Making amazing snails in District 1, Oc Huong Pho Mai
I've been eating myself silly the past 15 days -- I know, what's new. But no, this has been a really special kind of silly. The eating-my-way-through Vietnam kind of silly!
Well, to be more specific, not quite all of Vietnam, since an unexpected detour to Hong Kong for a roundtrip price of $150 proved too tempting to pass up, but for sure, through a majority of Ho Chi Minh City (a.k.a. Saigon).
There is a good reason why even hardened eaters like Anthony Bourdain have fallen so in love with the cuisine of Vietnam. It's fresh, vibrant, varied, and satisfying without feeling gluttonously heavy.
And, most often, it is cooked on the spot, right before your eyes, on the street, by someone who has been making that one particular dish over and over, for years, decades, quite possibly, generations.
Since Hua's father and uncles are locals, we had the benefit of zipping about on the back of their motorbikes (amongst the unimaginable number of other motorbikes on the road), being led by the nose to some of the most delicious food I have ever tasted.
That's a big statement, I know, but I stand by it. These local favorites are something special. Purveyors of food so good, so exciting, so complex in flavor yet simple in execution, I ate like I was starved (which is absurd because I don’t think I once felt the sensation of "hunger" the entire trip). I now pass this joy to you. Go seek these places/dishes out:
Cha Gue, Nen Nha Dat
Place: Nen Nha Dat
While I don't think this is the real "name" of this vendor, this is what the sign says above the storefront where this little set-up is situated.
Dish: Cha Gue (pronounced "chow gway")
Translation: Pan-fried Rice Flour Cake with Egg
Address: 91 Ha Ton Quyen (cross street: Tan Thanh) - P.15, Q.5
Awaiting Cha Gue
Located in District 5, sort of like the Chinatown of HCMC, Hua's dad took us here for a snack on Day 1. The bar was set high early.
The dish consisted of thick, rectangular pieces of pan-fried rice flour cake. The perfect golden crisp on the outside is beautifully offset by the smooth, supple texture on the inside.
When the rice cakes are nearing the end of their browning, an egg is cracked over them and the rich orange-hued yolk is broken. Throw a handful of minced green onion on the pan to warm through, and add bits of fried onion, fried pork skin (like little precious bits of chicharrones), and garlic. The dish is then served with a side of homemade pickled daikon and carrot slaw, and a savory dipping sauce of sweet soy sauce and a dollop of chili sauce.
Cha Gue, Nen Nha Dat
The Cha Gue, hot off the pan, had this corner bumpin', and even in the rain people were pulling up on their motorbikes and shouting their orders to-go from the street.
Apparently, business is so good that the owner doesn't want to grow his operations because he's afraid he wouldn't be able to handle the volume. Interesting how this kind of success would inspire a very different response back home, as I envisioned a fleet of Kogi taco trucks multiplying like rabbits in the streets of LA.
Wok-fried Snails, Oc Huong Pho Mai
Place: Oc Huong Pho Mai
Dish: Wok-fried Snails in a heavenly sauce
Address: 37/3 Nguyen Cauh Chan - Q.1
After day of shopping in Saigon Square we were carted off to rejuvenate ourselves with a little pre-dinner feast of the most amazing snails I've ever had.
I was skeptical as we turned onto a tiny, dimly-lit, nondescript, side-street. It would have been a little sketchy if it wasn't for the insanely cute kindergarten class that was being held a few doors down.
Cute kids near snails
The set up of the shop was typical -- a kitchen (comprised of a few burners and a grill) that spilled out from the ground floor of someone's home onto the street, a few small tables and chairs along the street, and an extra bonus here, a lady squeezing fresh sugarcane juice right across the street! It couldn't have been better.
Making fresh sugarcane juice
We over-ordered of course, and out came dishes of small snails, large snails, clams, crab, even balut!
For those unfamiliar, balut is a fertilized duck egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside that is boiled and then eaten out of the shell with a spoon. You heard right, a partial chick (please don't hate me). Since it was my first time trying this delicacy, I was advised not to look directly at it (kind of like that adage of not staring into the sun). The texture can be challenging if you're squeamish, and you can't help but look too closely, but the flavor was good. As expected, a combo of an egg and chicken, but all in one bite. A little dish of salt and pepper mixed with lemon juice added a nice kick of flavor, and of course, some herbage, coriander leaves.
That was probably the most exotic thing I tried on this trip, but the snails! Those may have been the best. Boiled first to cook through, then finished off in a wok, seared until some magical sauce evaporated and coated the shells.
The snails themselves were meaty and succulent, but the sauce, now that was truly extraordinary: a little creamy and cheesy, with a touch of sweetness, and a tinge of heat that played on our lips. It was caramelized into almost a crust on the shells. We unabashedly licked our fingers clean while still reaching for more. The flavor teased us as we chased after it, wanting to savor it, have more of it, freakin' bathe in it.
Hu Tiu Nam Vang, Tin Phuc
Place: Tin Phuc
Dish: Hu Tiu Nam Vang (pronounced "hoo tee-yoo nam vang")
Translation: Pork and Crab Noodle Soup
Address: 16 Duong Dinh Nghe (cross street: Cu Xa Binh Thoi) - P.8, Q.11
Tin Phuc is more of restaurant than actual street food, although, with its breezy architecture, you could technically drive right in if you really wanted to.
Regardless, it is delicious. Only one dish is served so you can't mess up the order: Hu Tiu Nam Vang. (In Cantonese we call it "gum been fun.") You can order it "dry" but the soup is so good that you probably won't want to.
Basically, hu tiu is a noodle soup similar to pho, but more seafood-based and with a light broth. Prior to this meal, I had never tasted it before, so I did some research on its origins. Vietnamese culinary expert Andrea Nguyen had much light to shed regarding this addictive dish. According to Andrea, "At its core, hu tieu signals a Chinese-Southeast Asian style noodle soup made with a pork bone broth and no fish sauce." But, there are many riffs on it, one of which is the Nam Vang style, "Nam Vang" being the Vietnamese word for Phnom Penh (the capital of Cambodia). Thus, Vietnam's proximity to Cambodia resulted in this Cambodian-Chinese concoction.
Tin Phuc's rendition of Hu Tiu Nam Vang is divine. The soup is phenomenal, sweet and rich, made from the stock of pork bones and crab shells. The angel-hair-thin opaque rice noodles have just the right amount of springy chew to them. And the toppings are generous portions of pork meat, tendon and heart, crab meat, and shrimp. Tear up handfuls of leafy Romaine, Chinese celery and flat Chinese chives, add some crunchy bean sprouts, a touch of chili pepper, and you good to go.
The result is soul-satisfying. Warm, comforting, full of umami, fresh and healthy feeling. I bet a bowl of this could cure a cold like nobody's business.
The best part? Lunch for 5 people here rolled up to a mere $9.75 USD.
Back in September, Thy Tran wrote a great article on Street Food Beyond Festivals in which she compares the young street food culture in the U.S. to other places where it has been "long embedded into their daily rhythms." Witnessing the street food culture of Saigon brought that alive for me. Daily rhythm is right, it seemed like everyone eats out all the time whether it’s having your morning coffee delivered to your front door from the coffee lady down the street, getting some fruit to-go from the number of fruit vendors rolling around, or popping a squat on a little plastic chair at a tea-party-sized table for dinner. Sure, the convenience, affordability, and quality of product are all great. But it is the daily human interaction, the chit chat, the sense of community that comes with it, that makes this daily rhythm so soothing.
Nen Nha Dat (for Cha Gue)
91 Ha Ton Quyen (cross street: Tan Thanh) - P.15, Q.5
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Oc Huong Pho Mai (for Snails)
37/3 Nguyen Cauh Chan - Q.1
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Tin Phuc (for Hu Tiu Nam Vang)
16 Duong Dinh Nghe (cross street: Cu Xa Binh Thoi) - P.8, Q.11
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam