breakfast, lunch, dinner or something in between, and every time they get a fresh and delicious meal at a fraction of the cost of Western fast food.
But more so, every quán is an experience, with food that is made with love and holds the reputation of an entire family or village on its quality and taste.
|People eat noodles at a quán in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Quang Dinh / Tuoi Tre|
I have been eating at quán for the past 10 years or more and never once gave them a passing thought.
It is common to see whole families buy a morning breakfast at the same location five or six days a week. People eat this food daily because it is often cheaper than cooking at home.
They are not street food vendors and they are not restaurants. They are like being invited into the family home for a meal made with passion that will put a smile on your face and have you coming back again and again.