Viet Nam News
A newly opened restaurant in the capital city is an optimal place to enjoy signature specialties of the south, Hồng Vân finds
It is not unusual that when you reside in one part of the country, you miss food from another part, not because you are homesick, but because you just do.
So it happened that my friends and I were talking about food last week, and we developed this craving for a few southern delicacies.
Fortunately, we also found a good place to satisfy them. Món Ngon Sài Thành (Saigon City’s Delicacies) is a restaurant newly opened in Hà Nội that offers an adequate range of southern food, including appetizers, main courses, grilled dishes and the indispensable hotpot.
The six of us started off with gỏi ngũ sắc Nam Bộ (five-colour salad made in southern style), which turned out to be a really good choice. The gỏi was delicately placed on five banana flower petals with a bowl of dipping sauce in the centre. We felt the sauce was unnecessary as the salad was perfectly seasoned – combining sweetness, sourness, saltiness and a bit of spiciness in just the right proportion.
The five petals featured gỏi with five different ingredients but similar composition – a main vegetable or fruit (red onion, carrot, cucumber or green mango) a different meat (squid, chicken or beef) and aromatic herbs.
Signature dish: Bánh xèo features a big crepe with bean sprouts, shrimp and pork, different herbs as well as a bowl of dipping sauce that blends perfectly.
I am an unabashed fan of bánh xèo, the crispy thin crêpe with a filling of bean sprouts and meat that is typically wrapped in mustard greens and other leaves. I have tried this many times in a restaurant chain famous for serving authentic traditional Vietnamese cuisine from all parts of the country, and enjoyed it each time, but I was not going to pass up an opportunity here, in a restaurant dedicated to food from the south.
It was superb, and seemed to be the restaurant’s signature dish. One of my friends complained that there were fewer shrimps and pork in the bánh xèo than served in the famous restaurant chain mentioned above, but I was not complaining one bit. The best part of the dish in this eatery was the dipping sauce, I felt.
As noted briefly earlier, this dish can be savoured in full only by following certain steps in sequence. Take a piece of crêpe with a few herbs, roll it into a bigger leaf or rice wrapper, and finally dip this in the sauce. As you bite into this, you can hear the cracking sound of crisp bánh xèo and taste the freshness of herbs and leaves and enjoy the harmony as they blend with the dipping sauce to leave your palate tingling, your nose inhaling the aroma. A feast for the senses, indeed.
Another thing that the southern region is famous for is the profusion of dishes made with snakehead fish, which is steamed, braised or grilled.
Done just right: The kèo fish, skillfully grilled.
We tried the cá lóc nướng trui, grilled snakehead. The fish was much bigger than we expected, served with a dark brown soya sauce and a light brownish yellow garlicky fish sauce, some fresh rice vermicelli, sliced cucumber and a mix of different herbs. Something similar to a bánh xèo experience happened. We wrapped a piece of fish, some vermicelli and herbs in rice paper and dipped it in either fish or soya sauce.
Under the dark skin, the white flesh was tender, succulent and sweet. While the fish sauce was almost exactly the same as the one served with bánh xèo, the soy sauce was a bit too thick and salty,
Big fish, small fish
Though the fish was grilled, its flesh was soft, fatty and not dry at all. It was worth the waiting and truly a delicacy.
After the big portion of grilled snakehead fish, we felt we could eat some more, so an order of grilled kèo fish, which was thumb-sized creatures, duly arrived at the table. The fish was skillfully cooked. The skin was crisp, the flesh tender, and the best part, there were no bones to pick because you could crunch and actually eat them.
Grilled chicken southern style was another top pick at this restaurant. The same formula applied: thin and crisp skin, tender flesh and the aroma of seasonings. The dark brown sauce, made with soy sauce and braised onions, was a great accompaniment to the chicken, which was served with baguettes and several herbs.
Green and crisp: Stir fried chives with shrimp.
Being a party of six is great because of the number of dishes you can try. A plate of bông hẹ xào tôm (chives flowers stir-fried with shrimp) would balance the meal a bit, we thought, because all the dishes had been heavy on the meat. The stir fried veggies retained the green of fresh vegetables, despite being stir-fried with soy sauce and garlic. This dish is nicely paired with rice.
We concluded this gourmet session with sweet tapioca desserts, a must-try at this restaurant. I tried the chè bà ba which is coconut milk with green beans, taro and sweet potato. My friends went for chè sầu riêng (durian sweet pudding). Both dishes received our collective thumbs up.
The restaurant opened on Huỳnh Thúc Kháng Street early last week. It is a three-storied affair that can seat up to 300 diners. People can sit around a long table to dine family style or reserve the private room for a group of six. The first floor has an open space where cooks prepare their ingredients.
Of course, this eatery is not the only one to offer southern food in the capital city. One can find juicy bánh xèo in old quarter’s Hàng Bồ Street, hủ tiếu (rice noodle soup of the south) on Mai Hắc Đế Street or a southern hotpot on Văn Cao Street.
However, I would say that this one is an optimum choice for trying many southern specialties that are cooked and presented well.
Besides the signature dishes of the south, the restaurant also offers other popular dishes like chicken soup with mushrooms or a seafood hotpot.
But, at this point, I would recommend the place highly for its southern dishes. I would also recommend that you go in a group so that you are ‘spoilt for choice.’
Gỏi ngũ sắc Nam Bộ (Southern five-coloured salad) VNĐ185,000 (US$8)
Bánh xèo tôm thịt (Vietnamese sizzling crepe with shrimps and pork) VNĐ68,000 ($3)
Cá lóc nướng trui (Grilled snakehead fish) VNĐ299,000 ($13)
Cá kèo nướng (Grilled kèo fish) VNĐ125,000 ($5)
Bông hẹ xào tôm (Chives flowers stir-fried with shrimp) VNĐ145,000 ($6)
Chè bà ba VNĐ24,000 ($1)