VY DA QUAN, 62 LY TU TRONG, HO CHI MINH CITY
The best Vietnamese food is consumed on the street or near it, off tiny tables that appear designed to accommodate intractable five-year-olds not yet allowed to eat with the grownups. There will be little blue plastic chairs to sit in—sometimes red, on rare occasions—and this is simply how it is done. The very tall must adapt to their new-found circumstances.
Saigon has a number of excellent little restaurants of this genre, which cater primarily to locals (and occasionally the Western significant others of locals). The menus are usually translated, often hilariously, into English, and there’s always the infallible technique of “point at something you find tasty and communicate in pantomime until it hits your table.”
A great example of this genre is Vy Da Quan, which spreads brashly out into the street in downtown Saigon, off Ly Tu Trong Street. There’s a thick and glossy menu, and a grill working overtime near the back, serving up pork ribs, frogs, chicken feet and whole fish, among other culinary delights. A more expensive (and also good) restaurant that caters more to a foreigner market next door has full size tables and chairs—you’ll know you’re in the right spot by the kiddie sized tables. Blend in.
Vy Da Quan is perhaps best known for its remarkable pork ribs, which are served in somewhat maddeningly small portions—perhaps best to order 2 or 3 at a go. They are marinated in some unholy fish sauce, chili, and sugar concoction and then are grilled over a hot flame, caramelizing the sugar and intensifying the flavor of chili and pork fat.
They also a superb raw beef salad here (Bo Tai Chanh), a surprisingly refreshing concoction of uncooked beef marinated in lime juice, with onions and a whopping variety of herbs. A superb summer dish, this goes nicely with anything hot or too heavy. Variants on this dish exist across the region, and I’ve encountered it often in Cambodia.
Balancing out the not-so-subtle ribs was a dish of clams cooked in fresh pepper and lime sauce, which was really quite sublime—a subtle, slightly sweet and piquant interpretation of a classic Vietnamese favorite. This can either be under-or-overdone, but in this case, the sauce was eminently drinkable. You might want to order bread to go with, or at least put it on your rice. (More on that later).
Morning glory was excellent, cooked with oyster sauce and with an interesting topping of smashed, deep-fried garlic cloves with the “paper” still attached. This creates a little chew if you don’t feel like removing the paper, and seems to protect the cloves to some extent so they don’t get so hard as to be inedible. Most importantly, the water spinach was perfectly cooked, and wasn’t rendered a chewy and fibrous mess as sometimes occurs. (And who doesn’t like having an invasive species for dinner?)
Even the usually-lackluster (and omnipresent) fried rice gets an upgrade here—the usual combination stuff with fried rice, squid, carrot, peas, and chicken. A dining buddy happens to be deathly allergic to shrimp, so we passed on that. The fried rice was pleasingly a bit crunchy, and we soon deduced that it appears to have either been scraped off the bottom of the pot, or left to sit for just a minute or two in the oil to create such a pleasing texture. Some Middle Eastern cultures place great value on the crunchy rice left at the bottom of the pot: we’re not sure if this was even intentional, but it was awfully good.
We were flagrantly stuffed, but then we purchased spring rolls off the street from a guy, because that’s what one does in Vietnam. These beauties contained Vietnamese sausage, noodles, and fresh vegetables, and were served with a pleasing dipping sauce. I actually managed to finish mine, but it took (somewhat literally) a bit of intestinal fortitude to pull it off. It is worth pointing out that once you have made eye-contact with the spring roll guy, you are going to be buying a spring roll. Don’t fight it. They cost like 50 cents.
Vy Da Quan isn’t technically allowed to spread out on the street as far as it does, but there’s always a bit of mission creep. You might be apologetically shifted if the fuzz do come sniffing around—but you’ll survive. That’s half the fun of eating like you’re Vietnamese: tiny chairs, tiny tables, adaptability—and some of the best, most value-priced cuisine in the world.