The Dish on Saigon
Pho is rightly regarded as the national dish of Vietnam, but there are plenty of mouthwatering alternatives to be found in Saigon's no-frills restaurants and markets. Here's where to experiment.
Banh Cuon Tay Ho has metal tables and plastic stools, so it's not the atmosphere that packs them in every morning. Rather, it's the outstanding steamed rice crepes filled with ground pork and minced wood-ear mushrooms—a breakfast favorite that's served all day. These melt-in-your-mouth rolls, called banh cuon, are topped with crunchy fried shallots, sliced fresh basil, and steamed mung beans; they're served with little bowls of nuoc mam (fish sauce) for dipping. For the full spread, order banh dau (sweet, dense mung-bean cakes) and gio cha (pork sausage) on the side. Seats near the front offer prime viewing of the mesmerizing crepe-making process, during which the cook somehow manages to lift virtually transparent circles of dough off of a hot griddle with a wooden wand—while perched on a stool that's almost on the sidewalk. It's a five-minute walk from here to the Emperor Jade Pagoda. Banh Cuon Tay Ho 127 Dinh Tien Hoang, District 1, 011-84/8-3820-0584, four banh cuon 75¢, all three dishes $1.75.
Duong Tan Hoai, the owner of Quan An Ngon had a brilliant idea: He searched the city for the best street-food chefs, bought an old colonial villa across from the Reunification Palace, and set up an airy, pleasant restaurant with heavy wooden tables, ochre-colored walls, and a timbered roof. Meals are prepared at 19 stalls scattered around the perimeter of a red-tiled terrace, giving diners a live cooking show at every meal. The atmosphere is chaotic and there's always a wait, but once guests are seated, cooled by fans spritzing water, it's easy to sit back and enjoy a nice, long meal. Everything here is delicious, but don't miss the chao tom (shrimp paste on sugar cane), the extraordinarily tender muc nuong muo ot (grilled squid served with chilies and salt), and the che chuoi chung (banana, peanuts, and coconut milk) for dessert. Quan An Ngon 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St., District 1, 011-84/8-3825-7179, entrées from $2.
Thanh Binh restaurant's expansive pictorial menu ranges from simple noodle dishes like bun thit nuong (with pork) and bun nam bun bo (with grilled beef) to delicacies such as oc nhoi thit, snail shells stuffed with minced pork and lemongrass. The gigantic prawns displayed at the entrance are testaments to the restaurant's excellent seafood. The banh canh cua—soup served with fat, spaghetti-like tapioca noodles, meaty crab claws, and a plate of fresh herbs—is out of this world. The metal tabletops, plastic stools, and tile floor don't set Thanh Binh apart from most local restaurants, but the food is fancier and a tad more expensive, drawing Vietnamese professionals at lunch and middle-class families for dinner and on weekends. Thanh Binh 140 Le Thanh Ton St., District 1, 011-84/8-3823-2412, banh canh cua $3.50.
Saigon's nightlife is heating up, thanks in no small part to Quan Nuong, located on a covered rooftop terrace with bamboo chairs and red silk lanterns in the Dong Khoi Street shopping district. The thick layer of smoke that hangs over the place isn't from too much partying—it's from the sizzling, dome-shaped gas grills embedded in every table. Large groups of trendy 20- and 30-somethings come here to drink locally brewed Saigon Beer and cook their dinners to perfection: beef marinated in lemongrass and chilies, wild boar and roasted deer, squid and eel. Not for the faint-of-heart, but truly exquisite, are the skewered prawns, which are still alive when they come to the table ready to be grilled. Note: It's essential to call ahead and reserve here. Quan Nuong 29-31 Ton That Thiep St., District 1, 011-84/90-835-7530, plates from $5.
Vietnamese markets serve freshly made meals from breakfast through lunch and are a great way to try authentic local cuisine at rock-bottom prices. There are dozens of food stalls to try at the immense Binh Tay Market in Cholon, Saigon's Chinatown, a 20-minute cab ride from District 1, which keeps some tourists at bay (unlike the more central and overwhelmed Ben Thanh market). Rows of vendors cook their wares behind communal counters with wobbly plastic chairs. Though you'll be sweating and sitting with your knees under your chin, the hardships are worth it. The market is located in District 6.
Stall 6 (labeled 'Sap 6') at Binh Tay Market is run by an older lady who makes a mean bun thit nuong, a staple of the southern Vietnamese diet. Skewers of minced pork are grilled on the spot, then served over steamed rice noodles, fresh basil and mint, shredded cucumber and carrot, bits of lettuce, and chopped peanuts. Fish sauce and chopped chilies sit at the bottom of the bowl, so it's essential to mix the whole thing up with chopsticks before diving into the complex flavors, which are sweet, tangy, and fragrant. Pieces of deep-fried spring rolls (nem) can also be added for extra crunch. Stall 6, $1.50.
It's all about sweet treats at Binh Tay Market's Stall 36: luscious sinh to (fresh fruit smoothies blended with condensed milk) and che (dessert soup made with coconut milk and ice). Any of the displayed fruit in the glass case can be used in a sinh to, including pineapples and mangoes, and more unusual options like avocados and soursops. The bowls filled with bits of colored jellies and beans are for the che; flavors include glutinous rice, kidney beans, black-eyed peas, lotus seeds, dried fruit, and strings of seaweed. To sample them all, ask for a che thap cam. A spoon and a straw are used to mix, slurp, and scoop up every last bit. Stall 36, fruit smoothie or che 75¢.