An Introduction To Dining In Saigon
The dining scene in Saigon has changed dramatically since I returned in 2017 to open Anan Saigon. The name of the restaurant means “eat, eat” in Vietnamese. Modern Vietnamese bar Nhau Nhau – which means “drink, drink” – came in the following year. I think most people still view Vietnam through the lens of the old colonial charms of Hanoi and Hoi An. No doubt these cities offer centuries-old architecture, a rich culture and good traditional Vietnamese food. But if you want to experience the new Vietnam, come to Saigon. This dynamic city is the culinary capital of Vietnam where you can get anything and everything at any hour of the day. It’s where you can experience amazing local street food and snail restaurants, but also international flavours such as traditional French (Restaurant La Villa, Cocotte, Hervé Dining Room, P’ti Saigon and Le Corto), Italian (The Tevere and Opera Ristorante), Australian and Mediterranean wood-fire grill (Quince and Stoker) and Latin (Sol Kitchen & Bar, Octo, Tomatito and Iberico). There’s also world-class, single-origin chocolate from Vietnam to experience (Maison Marou Saigon) and a bustling café and brunch culture (CTY, Paper & I, Lacàph, Godmother and Rang Rang).
A New Generation Of Vietnamese Chefs
Some of the new generation of Vietnamese chefs to watch include chef Thuan at Esta, chef Vinh Q. Le at seafood-driven restaurant Ngọc Sương, Master Chef Vietnam’s Harold Ngo at the The Ox Not Only Ox and Top Chef Việtnam’s Võ Thành Vương at Coco Dining. Restaurant Nous – headed by owner Daniel Nguyen and a group of local chefs – brings private dining to Saigon with a curated tasting menu in an intimate eight-seater space, and is an address worth a mention in this regard. In Hanoi, chef Tung at Tung Dining is also doing interesting things with food inspired by Nordic fine-dining.
My Favourite Bowl of Pho
Pho can be a very personal thing and everyone has their preference and a specific pho shop where they go regularly. Classic old school pho joints such as Pho Le and Pho Pasteur are personal favourites for a big bowl of everything in Saigon-style pho. My current favourite is Pho Bo Phu Gia, a small shop that opens only for a few hours in the morning. It serves Hanoi-style pho where the beef is sautéed with garlic, then poured on top of the pho bowl and garnished with a massive amount of spring onions. It’s not your usual bowl of pho but it’s flavourful and damn satisfying. Most people go for the beef and often overlook the pho ga (chicken pho) which is also delicious and comforting. Pho Ha is my go-to chicken pho joint, partly because it’s within walking distance from my restaurant, and partly because it’s open until 4am, so it’s a great place for late-night cravings.
A Lesson in Banh Mi
Similar to Pho, there are regional variations to banh mi (the three major ones being northern, central and southern). The Hanoi banh mi is more of a simple, charcuterie-driven affair that relies heavily on the quality of the pâté and [pork] cold cuts – such as steamed pork and cinnamon pork – usually made in-house. The best Hanoi banh mi is served in charcuterie shops, where customers come for the cold cuts as much as they do for a banh mi sandwich. The Hoian banh mi, made famous by the late Anthony Bourdain, is more of a hot sandwich than the typical, cold cut banh mis.
The classic Saigon version is stuffed to the gills with as many cold cuts as possible and seasoned with everything from mayonnaise, Maggie sauce and chilli to cucumber, pickled vegetables, fresh herbs and [lots of] spring onion. The granddaddy of Saigon-style banh mi can be found at Bánh Mì Huynh Hoa. After many years of operating out of just one shop, it has expanded to open a new store this year. The price has increased from 33,000 VND to 58,000 VND (about 2.5 USD which is still much cheaper than Anan Saigon’s infamous $100 banh mi). It is probably still the most expensive local version in Vietnam, but well worth it for the monstrosity of a sandwich, stuffed with 10 different pork charcuterie products. The Saigonese are like the New Yorkers – they like things big! The experience of a Saigon banh mi from Huynh Hoa reminds me of the pastrami sandwich I had at Katz’s deli when I was living in NYC.
These days, I gravitate towards the old taste of banh mi Hanoi in Saigon, Minh Chau‘s sausage shop on Ly Tu Trong Street (District 01) has a long family history of making charcuterie. I order the simplest form of the sandwich, the banh mi cha lua, so that I can enjoy the pure taste of the bread and the cha lua pork sausage – without pâté, pickles, herbs or any other ingredient.
Cơm Tấm, The Quintessential Saigon Dish
Cơm tấm is a popular Vietnamese street food dish made from fractured rice grains. Rice is so important for the Vietnamese that there are specific words for different forms and variety of rice. For example, raw rice is called “gạo”, whereas cooked is called “cơm”. The word “cơm” is synonymous with “eating” in Vietnamese culture. When greeting a close friend or family member the Vietnamese often say: “ăn cơm chưa” which means “have you eaten?”
Cơm tấm originated from the Mekong Delta, the rice and agricultural basket of Southern Vietnam. “Tấm” refers to the broken rice grains. Broken rice fragments result from the rice handling process. These imperfect broken fragments were not saleable. Rather than throwing the broken rice out, the struggling farmers used it to make meals at home. Cơm tấm has evolved into a classic Saigon dish that must be experienced when visiting the city. Along with the banh xeo tacos and dalat pizza, the Anan cơm tấm pork chop has been on our menu from day one of opening five years ago. My favourite version of the dish is from local place Cơm Tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ. At 150,000 VND (about 6.5 USD), it’s quite pricey by local standards, but definitely worth it. The bone-in pork chop is triple the size of a normal local chop, marinated and grilled to perfection on the sidewalk, with a make-shift electric fan stoking the charcoal embers.
Barbecue and Beer, The Saigon Way
When friends from out-of-town visit, I like to take them to one of the city’s many large, loud and raucous barbecue and beer joints, like 5KU Station for do-it-yourself grilled meats and seafood. Visiting a snail restaurant, or “quan oc”, is a quintessential Saigon drinking and dining experience. We have a lot of them here in Saigon and they’re all named “Oc-” something, because that’s the Vietnamese word for snails and a broad term encompassing almost any creature with a shell. All offer seafood gathered from Vietnam’s abundant coastlines which can be ordered raw, grilled, steamed or stir-fried. These places offer a good time with friends, which encompasses a lot of eating and drinking in the Vietnamese nhau (Vietnamese term for “drinking with friends”) tradition. I recommend outdoor snail restaurant Oc Oanh. It’s a little bit out of the city centre (in District 8), but it’s worth the journey.
World-Class Japanese Cuisine
Due to the large number of Japanese expatriates and the strong cultural connection between Vietnam and Japan, Saigon has a thriving underground Japanese dining and drinking scene. I love Japanese food. My favourite Japanese restaurant in Saigon is Mangetsu, a hidden izakaya in the Japan Town area, full of Japanese expats and locals who know their stuff. I usually start with the house sake there – served in a wooden box and over-poured as a sign of generosity – and the braised pork belly with mustard and shredded leek, which is simply an amazing dish. Another address for a fun and easy night out is Pizza 4P’s, which makes Japanese fusion pizza with local cheese from the city of Dalat, my hometown located at 1,500m above sea level in the Central Highlands region.
Also worth checking out is Maguro Studio, fish butchery and contemporary omakase with Vietnamese fish imported from Miyagi and Fume which does Japanese fusion cuisine. Kiyota Sushi is a reasonably priced omakase. Sushi Rei (related to Sushi Masuda in Tokyo) is also worth it if you can afford the price tag that comes with quality seafood imported from Japan. Mutahiro is a 12-seat ramen joint hidden in Japan Town and offers one of the most delicious bowls of noodle soup available anywhere. It’s world-class ramen, right here in Saigon. For freshly-imported Japanese A5 Wagyu and premium BBQ experience, Yazawa is your place in Saigon, with branches in Singapore, Beverly Hills, Milan, Kyoto and Tokyo.
A Drink After a Long Shift
For late-night drinks I usually go to one of the local pubs near our restaurant for ice-cold beers and friendly staff, and to meet up with friends and local chefs who also come to relax after service. BOO SG is just down the street from Anan Saigon. It’s a bar founded and run by Vinh who has a following among the young, local bartenders, so you will find many of them there in the after hours. It’s an intimate bar – hidden up a flight of stairs – that focuses on classic cocktails with a twist, allowing you to choose between pure classic and fancy. They do a nice, classic whiskey highball which is usually my go-to drink after work.
Interesting Local Bartenders and Cocktail Bars
I am a fan of Dat Nguyen, the bartender at Yugen Bar who makes perfect cocktails – understated, precise and focused in a way that allows you to appreciate each individual ingredient with every sip. Vu Ngoc and the talented team at Doozy are shaking things up. The Studio Saigon, Summer Experiment, Snuffbox Speakeasy, N5, Dot Bar, Ministry of Men and Birdy are cool cocktail bars also worth checking out.
More Exciting Places To Grab a Drink
BEL is a newly-opened, all-day coffee and wine bar that combines the talents of coffee veterans Will Frith and Kel Norman, and sommelier Dan Sousanis. STIR is a hidden bar in an old building near Ben Thanh Market with friendly staff and cocktails inspired by Vietnamese street food. Madam Kew is a Chinoiserie-inspired cocktail bar and lounge above Quince Eatery run by chef Julien Perraudin. It’s a beautiful space and the drinks are great, but the flavourful and funky bar food by Chef Bao La is worth coming for alone.
The Women Leading the Industry
At Anan Saigon, I am constantly looking to recruit, train and nurture young women chefs to do my part in ending the stigma that our industry is more suitable for men than it is for women. In the past few years, I saw the emergence of a group of promising chefs who happen to be women, which bodes well for Vietnam’s gastronomic future. French-Vietnamese chef Thao Na helms the kitchen at Lavelle Library. Young chef Thao Le did her share of work in restaurants in Sydney before running the kitchen at seafood-focused restaurant Nage Eatery. Head chef Sam Tran at Gia Restaurant brings nearly 10 years of experience working in restaurants in Melbourne. Pâtissière Kasey Doan has reassembled a mostly female team of bakers and has resurrected Ivoire Pastry.
Portrait Photography: Courtesy of Wink Hotel Saigon
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