Sunday, August 16, 2009

Destination Vietnam #1: Quán Ăn Ngon

My tres amigos and I finished up our four-day adventure in Hong Kong without any major hitches. We had a great time exploring the sites, but we spent more time visiting the tailor for custom-made suits than looking for food. I was determined to change that for Vietnam and Thailand.

Following a personal recommendation from Wandering Chopsticks and additionally reinforced by a encouragement from a local Vietnamese guide, we ate lunch at Quán Ăn Ngon in Saigon/Ho Chi Min City. It's easy to find for the tourists as well, just look across the street from this building:

The Reunification Palace


According to the Gastonomer, the Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant's appeal is that the owner had "scoured the streets of Saigon and recruited the best cooks in town to prepare their own dishes." A collection of Vietnamese street food made accessible to tourists by English menus and friendly staff? This was the perfect place for my first official meal in the country (besides the instant ramen and chả giò fried spring rolls that we received in our hostel).

The interior of the restaurant is surrounded by grill pits

If the owner indeed had scouted out every street offering in the city, he sure was thorough. The menu was page after page of Vietnamese dishes that aren't really pronounced like you think they are. I learned that the hard way after repeatedly being mistaken as Vietnamese during the trip. A little overwhelmed, I chose a few familiar dishes such as the bánh xèo shrimp crepe, bún chả vermicelli with pork balls and fish sauce, and the gỏi cuốn salad rolls of shrimp and pork. Each of the initial dishes were much more flavorful than I was used to in the US, but they were still simple foods. Most of ingredients were familiar for Westminster or Garden Grove, but tasted fresher. Perhaps it was delusional on my part. Perhaps I just wanted to believe it was better. But it tasted pretty similarly to things I've had before.

bánh xèo shrimp crepe

gỏi cuốn salad rolls

I had constantly heard that having salads or other uncooked foods would be dangerous in Vietnam. But if I can't eat gỏi đu đủ tai heo papaya salad with fried pork ears in Quán Ăn Ngon, then I'd probably wouldn't be able to eat it anywhere else. Eventually, I did get sick eating at another restaurant in Hanoi, but that's a much more sinister story for later on...

bánh chuõi nướng banana "cake"

For dessert, I was much more adventurous in ordering the chè hạt sen lotus seed sweet soup which turned out to be more of a ice cold beverage in a tall glass than a soup. It was refreshing though, with a very subtle sweetness. In fact, the che chuoi banana soup turned out to be more like a soup than the chè hạt sen. It had the consistency of Chinese tapioca desserts.

For the convenience of collecting all these varieties of street food, you certainly pay a premium. But if you were like me, just starting out in an alien land and eager to try something a little more familiar, Quán Ăn Ngon is hard to beat.

Quán Ăn Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street
(across the street from the Reunification Palace)
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

(By the way, it takes an excruciating amount of effort to type all the Vietnamese accents and grammar marks)



Wandering Chopsticks said...

Ha! I don't even bother with the diacritical marks. Too much hassle.

I think you summed it up right. Quan An Ngon is good for dipping your feet into the whole experience before plunging into street food and all that.

I thought you'd blog about HK food more?

PS You left the H off HCM.

Gastronomer said...

Goodness graciousness I miss Saigon! I hope you had/or are having a ball! Don't forget to go visit the Lunch Lady:

Wandering Chopsticks said...

I didn't realize the first time I read through, but they didn't give you banh chuoi nuong, it's che chuoi. The banana cake is actually a dense cake.

gourmetpigs said...

Thanks for going through the hassle with the accent marks (diacritical marks? That's what they're called WC?) - we appreciate it!

One of these days I will make my way to Vietnam and most likely just like you, will make this place my first stop. BTW - how much did you spend on this meal? I always hear about 50-cent pho in VN, but just checking ..

Aaron said...

Indeed those are called diacritical marks. They're essential to pronounciation though, so it's worth getting them write if you're going to try to say it out loud.

I don't have any of the prices written down for Quan An Ngon, but they were higher than average. I'd say $3-5 a dish.

Ravenous Couple said...

if we were to go into a sit down restaurant in VN, which we rarely do, quan an ngon would be it. we love the concept of having the food vendors in the restaurant. We hear totally hear ya about what is better--food in Vietnam or Little Saigon?? there's definitely room for debate.

Anonymous said...

FYI, this restaurant has moved to a new location. I ate there in 11/09, never been to the previous location but this new one was just beautiful.