Oh, I sense a long post coming on here. But bear with me -- it's been nearly 2 months since I left Saigon and I feel the need to get my favorites to paper (er, blog) before the taste-memory brain cells start to go, so...
Bun Bo Thanh Noi Hue
There's a certain little place down a small alley near Ben Thanh market that serves a mean bowl of tasty bun cua (rice noodles and crab "paste" -- or crab ball -- soup). But I'm not going to toot it's horn here. Call me fussy, but if I grace a table at the same eatery every single Saturday and sometimes Sunday too, for 8 weeks straight, yet still can't elicit so much as a stone-faced nod, or even timely delivery of a packaged wet nap to wipe my grease-smeared mouth, then that's it -- I'm outta there!! Deliciousness is a top consideration, of course ... but a smidge of welcome doesn't hurt.
The gals waiting table at Bo Thanh Noi Hue deliver in the friendliness department, it's centrally located (a short stroll from Saigon's "Notre Dame" cathedral), and the bun cua is at least as tasty -- if not more so -- than the version served at that "other" place.
Served with a cute little straw basket of shredded lettuce, herbs, sprouts, and banana blossom, this bun cua features thick rice noodles, a notably shellfish-y broth, and a generous number of handformed crab meat balls -- tender and flavorful, not a rubbery puck among the bunch.
Other menu items worth sampling are the cha gio cua (crispy, admirably grease-free spring rolls packed with crab meat),served with the same dainty basket of greens 'n herbs, rice vermicelli, and a dipping sauce of fish sauce, sugar, and daikon radish).
The idea here is to alternately dip spring roll, bun, and greens. Or dip greens and bun together. Or pile it all into a bowl and add your dipping sauce. Essentially, this is a make-it-up-as-you-go-along affair.
BBTNH also offers a lovely plate of Hue-style banh (steamed rice flour "pancakes" with assorted -- usually fresh or dried shrimp-based -- fillings or toppings), meant to be lightly sprinkled with fish sauce.
Hue's most famous noodle soup export, bun bo Hue (rice noodle soup with beef bone) is also on the menu, and appeared to be a popular choice with other diners. Can't rate it though, as I was never able to tear myself away from the place's crustracean-centric dishes.
Find this long, narrow shack of an eatery at 47A Tran Cao Van, steps from the traffic circle. Early morning till about 1p, reopening in the late afternoon for the dinner hour.
If I'm basing a rating on customer service, Hong Hahn is tops. At least, it's the only place in Saigon where I've been thanked with a kiss on the cheek after just my second visit (probably a good thing, actually).
Luckily, smiles aren't the only worthwhile thing being dished up here. At 1pm on any given afternoon Hong Hanh is crowded and noisy, a crew of color-coordinated waitstaff (Saturday is black day, if I remember correcty) -- none of whom appear to be over the age of twelve -- bustling back and forth between tables and service counter.
What to order here? Judging from experience and observation, most everything. Unfortunately we were never able to plumb the depths of the menu, being unable to get past our obsession with Hong Hanh's banh cuon nong thit nuong (thin rolls of rice flour batter filled with herbs and pork), bun thit nuong (cool rice vermicelli topped with pork, peanuts, and assorted shredded veggies and herbs), and bahn canh cua (thick rice noodle soup with crab).
A nibble of Hong Hahn's homemade nem (sour pork sausage) helps stave off the hungries while awaiting a lunch order.
I'm a huge fan of banh cuon in any guise, but Hong Hanh's "grilled" pork version is simply exceptional. Each order is prepared to order, rather than being plucked from a pre-made pile.
The pork inside this rice roll isn't grilled at all, but rather roasted off-premises. With a heady aroma of cinammon and star anise, or maybe five-spice powder, this pig is lightly charred in spots, adding to its overall wonderful chew. It's encased in lettuce or basil leaves, depending on the day, before being rolled in its rice flour wrapper, and topped off with a few bean sprouts, daikon-carrot pickle, and fried shallot bits. The piece de resistance of this banh cuon is its dipping sauce: it's reddish brown, a bit sour (tamarind?), somewhat spicy, and chunky with little nubs of ground pork.
Our love affair with Hong Hanh's grilled/roasted pork banh cuon led us to the eatery's version of bun thit nuong, which is topped with the same smoky-spicy pig. The meat takes center stage here, but the pile of bean sprouts and shredded basil and lettuce at the bottom of this bowl of noodles, and the side of carrot-daikon pickle, are especially generously sized. Beware -- the chopped fresh red chilies gracing Hong Hanh's tables are incendiary.
A couple of weeks into our status as regulars, we were seduced -- by the fragrant clouds of steam wafting over from a neighboring table -- into giving Hong Hahn's banh cahn cua a try.
How can a broth be so distinctly porky, yet speak strongly of shellfish at the same time? It's a trick Hong Hahn's cook has mastered. In the beautiful bowl topside we have chopped pig (about 11 to 3 o'clock) and whole crab claws (6-10 o'clock). In between and around, there's thick, chewy rice noodles, chopped scallion green, fried shallots, and lots of Vietnam's prized black pepper. To add, youtiaow (deep-fried dough sticks) and lime juice -- along with, of course, fresh chilies from the table. It's an inspired combination. Youtiaow become broth-soaked sponges of lusciousness, noodles catch pork pieces en route to mouth, crab claws bob at the surface waiting to be plucked with a pair of chopsticks.
The downside: speaking from experience, it is impossible for one person to finish an order each of bun thit nuong, banh cahn, and banh cuon in one sitting.
We may have spent our last evening in Saigon at K Cafe -- but we ate our last Saigon lunch, a few hours before boarding the plane to KL, at Hong Hahn.
Experience the deliciousness at 17A Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street (second floor -- watch your head). Early morning to 1:30p (you might be pushing it if you arrive after 1), 3:30p till 9 or so.