Tradition takes a stand in Royal City
|Royal ambition: The restaurant has an elegant atmosphere that belies its basement food court location.
In a city that's constantly changing, Quan An Ngon has earned a reputation for consistency. Does the new Vincom Royal City branch, set in the city's flashiest mall, hold up to its popular predecessors?
by Elisabeth Rosen
With four locations in the capital, Quan An Ngon has established itself as the Starbucks of Vietnamese restaurants: a place you go for what you know.
This is not a criticism. There's a reason you go to Starbucks, after all. In a country changing as rapidly as Viet Nam, where your favorite bun cha stall could be replaced by a luxury apartment complex overnight, there is something to be said for a place that guarantees consistent pleasure. You can always count on the restaurant's banh xeo, an immense, turmeric-stained sheet of crisp rice batter folded over plump shrimp, pork and crunchy bean sprouts, to be rolled into rice paper wrappers along with fresh herbs and a friendly smile.
As at Starbucks, you pay a slight premium for comfort and familiarity. Whether or not it's worth it, you can decide after a plate of banh cuon, tender pillows of rice flour stuffed with minced pork and wood-ear mushrooms, or bun cha, a sidewalk staple in which that rice flour and pork reappear once more in the form of meatballs and vermicelli. The polished setting is ideal for travellers who long to try the street food they've seen on Instagram but would prefer not to actually eat on the street. Outside Quan An Ngon, no one has ever asked me if I want my juice with ice.
At each new location, a few dishes make their way onto the vast menu. Beef grilled Nha Trang style is a new addition to the Quan An Ngon repertoire, but one that should stay. Tender hunks of meat, marbled with fat, are brushed with a mildly spicy marinade and grilled to a medium flush. The grilled bread on the side doesn't have much flavor on its own, but makes a filling accompaniment.
|Rice and shine:Crackers topped with a seafood stir-fry are far more decadent than the cardboard-textured staple found in supermarkets.
Com chay hai san is another well-conceived addition. Midway between a snack and a meal, it's the kind of thing you would want to eat late at night, if only the restaurant were open past 10pm. Don't confuse this com chay with the differently accented phrase that means vegetarian food. Here, it refers to broad rice crackers - not the dry, cardboard-textured staple of too many failed diets, but a thick collage of rice kernels fried in oil and topped with a raucous stir-fry of shrimp, onion, garlic, tomato and chili.
Other new specialties include Hue-style spring rolls and squid grilled with salt and green chili, though you're lucky if you can snag a plate of either. On a recent visit during dinner hour, the server returned apologizing profusely: the restaurant had run out of both dishes.
Pham Bich Hanh, who created the Quan An Ngon franchise, grew up behind the scenes of the food business. As a girl, Hanh was put to work cutting noodles in her grandmother's Gia Lam District pho joint; when she grew up, she determined (so the Quan An Ngon legend goes) to introduce traditional Vietnamese cuisine to the world. The success of the restaurant she opened on Phan Boi Chau Street might be due as much to the setting as the food. In the warmly lit outdoor courtyard, street dishes transform into elegant creations.
|All up in their grill:Tender beef grilled Nha Trang style is one of the best new dishes at the recently opened branch. — VNS Photos Elisabeth Rosen
Earlier this year, Hanh opened a third outpost on Phan Dinh Phung Street. (The second, in Cau Giay District, is unremarkable). Set in a painstakingly restored colonial villa, the Phan Dinh Phung branch has a more homey atmosphere than its predecessors. Here, in the basement of a shopping mall, Hanh had considerably less to work with.
Vincom Royal City is a peculiar temple to consumerism. The mall has the grandiosity of a Roman villa, if Caesar had been into kitschy plastic waterfalls and carp ponds. To reach Quan An Ngon, you have to walk along the twists and turns of "Food Street", which is more confusing to navigate than a Vietnamese alley and far more brightly lit. But despite the setting, the place feels surprisingly elegant, with gentle lighting and smooth bamboo tables that make you almost forget you're in a mall.
Here, as always, the focus is on street food, served on elegant, shareable plates. The one dish that caters to single diners is a spectacular fail. It's listed as a home-style plate of pork ribs with rice and vegetables, but the vegetable turns out to be bamboo shoots, which have a naturally sour taste that is not exactly crowd-pleasing, and the small pile of pork ribs contains more lemongrass than meat. It's an understandable failure. You don't go to Quan An Ngon to eat food you could cook at home. You go to eat food you wish you could cook at home: dishes that are familiar but still harbour a touch of the exotic. — VNS
Quan An Ngon (Royal City)
Address: Level B2, Vincom Royal City (72A Nguyen Trai)
Tel.: 091 599 92 47
Price Range: VND50,000 - VND150,000
Dishes to Try:Bo nuong Nha Trang, com chay hai san, banh xeo