Com Ga Hai Nam
67 Le Thi Hong Gam, Q1
This chicken rice joint isn’t exactly a secret — somehow it’s got itself into the tourist guidebooks — and yet when it comes to Hainanese chicken rice, the most famous export from the island located in the Gulf of Tonkin, this joint excels. Give me a plate of rice with boiled chicken and char sieu (xa xiu) pork and my stomach is purring for days. The chicken is tender and rich, the pork sweet and yet not overwhelming, the rice flavoursome from being cooked in chicken stock, the dipping sauces a perfect match for the moreish fare. Best, it costs under VND50,000 a go.
Yet Singaporeans, those people from the land that has adopted chicken rice as their national dish, don’t seem to like this place. “The chicken rice is really poor,” said one after I mentioned the eatery to them in a bar. Another agreed. I was surprised.
The problem is that Com Ga Hai Nam unashamedly state they do their chicken rice Singaporean-style. Yet they don’t. Like almost every imported streetfood dish, the fare has been adapted to the local palate.
Perhaps the reason for the claim is to distinguish themselves from other versions of chicken rice found in Vietnam — com ga from Hoi An and com ga from Tam Ky, two towns in Quang Nam that have taken this dish imported by seafaring Chinese merchants and adapted it to taste. In that sense this joint is certainly different. Yet, whatever the Singaporeans say, I love this place.
There are other dishes on the menu, too. Roasted pork and duck plus a whole host of Chinese and Vietnamese staples. But come rain or deadly Saigon shine, it’s the chicken rice that I always end up coming back for. — Nick Ross
Bun Thit Nuong Chi Tuyen
195 Co Giang, Q1
The sheer size of the dish means I can never finish a bowl of bun thit nuong at this place. It’s a big bowl of noodles, grilled pork, stir-fried pork, deep fried spring rolls, pickles and vegetables. The lean pork is marinated with the right amount of spices and then grilled well enough to get the brownish colour and smoky aroma. The spring rolls contain ground pork, shredded jicama, wood ear mushrooms and mung beans, creating a perfect mixed taste. The dipping sauce is made from exact portions of ingredients to match the right sweetness, sourness and saltiness. No wonder it costs VND45,000 per bowl.
If your stomach still has space, steamed banh mi with stir-fried beef would be another good choice. It comes served with a tray of lettuce, cucumber and some herbs used to cover the banh mi and the beef, which you then dip in the sauce. This is also priced at VND45,000 per plate.
Lots of places serve up bun thit nuong in this city, but Chi Tuyen is one of the best. — Vu Ha Kim Vy
Viet Chay Restaurant
Vinh Nghiem Pagoda, 339 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q3
Being set inside one of Saigon’s most famous landmarks doesn’t really make Viet Chay a secret hideaway. Yet, the never-ending stream of tourists entering the courtyard hardly stop by. Most head to the statue of Quan Am, the Goddess of Mercy, to say their prayers, while others take a selfie in front of the pagoda or the standard postcard shot.
Yet if you venture to the left of Quan Am, past a large tree, you arrive at one of the best vegetarian restaurants in town. With only three tables outdoors you’d better be early. Otherwise you’ll be sitting inside.
This is Viet Chay, vegetarian eatery, a place I go for breakfast. They have two options daily and every day they rotate the menu. How about a bowl of mi quang or bun bo Hue? Come on Sunday morning and you can get both, served with complimentary tea. I recommend the hot version, tra nong. Brewed with tea leaves from the north and occasionally mixed with ginger, a mug goes down fast.
Sit and enjoy the view. Watch Saigon’s best-fed pigeons wobble around. So used to the traffic, they don’t even bother to lift their wings when motorbikes arrive, only quicken their pace a bit. Filter out the traffic noises from the road and you can listen to the monks; their daily morning chants can be heard all the way to your breakfast table. A pleasant, tasty and healthy way to start the day. — Mads Monsen
Bun Mam Phan Boi Chau
22 Phan Boi Chau, Q1
Located opposite the East Gate of Ben Thanh Market, this place has been running for more than 40 years. Although it’s quite pricy (VND65,000 per bowl), the joint has been my favourite option for bun mam since the day I first found it.
A bowl contains a combination of ingredients including rice noodles, shrimp, fish slices, roasted pork and fish cake, yet while normal bun mam is pungent and unappealing, here it’s surprisingly aromatic. The reason, according to the owner, is the use of fresh, quality ingredients — this gets rid of the fishy smell. Add some bitter herbs and vegetables to boost the combination of bitterness and sweetness from the fish paste, and you have heaven in a bowl. The charm of bun mam is this combination sweet and bitter — the broth is the vital element of the dish.
Apart from bun mam, the place also serves up banh canh cua (crab tapioca noodle soup), fresh spring rolls, papaya salad, and lotus stem salad. All highly recommended. — Vu Ha Kim Vy
Pagoda Mi Quang
Chua T.T. An Hoa, Cnr. Quoc Huong and Duong 65, Thao Dien, Q2
Next to the pagoda on Quoc Huong in District 2 is a little, chicken-wire windowed joint that serves up bun bo Hue on plastic tables atop a concrete floor. But it’s not the bun bo I go there for, which is probably the best you’ll get in Thao Dien, but the mi quang, which is sublime.
The problem with the mi quang is how quickly it sells out. Get there by 8am and it will all be gone, by 7.30am and you’ll be just about okay. That’s how popular this Quang Nam, thick yellow noodle dish is at this eatery. Served up with pork, shrimp, cha, rice crackers, peanuts, chopped spring onions, a mixture of white and yellow noodles and that to-die-for spicy sauce that is the making of every good mi quang, for me it’s the best version available in Saigon. It only costs VND25,000 a bowl as well (including free iced tea), not bad for probably the wealthiest area in the city.
What I also love about this eatery is how clean it is. Walk in and it looks like every other streetfood joint in this country — basic with its silver stools and plastic tables. Yet, look closely and the place is spotless and well-organised. When I eat streetfood, I always look for three things; taste, cleanliness and price. This place ticks all the boxes and more. — Nick Ross
168/45 Nguyen Cu Trinh, Q1
Tucked in an alley on Nguyen Cu Trinh, Oc Muoi has been my favourite seafood place for many years. Set up outside under the porch roof with plastic stools and tables, the place has a wide range of snails and shellfish displayed in stainless trays.
The most interesting thing about this place is that most dishes are priced at VND20,000. The portions, which could be stir-fried sweet snails with tamarind, grilled scallops with cheese or spicy steamed clams with lemongrass, are not big, but enough for two people. Crabs are also served for VND45,000 each with three options including stir-fried with tamarind, stir-fried with salt and chilli, and boiled. There is a bakery next door, where you can find hot breads to dip in the butter or tamarind sauce from the dishes.
Open from 11am to 9pm, the place is my top choice for seafood because of its cheapness and freshness. All snails and shellfish are purchased and sold on the same day. Crabs are kept alive and put in a big basin for clients to choose and decide how to have them cooked.
For enjoy this place best, order beer — a perfect complement to these salty and spicy dishes. It definitely brightens your day. — Vu Ha Kim Vy
Banh Mi Kebab
Banh Mi Nhu Lan, 50 Ham Nghi, Q1
Operating for over four decades, the 24-hour Banh Mi Nhu Lan isn't quite a secret. Located diagonally opposite the Bitexco Tower, it also boasts one of the best locations in town. However, there is one type of banh mi that this joint sells that is not only to die for — it’s my favourite snack food when I’ve got early evening hunger pangs — but is not so well known by its customers. Yes, it’s the infamous banh mi kebab.
The Vietnamese take on the Turkish kebab is hardly new to either Saigon or Hanoi. However, Nhu Lan’s version is certainly the tastiest I’ve come across. Barbecued on a spit, the pork here is fatty, tasty and succulent, without that feeling of being greasy. And added into a traditional banh mi with all the accoutrements — butter, pate, pickled carrot and radish, chilli, coriander and cucumber — the final version is just, well, moreish. It’s cheap, too — VND25,000 a go, VND35,000 if you add extra meat in there.
For a while Nhu Lan was actually serving up the humble kebab in its own, home-made flatbread. Toasted in a Breville, I loved it. But it seems the mainly Vietnamese customers didn’t, and on my last two visits I was told they didn’t sell the flatbread any more. Not to worry, though, the banh mi version tastes just as good. — Nick Ross