|Al fresco: At Cua Vuon Tre, customers can dine in a serene garden.
Famous primarily for its seafood, Cua Vuon Tre has now added to its culinary reputation by extensively updating its menu. Hungry to sample the results, Xuan Hiep returns to this hidden gem of HCM City.
If you are heading to Tan Son Nhat Airport in HCM City and need a quick but delicious meal, Cua Vuon Tre is one of the best spots to enjoy traditional Vietnamese cuisine cooked in a creative way.
Located on a wide alley near the intersection of Hoang Van Thu and Phan Dinh Giot streets, the restaurant is only a five-minute drive from airport.
Hidden behind Quan Khu 7 (Military Zone 7) Stadium and opposite Hoang Van Thu Park, it is easy to get confused about the location, as there is another restaurant with a similar name nearby.
Cua (crab) Vuon Tre (bamboo garden) has delicious dishes, reasonable prices, attentive service and value for money.
The 700sq.m restaurant can seat 200 customers. Guests can sit outdoors in a spacious garden under leafy trees, a welcome escape from the hectic atmosphere on the main streets of Hoang Van Thu and Nam Ky Khoi Nghia.
For an additional charge, there are air-conditioned rooms with VIP service, but I prefer taking my meals al fresco.
The restaurant is justifiably famous for its crab dishes. They include cua rang tieu den (crabs roasted with black pepper), cua rang muoi ot (crabs roasted with chili salt) and cua hap nuoc dua (crabs steamed with coconut milk). Also on offer are cua hap bia (crabs steamed with beer) and cua rang me (crabs roasted with tamarind sauce).
The extensive menu include spring rolls, salads, vegetable dishes, noodles, and seafood, pork, duck and beef entrees.
As a regular customer, I often eat the seafood for which the restaurant is famous. But last week, I tried some new dishes on its updated menu.
Giang Thi Linh, 49, the restaurant's owner, recommended that I try dau hu sot bo bam (homemade tofu braised with chopped beef) at VND90,000 (US$4.5) for four people.
Time for tofu: Dau hu sot bo bam (homemade tofu braised with chopped beef) is one of the best new dishes at Cua Vuon Tre.
The fried tender tofu melted on my tongue even before I was able to take a bite.
Linh said that each piece of tofu should be eaten whole and not in small pieces.
"If you can use a chopstick to pick a full piece of tofu without breaking it, you are a real Vietnamese," she said.
The waitress told me that I should soak the tender tofu in the beef sauce so that it would taste better. And it did.
Curious about the dish's ingredients, I asked Linh if I could visit the kitchen to talk with the chef.
Nguyen Huu Loi, 36, who has 13 years of experience as a chef, told me that the dish needed spices to awaken the tastebuds of diners.
Loi uses green, not red, chilis, for flavour and aroma, and he also adds a little chili sauce and a few other spices and herbs.
Another dish I tried was ga dot ruou (flambeed chicken), which was VND340,000 or $16 per dish, which can serve four.
Goregeous garnish:Bo sot cay Han Quoc (braised beef Korean style) was presented with lettuce, tomatoes and beef shaped like a lovely red, green and yellow flower. — VNS Photos Xuan Hiep
The server poured rice liquor over the dish at a nearby table and lit it briefly in order to enhance the aroma. The chicken was delicious and the addition of green chilis and chili sauce made it even more mouthwatering.
Not yet full, we decided to order bo sot cay Han Quoc (braised beef in Korean style), for VND85,000 ($4) for four, which finally sated our appetite.
Like the other beef dish, the meat was tender and fresh. The beautiful presentation of lettuce and tomatoes was shaped like a lovely red, green and yellow flower.
A plate of fresh fruit, including pineapple, watermelon and guava, was a refreshing end to the meal.
The restaurant's 12 servers were very attentive, and the new menu was extensive. Although written in Vietnamese, it will soon be offered in English.
Before saying goodbye, I noticed that the owner Linh was putting even more plants in the garden to add to the delightfully cool "green zone" outside. — VNS
Cua Vuon Tre restaurant
Add: 2 Pho Quang, Ward 2, Tan Binh District, HCM City
Price Range: VND30,000-500,000
Dishes to try: ga dot ruou, dau hu sot bo bam, bo sot cay Han Quoc
Comments: Reasonable prices, nice atmosphere, delicious beef and seafood dishes