HCMC Dining Guide

Friday, April 1, 2011

$3 of Bliss

In the past few weeks I've, rather belatedly, discovered the wonders of "take away" food in my neighborhood. Several restaurants and food carts near my house offer their food in convenient take-out containers, which is useful for the students and office workers in the area that only have time to grab some food and go during the lunch hour. Obviously, you can't order soup dishes like pho or bun bo hue, or the gloriously messy banh xeo, to go, but several other Vietnamese mainstays are easy to take home. There are two places, in particular, that I've gotten into the habit of frequenting, for two reasons: they are delicious, and they are very cheap. (Although that doesn't mean I don't occasionaly take part in some good ole' American-style gluttony from time to time. Check out my friend Amy's blog for an example of that: http://passthefishsauce.wordpress.com/.)

Every day, our neighbors a few houses down get up early and begin cooking a veritable feast in their closet-sized kitchen that opens up right into the alley; boiling vegetables in huge pots and grilling meat in the middle of a busy walkway. By 10:30 or 11 they are ready to set up shop, so they push a stainless-steel cart down the alley, load the food onto it, put out a few plastic tables and chairs, and get to work.

This little stall is a classic com place, which means you get a plate of steamed rice, and then pick what you want to have on top of it. There are stands like this all over the city: rice is one of the most prominent ingredients in Vietnamese cuisine, and the array of side dishes on offer is tempting to anyone. Common choices include grilled pork, fried eggs, steamed vegetables, dried fish, Chinese sausage, tofu, chicken, cuttlefish, and other things I can't always recognize. This variety means you can go to the same place almost every day for a week or two and not have the same thing twice. They are also cheap, and the one in our alley is extremely cheap. 20,000 dong, to be exact. (About $1.)
The crowd under the tarp indicates great food.
A piece of chicken, tofu stuffed with beef and slathered in a savory sauce with just a hint of spice, and some greens on a bed of rice.


Delectable. And a dollar.
Since the com stall is only open for lunch, I have to go elsewhere for dinner. If I'm feeling lazy, which is often, I simply go to the no-name restaurant at 299 Vo Van Tan St., and get bun thit nuong (I don't know how to add the accents to Vietnamese words on here), a dry vermicelli noodle dish that is served with either grilled pork, chicken, or crab spring rolls (my favorite option), julienned daikon and carrots, a handful of sliced lettuce, and nuoc mam, or fish sauce. Oh, and after all of that is added, a handful of roasted peanuts are thrown on top. This extremely fresh dish is perfect for the heat of Saigon, since it is served at room temperature, and the noodles can be quite refreshing. When it's 95 degrees outside, a steaming bowl of pho isn't exactly the most appealing option.

In addition to bun thit nuong, I usually get two fresh spring rolls (goi cuon), stuffed with more vermicelli and greens, and two succulent prawns. Fresh spring rolls may be my favorite type of Vietnamese food, especially when dipped in the awesome peanut sauce they are usually served with.
Goi cuon and bun thit nuong

Crab spring rolls

So, how much does this magnificence cost? 40,000 dong. It's become routine for me to walk 40 feet down the alley to get a com dish for lunch, and then walk two blocks down the street to get bun cha gio for dinner, all for just 60,000. I do feel like I should try some new places, but it's easy to go to places where you know how things work; it can be daunting to walk into a restaurant where no one speaks a word of English, and doesn't even have a menu, and try to order something. Perhaps I'll overcome my trepidation soon, but I'm not really in a hurry, given how much happiness $3 can buy me.

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