Published on Sunday, 30 December 2018 11:00
Written by Saigoneer. Illustration by Hannah Hoang and Tammy Le.
As the planet-wide dumpster fire that was 2018 comes to a close, we’d like to take a moment to look back at the year in Hẻm Gems through our first-ever Golden Stool Awards. These will honor some of our favorite local eateries from the past 12 months across four categories: Best Vietnamese Food, Best Non-Vietnamese Food, Best Ambiance and Best Cafe/Bar. We’ll also take a moment to honor our favorite Hẻm Gems that were shuttered this year.
Each member of our writing staff will nominate one Hẻm Gem for each Golden Stool category, and we’ll share our thoughts on those choices, similar to our bánh mì roundtable from a few weeks ago. This probably won’t be as combative as that article though, as we all just love Hẻm Gems too much.
Without further ado, let’s get agreeable.
1. Best Vietnamese Food:
Mike Tatarski: I absolutely adore bánh căn, and whenever I go to Da Lat I make a beeline for my go-to spot there (1 Nha Chung Street, FYI). It’s a top-tier Vietnamese dish, but you’ll definitely never see it discussed with more famous dishes like phở or bánh mì, especially not by international media, and I get a smug sense of self-satisfaction simply by knowing about it.
I’ve had some so-so bánh căn in District 7 before, but Quan Co Quynh sounded like the real deal. Unfortunately the drive there — deep into northern District 10 amid evening rush hour — was absolutely hellacious, and reminded me of why I try to avoid that part of the city, but the food was really excellent, including a buttload of bánh bèo that we over-ordered. I would strongly advise against visiting this spot anywhere near rush hour, as Cach Mang Thang 8 Street is hell on earth, but otherwise it’s a must-try for fans of bánh căn.
Khoi Pham: I remember that trip and still have traumatic flashbacks from driving in between trucks on that tiny stretch of road. Alas, as non-District 10 residents, we have no way to avoid the exhaust-fume-in-your-face traffic, as Quan Co Quynh is only open from 4pm to 9pm. I still dream of those fluffy bánh căn sometimes, then shudder at the thought of having to make the commute and end up feeling dejected. It’s a vicious circle of bánh căn-addled depression.
My nomination for this category is also Quan Co Quynh’s bánh căn, which is as authentic as one can hope for in Saigon. Judging by the range of Da Lat-specific fare on offer here, like bún bò Đà Lạt, bánh ướt lòng gà and xấp xấp, it’s fair to say that the owner knows what they’re serving, which is not surprising considering she’s a Da Lat native.
Paul Christiansen: Mike and Khoi, I didn’t actually go to this specific spot but I do appreciate bánh căn quite a bit. What sticks out for me here though, is the quail eggs that this Da Lat version relies upon. What a delight! Quail eggs are not only horrendously overlooked in the west, but vastly superior to chicken or duck eggs, to say nothing of turkey. This Hẻm Gem makes me think though that perhaps we are not living up to our true egg consumption potential. Sure, we can order ostrich eggs in Saigon, but what about parrot or peacock? Why not penguin? And shouldn’t we expand our shell and yolk horizons to include turtle, crocodile and salamander? Bánh căn made with delicate salamander eggs…I’d brave District 10 rush-hour traffic for that.
Khoi: An ostrich egg bánh căn? Can we make this happen? The molds would have to be pot-sized, but think of the hundred-fold increase in deliciousness and the amazing feeling of dipping the behemoth morsel inside a bathtub of fish sauce and meatballs. I need a minute to calm myself down.
Mike: Hmm this sounds worrying for some potentially endangered animals. Have you ever heard of the hellbender salamander, or the many rare species of turtles? We shouldn’t be eating their eggs.
Paul: Yes, good point. I think we all support sustainable dining here at Saigoneer, which alas, means I’ll never get to savor a hummingbird omelet of any reasonable size.
I spent too many hours in my university days perfecting my rolling skills to let them go to waste, so I was quite pleased to find this make-your-own-bánh-cuốn place. While the humble spot doesn’t play the heady Niyorah reggae tunes or spacey Outkast tracks I associate with the nimble-fingered activity, it does offer other pleasures.
For example, each “wet paper” noodle is brought to your table on a separate plate, so when the meal is over and you’ve consumed all the self-assembled meat-mango-sauce morsels you can manage, you have a large stack of dishes as visible proof of all you’ve accomplished during your lunch hour, and you can feel like a real big man who’s making something of his life.
Mike: How big was your stack?
Paul: Tall enough to walk out feeling like a real mover and shaker in this city.
Khoi: As someone who enjoys marveling at stacks of plates after a trip to a conveyor belt sushi place, I fully endorse this business model.
Thi Nguyen: I assume this means three plates in Paul’s dictionary. For people who don’t know, Paul doesn’t eat.
Paul: *smiley emoji*
Thi: I wish I can love bánh căn like Mike and Khoi do, but my minor spring onion allergy prevents me from enjoying the dish in its fullest sense. Leaving out the spring onions will just result in a sub-par rendition of it. I really love the roll-it-yourself bánh cuốn place, it is no doubt a delightful lunch activity to indulge in!
However, my pick for this category will go to the little bánh đa cua place on Dong Khoi. I think I’ve written somewhere that because my first exposure to bánh đa (reddish and brown wide noodles) comes from a mass-produced instant package, I always feel the need to compensate this later in life. This dish is just a wonderful combination of things I love: crab, betel leaf beef, good noodles and water spinach submerged in dreamy broth.
Mike: I second this place, as it’s so refreshing to find really great Vietnamese food amid the overpriced tourist traps surrounding Dong Khoi. This is on the higher end for Hẻm Gem prices, but it’s still quite reasonable and the portions are very filling. Kudos to the regional diversity as well, since it can be easy to just eat southern Vietnamese dishes all the time here. Thi and I even went once for lunch during an invigorating conference on women’s issues, Thi’s favorite hobby.
Khoi: The favorite hobby is going for lunch or talking about women’s issues?
Thi: Lunch of course. Talking about women’s issues isn’t a hobby, it’s a routine. Also, I feel like this article will not be as argumentative as our previous bánh mì banter because we’re all food sluts who love everything.
Paul: That’s where you’re wrong, Thi. Considering the hierarchy of common carbs is, without question, bread > rice > noodles, your pick is unimaginative: the equivalent of edible cotton balls.
Thi: Can you feel the hypocrisy in your words singing its tune back to you? You praised bánh ướt, which is made out of rice noodle sheets, one second, and then placed rice and noodle under bread the next.
Mike: Paul didn’t even spell bánh ướt correctly! I had to correct it.
Khoi: As someone at the end of the editing loop who frequently has to correct Paul’s Vietnamese, I will politely opt out of this conversation.
Thi: *maniacally laughs*
Paul: Thi, you’re right, that place would be much better with rice paper replacing the insipid noodles. And Mike, can I blame autocorrect? That excuse usually works for me.
Thi: I’m really glad this is not a face-to-face conversation.
Khoi: Or else someone will get punched in the face and someone will cry and someone will file HR complaints. Saigoneer really gets shaken up whenever we have a food-related conversation.
Mike: Bánh căn Đà Lạt — Quan Co Quynh
Khoi: Bánh căn Đà Lạt — Quan Co Quynh
Paul: DIY bánh ướt rolls — Banh Uot Ban Me
Thi: Bánh đa cua Hải Phòng — Banh Da Cua Di Ly
2. Best Non-Vietnamese Food:
Thi: Fujiro! I really don’t have anything to say about this place because my command of English becomes non-existent upon mention of the name. I’ll let you all taste for yourself with this one. One side note is that while you are there, please ignore the short-haired person looking like an impressionable actress in a food TV commercial; she’s currently in a higher register of consciousness. That would be me.
Mike: All hail Fujiro!
Khoi: For those who are too lazy to read the full Hẻm Gem review below, Fujiro is a casual restaurant in Le Thanh Ton’s Japan Town that serves Japanese comfort food — think oyakodon, katsudon and hayashi rice. The price is a tad high on the spectrum for the lunch sets, but the hospitality, ambiance and cleanliness more than make up for it. Every time I’ve had a bad week, a meal at Fujiro never fails to pick my mood up. Picture this: soft amber lighting, faint Japanese murmurs in the distance, soft rice, and a slab of deep-fried pork that’s as tender as a baby’s butt. I always chew my food slowly and take effort to listen to the J-Rock from the radio when I’m there. It’s my personal form of self-care.
Paul: Yeah! This place is great! But I must express my dismay that it wasn’t until my fourth visit that I was actually able to eat the dish I truly wanted — tamagoyaki, those fluffy rolls of egg that taste like folded sunlight sprinkled with dashi, salt and soy sauce. When I tried to order them the first time, the waitress informed me that Fujiro only offers them at night — perhaps the only menu item that carries such a restriction. What?And why? How are eggs not lunch-appropriate? They are damn near the most time-flexible food. From scrambled ones at 8am to late-night fried ones accompanying a sizzling bò né, eggs are the ideal anytime item.
In summary, great food, atrocious stance on acceptable egg hours.
Khoi: Paul, you talk about eggs too much for a self-proclaimed egg non-enthusiast.
Mike: For me it’s Machotaco (barely beating out Mutahiro). This was a late entry into the competition, as we just ran this Hẻm Gem a couple of weeks ago. While there is an abundance of very good Tex-Mex and Mexican-adjacent restaurants in Saigon, few qualify as truly Mexican. The quirkily named Machotaco changes that, with simple (in a good way) tacos served on tortillas made in-house by the Mexican owner. They only serve a handful of varieties, in addition to burritos and quesadillas, which is fine by me. And, on a cool dry season evening (whatever those are, I hear they used to exist), you can sit outside the fly-by-night eatery and enjoy a nice breeze blowing through District 4.
Thi: I meant to order some of their tacos for lunch the other day.
Mike: Cool story.
Khoi: Speaking of, they recently announced on Facebook that they would be moving to another location starting next year. Which is a bit sad because it looks like a great location, with an open-air dining area and all that jazz.
I apologize in advance to readers who don’t like Japanese food, because this conversation is descending into a Japanese cuisine fan club. My nominee for this category is the amazing chicken soba at Mutahiro, also based in Japan Town. If Fujiro’s homey comfort food is perfect for a weekend lunch with friends over tea and soul-soothing banter, Mutahiro’s chicken soup will fill you with warmth during one of those rough drunken nights. It boasts a broth so rich and flavorful that the chicken-ness will punch you in the face with every spoonful. It’s like someone distills the concept of poultry into a vat of stock, then boils it for a century to come up with the very essence of chicken.
Mike: All hail Mutahiro!
Khoi: Have you been replaced by a bot that just hails everything? What are you thoughts on our next hypothetical Hẻm Gem that serves chicken smoothies?
Thi: I suggest that all drunk people should go straight to Mutahiro and order a bowl of their ramen before uttering a word to anyone or deciding to use your nearest digital communication device. That chicken ramen bowl will breathe life back into your alcohol-dampened central nervous system.
Paul: I love Vietnamese food for its freshness, balance, diversity of flavors and fish sauce, among other qualities, but subsisting on it occasionally pains my Wisconsin soul due to the cuisine’s lack of cheese. Thankfully there is an authentic Greek restaurant masquerading as a canal-side no-nonsense nhậu joint right near my apartment that slathers dishes with glorious feta: moussaka with a thick slab of baked feta on top; salads lavished with feta wedges wallowing in oil; fries smothered with a silky spill of feta; feta fried rice; feta steak; feta noodles; you can even get just a plate of plain feta. Blue cheese too! The skewers and various grilled meats are delicious as well, and the Vietnamese owner who spent decades living in Greece is super friendly. And a parrot, for some reason.
Mike: This is a good choice, though it is also home to one of the more bizarre menus I’ve seen this year, as in addition to the excellent Greek dishes they also serve Szechuan hot pot and Hong Kong spicy tofu, among other totally random choices. Usually that’s a reason for concern, but the Greek food quickly allays any worries one may have.
Thi: Absolutely agree! The strange menu doesn’t bother me much because it’s quite commonplace for niche eateries to offer some popular options.
Mike: Mexican tacos — Machotaco
Khoi: Chicken soba — Mutahiro
Paul: Greek food — Quan Cuu Non Hy Lap
Thi: Japanese comfort food — Fujiro
3. Best Cafe and Bar
Khoi: I love our featured cafes equally, so it was painful to have to come up with one, so I decided to pick the places that I have come back to numerous times outside of our “review” visit: they’re Tokyo Moon and Kem To Mi. Tokyo Moon is special as one of the handful of Korean cafes in the city that are independently run (sorry Caffe Bene, but you’re no better than Starbucks). The space is admittedly cramped, but the menu is a fascinating study in Korean autumnal flavors like pumpkin coffee, sweet potato cake and other mysterious herbal drinks.
Kem To Mi, on the other hand, is a gelateria in District 3 with high-quality homemade gelato that makes me infinitely happy when I visit, but I think Thi has more to say about the shop.
Paul: I really enjoyed Tokyo Moon and especially the pumpkin coffee you mentioned. Nothing like those sugar-saturated chain store latte-frappe-blended atrocities, it was fresh and had the distinct flavor of actual pumpkins. We don’t drink enough gourds.
Thi: Tokyo Moon is an adorable place with a lovely owner. Like Khoi and Paul, I was charmed by their pumpkin coffee. When I was there with a friend, they had a tray of VND5,000 notes near the front door and the owner told us to take one to pay for the parking fee, which is very sweet.
Regarding Kem To Mi, it’s ice cream! Need I say more?! This shop is such a delightful place that we keep coming back to after seeing basketball matches at the nearby stadium. It’s hard to turn down silky, mouthwatering scoops of gelato that come in a variety of fun flavors. The durian flavor is my personal favorite.
I also feel like going out to have some ice cream seems to be out of fashion these days (but it could also be that the social expectations of adulthood no longer involve ice cream), so it’s really amazing to find a place where I can exercise my ice cream obsession. Shout out to Khanh, our former intern, for introducing this place to us. The first time I visited Kem To Mi was also the first time I set foot in an ice cream shop in nine years.
Mike: Gelato, not ice cream! I have fond memories of Khanh bringing a huge serving of the stuff to the office one day for everyone to share, and it also became our go-to post-City Wings victory (or loss, let’s be honest) spot since it’s across the street from the stadium they play in. City Wings!
Thi: Isn’t gelato an Italian word for ice cream?
Mike: Oops, it appears you are correct.
Paul: No, gelato and ice cream are definitely different in ingredients and preparation. Didn’t you read the article Thi?!
Khoi: I know. This roundtable discussion is such a roller coaster of revelations: today I found out that my coworkers don’t even read what I write. I guess gelato and ice cream are very similar desserts, but Thi, I really value you as someone with an awareness of the nuances of food above that of the hoi polloi, I thought you of all people would appreciate the distinction.
Paul: I really like this place. Of course, I didn’t order any of the sweet desserts because I’m an adult, but it was a lot of fun to hang out here on numerous occasions after Jetstar Presents HCMC Wings games played just across the street. Nice, comfortable location to chill and have many good conversations with Thi, which are always quite inspiring (despite her clearly rubbish food takes).
Khoi: I’d like to put a disclaimer that this article is not sponsored by the HCMC City Wings. Though we will welcome any amount of ice cream money in the future.
Thi: I think that ice cream is more like a catch-all term and gelato is like the Italian interpretation of ice cream. It’s an interesting etymology. While gelato refers to a specific type of frozen dessert with specific ingredients and preparation, its translated meaning claims a universal meaning.
Paul: Is there an original, Platonic ideal if you will, of ice cream of which the Italian version is an interpretation?
Thi: I don’t know. It’s your language so sort yourself out! I used “ice cream” for the simple reason that “It’s gelato! Need I say more?!” makes me sound condescending. And readers, before you jump to a conclusion about my food takes because of Paul’s comment, I would like to remind you that Paul doesn’t eat.
Paul: To explain the reasons behind my nomination for this category, I have a story to tell. I spent my first year in Vietnam living in Quy Nhon and would only occasionally venture down to Saigon. At that time, its districts perplexed me (why exactly is District 4 between 1 and 7?) and I quickly abandoned attempts to make mental maps of the baffling series of streets and hẻms that seemed to tangle like rabbit warrens. A friend who lived in the city once brought me to a quaint cafe overlooking the canal. Its rustic wood furniture, bric-a-brac assemblage of decorations from 30 years past, traditional music warbling out speakers, cool breeze and refreshing beers made a strong impression.
I enjoyed having the memory of it linger in my mind the way the scent of incense hangs in the air long after it has turned to ash. So when I eventually moved to Saigon, I didn’t seek it out. Yet another friend randomly brought me there — a glorious reunion! And now I live down the street from it and have written many Saigoneer articles from its quiet corners. So sure, Lao Hac earns points with me for nostalgia/personal reasons, but it deserves a place on this list on its own merits as well.
Mike: That story really tugged at my heartstrings. I haven’t cried that hard since I watched the Mr. Rogers documentary.
Thi: Khoi, I think I found the culprit responsible for Paul’s monstrously lengthy article.
I haven’t been to Lao Hac but I’m down for any cool cafe that provides quiet corners along the canal! I appreciate the literary reference to Nam Cao, but it’s quite strange because Lao Hac, the farmer in the short story, leads a life of extreme poverty and ends up killing himself in the story.
Khoi: This took a macabre turn, but Paul, I love that story about your connection with Lao Hac — the cafe, not the dead old man. I think stories like these are why we love writing Hẻm Gems so much: sure you can approach them like a typical restaurant review, but if you have a personal memory with the place, be it your trip there, a conversation with a waitress or even a little accident. These memories just make for so much better and engaging storytelling.
Mike: If you know me, it will come as no surprise that I’m choosing the most beer-centric Hẻm Gem we’ve run this year: Nong Trai Khoai. It’s located in one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of Saigon, Binh Thanh’s superb Japan Town. Late in the evening Khoai can be taken over by the English teacher crowd, but around sunset it’s generally a quiet, breezy spot where one can hang out with the resident cats and enjoy a selection of craft beer, imported bottles or, most importantly, beers from other parts of the country, such as the rare Quy Nhon lager, which I couldn’t even find when I spent four days in Quy Nhon earlier in the year.
Khoi: They have a cat! It also runs that alley, as far as I’m concerned. Khoai is located in my go-to neighborhood in Binh Thanh, so I enjoy the presence of Khoai’s vine-filled, cat-run shopfront whenever I’m around.
Thi: I haven’t been to Khoai yet but I once went to a cocktail place across from it and spotted a few cute cats there. Judging from that experience alone, it looks like a cool place to hang out.
Mike: Nong Trai Khoai
Thi: Kem To Mi
Paul: Lao Hac
4. Best Ambiance:
Paul: Tucked away in a quiet section of Binh Thanh near the canal, almost in earshot of the elephants trumpeting in captive misery at the zoo, Mai Sen is this affordable French restaurant offering the relaxed vibes of an airy villa. What really makes dining here special though is its distinction as both a restaurant and a cooking school. The underprivileged Vietnamese that serve as the front end and kitchen staff are also learning how to bake, cook and serve in hotel and restaurant management so they can get good jobs when they graduate after three years of study. Eager and friendly, they help set a jubilant mood and add a little levity to balance the heavy European fair.
Mike: Mai Sen is lovely, a corner of quiet in this oft-hectic section of Binh Thanh that I used to live in.
Thi: For me, I really enjoy the ambiance at Cuu Non Hy Lap. I wouldn’t say this 10 years ago, because it was a nightmare crossing the bridge over the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal every day, but bờ kè is now my favorite place in the city.
There are a lot of nhậu joints along the canal but some of them can be a bit hectic. So when Paul informed us about Cuu Non Hy Lap and we went there for dinner, it became clear to me that this place has the best atmosphere out of every place we’ve written about this year. Imagine juicy and flavorful lamb skewers with a light lager on the side while gazing at puppies, random people exercising, trees, the sky, water reflections of houses and buildings. It’s a perfect place for existential contemplation. I highly recommend going there in the afternoon to catch the sunset.
Mike: Oh yeah, so many cute puppers being walked along the canal! +50 points.
My pick is the skewer place in District 5. I’m choosing ambiance in an ironic way here, as this unnamed phá lấu cart deep (I mean DEEP) in District 5 leaves diners huddled on the sidewalk amid the beeping cacophony of Nguyen Trai Street and the small alley it is located within, with cars constantly trying to make their way down it even though they really shouldn’t be allowed to do that.
Don’t listen to Google Maps on this one, as it told me that this place is located just past Nguyen Van Cu near the District 1-5 border, yet we went there only to realize we were off by about 500 address numbers. This is a real “authentic” Saigon experience though, and the uncle acting as a waiter even understood all of my atrocious Vietnamese, so bonus points for that.
Khoi: It’s only “deep” for you because you live half a country away. District 5 is my home turf.
Thi: This is the type of place that I will recommend to my close friends without warning them about the traffic or how well-hidden it is, just to be mean to them. And when they finally get there they’ll understand my love because the skewers are amazing and worth suffering traffic mazes for.
Khoi: I’ve poured my heart out in the review about the special ambiance of Things Cafe, but if I have to sum up the 1,000-odd words, I would say that it feels like visiting a friend’s home. It’s a shabby apartment, but every single piece of decoration, postcard and plant pot feels lived-in and natural. The cats make it even more homey and cozy. They even grind their own coffee beans for your personal brewing pleasures.
Mike: I haven’t been here in a while, but Things truly is the real-world embodiment of the word “cozy.” I love that they haven’t changed even as the 14 Ton That Dam cafe/apartment complex has steadily gentrified/hipsterfied.
Khoi: Things Cafe
Paul: Mai Sen
Thi: Quan Cuu Non Hy Lap
As we move on to another year of chomping on delicious food and petting cats at hidden cafes, we would like to take a moment to say goodbye to a few past Hẻm Gems that have left us this year. In true Saigon fashion, some of these demises happened suddenly and clandestinely, but we’ll forever treasure the memories and friendships made at these wonderful joints.
Mike: City Beer Station. This isn’t even a contest, as we were all devastated to learn of its end, in its second location, no less! Sure, it was on the sidewalk across from a massive construction site and only open at night — just in time for the dump trucks hauling dirt and debris to arrive — but combine a convivial atmosphere engendered by the herb enthusiast owners, superb cocktails at half the price of a downtown bar and the occasional appearance by a pet corgi, and you’ve got a memorable location.
Thi: I agree. Sipping cocktails from a plastic stool with a bunch of friends is as casual and laid-back as a weekend evening can get. When I was in Hanoi I found a City Beer Station doppelganger in Truc Bach (Lang Thang) and the place made me miss City Beer Station so much.
Khoi: Finding City Beer Station was pure serendipity for me, but its existence made my 2017 so much better. I will dearly miss its plastic stools, incredibly affordable cocktails, fluffy pets and whiffs of dank smoke in the air. I would also like to take this chance to commemorate some of our favorite hangouts that have given up the ghost over the years: including a bacon fried rice restaurant, a hole-in-the-wall in Binh Thanh with the best char kway teow in Saigon, chicken noodles in Phu Nhuan’s “flower neighborhood,” and of course, Thi Sach’s decrepit bia hơi joint.
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