Best Street Food in Thao Dien

food - Saigon/HCMC: April 16, 2020

Grilled pork chop with broken rice.

Steamed rice noodle rolls with pork and wood ear mushroom.

Grilled beef in betel leaf.

Balut.

I grew up in Sydney Australia within the Vietnamese community of Cabramatta. My parents owned a busy Vietnamese restaurant where my siblings and I worked from a very young age. I loved the sense of family and belonging our restaurant brought to the Vietnamese community. Most of the dishes that we served were dishes that reminded not only our parents of the food they grew up with, but they reminded our customers of their deep rooted origins too.

Our regular visitors would always come and shout out their orders to the kitchen, and as my siblings and I ran tables they would shout out their coffee orders in the same informal way you would with your family. 

I had my very first street food experience fifteen years ago when I first returned to Vietnam. I was ushered to a small red plastic table with red plastic chairs by the owner’s young son who took my order. The son shouted my Pho order to his mother, yelled my coffee order to his sister, and went off to grab my fresh herbs. I was instantly transported back to our family restaurant and embraced the sense of family and belonging. I realised that our interactions with our customers very much mirrored that of Vietnamese street food vendors. 

Best street food in Thao DienImage source: Lewis Nguyen

As I devoured my Pho other customers would arrive, yell out their orders to no one in particular, and seat themselves. I clearly had a long way to go before I ordered like a local. 

There was something initially so familiar about the small red plastic table and chairs, it took me a while but when it came to me my emotions started to suddenly play up. My Grandmother, who lived with us in Sydney, always sat on a small red table and chair, this is where she spent most of her time. I always thought it was a little strange that she would sit there for hours plucking herbs or marinading her meats. When she ate by herself she would often choose to sit at the small plastic table and not our dining table. I now know it was her way of keeping her memory of Vietnam alive. My Grandmother has passed now and every time I am in Vietnam and eat street food at a small plastic table, I well up a little thinking about my Ba Ngoai.

Best street food in Thao DienImage source: urbanistnetwork.com

When I started travelling to Vietnam, I often found myself in District 1, this was where all the restaurants and bars were and where most of the street food vendors congregated. I was a lot younger then so I loved the hustle and bustle and fast pace of D1. These days I enjoy a slower lifestyle. Now when I visit Vietnam I always stay in Thao Dien. Thao Dien in District 2 has really grown in the past few years, there is a fast growing F&B scene full of cool bars, restaurants and an abundance of street food vendors. It’s also not as busy as D1 so you can easily take a leisurely stroll down the streets, well, as leisurely as you can in Ho Chi Minh City

I make sure to visit as many of these street vendors as I can whenever I am here. I’m almost a local now, ordering out loud as I walk in and seat myself. I went to my favourite Pho vendor last week and she informed me that she hadn’t seen my parents in a while. I only visit once or twice a year so I was surprised that she remembered me and knew who my parents were. 

What I love the most about street food is that, because it is totally devoid of the bells and whistles of a restaurant, the food shines through and is the hero of the experience. For me street food conjures fond memories of our family restaurant, our customers, and my lovely Grandmother. 

Grilled pork chop with broken rice - Com Tam Suon 

In our family restaurant (I’m talking way back during my childhood years) Com Tam Suon was one of our best sellers.

The pork chops are marinated overnight with lemongrass, spring onions, fish sauce and honey. Once grilled, they are placed over broken rice and served with a homemade sweet fish sauce. Every family will have their own sweet fish sauce recipe, and their own way of marinating the pork. My parents like to add oyster sauce, honey, fresh chilli and generous amounts of lemongrass to the marinade.

The beauty of this dish is that you can add extra ingredients to make the dish even more awesome. I usually have Com Tam Bi Suon Cha Trung (Grilled pork chop, shredded pork, pork and egg terrine, and a fried egg, all over broken rice) 

Best street food in Thao DienCom Tam Suon from Com Tam 40A. A classic favourite / Lewis Nguyen

Com Tam 40A

40a Quoc Huong. Thao Dien.
6:00 am - 2:00 pm. Then 4:00 pm until late.
VND 35,000 for Com Suon Trung - pork chop and a fried egg over broken rice.

As I enter the stall, marinated pork grilling by the entrance makes me salivate and lures me to savour it’s charred deliciousness. Next to the BBQ is a food trolley full of homemade goodness, shelves of caramelised fish, fried eggs, caramelised pork, grilled pork, pork and egg terrine, and a huge bowl of Mo Han (spring onion oil) greets you. Mo hanh, oh how I’ve missed you! A key ingredient of Com Tam Suon, Mo hanh is made by cooking spring onion in oil on a low heat, it adds a slightly slippery texture to the rice, and an overall nutty flavour to the dish.

The vendor piles my plate with broken rice, chooses my piece of grilled pork straight from the grill, adorns the meat with the fried egg and slathers the dish with Mo hanh. I add a spoonful of their homemade minced chilli to the small bowl of sweet fish sauce provided and pour all of it onto my plate.

My first spoonful of pork and rice instantly transports me to my childhood. The char of the juicy pork, the fragrance of the lemongrass, the richness of the egg, and the kick of that spicy fish sauce are all absorbed by the broken rice, and the addictive burst of flavours attack my tastebuds. Every colourful ingredient perfectly compliments each other.

As I eat, customers stop by on motorbikes and yell out their orders, one customer wants Com Thit Kho (Caramelised pork with boiled egg) with no cucumbers, another asks for bitter melon soup, but is sadly disappointed when he is told the soup is sold out.

Steamed rice noodle rolls with pork and wood ear mushroom - Banh Cuon 

Banh cuon is a difficult dish to make, the steamed rice noodles need to be perfectly thin and handled with utmost care to avoid tearing, and the filling of minced pork and wood ear mushroom needs to be well balanced and plentiful. We didn’t serve this in our family restaurant, it was way too complicated and fiddly to make. My Aunty 5 however, my Mother’s Sister in law, makes the best banh cuon so we would all pack ourselves into the car and make our way to Aunty 5’s house to satisfy our banh cuon cravings.

Best street food in Thao DienDelicate Banh Cuon from Hoang and Hoa / Lewis Nguyen

Hoang and Hoa

33 Hem 33. Thao Dien. (Corner of Quoc Huong and Duong Hem 33) 
5:30 am until sold out.
VND 35,000

I arrive at Hoang and Hoa’s banh cuon stall with my sister in law who is a seasoned regular. The duo greet us warmly and Hoang pulls up a few chairs and a table from out of thin air for us. Hoa sits against the wall nursing a steaming pot topped tightly with a muslin cloth. She expertly pours a layer of thin rice flour batter onto the muslin cloth, covers the pot with a lid and waits a few seconds before lifting the lid to a steaming layer of freshly cooked rice noodle. A quick flick of the wrist with her thin wooden spatula and a perfect thin circle of noodle sheet is peeled from the muslin cloth and laid out onto a plate. 

A generous spoonful of minced pork and wood ear mushroom mixture is placed onto the noodle and everything is promptly wrapped into a neat parcel. Hoa plates up our dishes without us even ordering. The banh cuon is served with two types of Vietnamese ham (there’s usually three types, but Hoa has run out of the fried version, so my advice is to get in early!), steamed bean sprouts, cucumber, fried onions, and asian basil.

The sight is glorious and my eyes tell my stomach to brace itself. I pour a generous amount of Hoa’s sweet fish sauce and devour the plate, I think I take a breath only once before finishing my meal. The banh cuon has a uniform thickness throughout, the filling is well balanced, and the dish as a whole is freaking delicious. At many restaurants I tend to often leave some of the noodle, in parts where it is too thick and gelatinous, but not today, not at Hoa and Hoang’s. The rice noodle is perfectly paper thin and delicate. I can see why my sister in law keeps coming back.

We came at 9:45 am and were the last customers.

Grilled beef in betel leaf - Bo La Lot

When I was little, my father and my uncle would always be in charge of tending to the Bo La Lot at our big family barbecues. The La Lot (betel leaf) is a vibrant green leaf and once grilled releases a slightly herbaceous fragrance and peppery flavour that is absorbed by the minced beef within. The secret is to char grill the betel leaf wrapped beef parcels. Some restaurants take the easy way out and shallow fry the bo la lot, the flavour still comes across, but the intensity is nowhere near the intensity you get when the betel leaf is char grilled.

I have so many memories of wrapping hundreds of these a day in our family restaurant. Our customers loved this dish, they could choose to have it in a bowl with vermicelli, Vietnamese herbs and sweet fish sauce, or they could wrap them with fresh lettuce leaves.

Best street food in Thao DienIncredible Bo La Lot from 64 Xuan Thuy. Just don’t expect service with a smile / Lewis Nguyen

Xuan Thuy Road

64 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien.
3:00 pm - 9:00 pm
VND 50,000

At the start of Xuan Thuy road my brother and I pass a corner stall that has plenty of uniformly rolled bo la lot and grilled fish in its trolley display. Beside the trolley is a smoking hot bbq waiting for orders. We’re the first customers for the evening and not quite sure why but we felt that the vendor wasn’t too happy to be serving customers so early. The word abrasive comes to mind. We decide to let the food do the talking and overlook this slight customer service blip.

As we seat ourselves on the small red plastic chairs, the vendor sets our table with vermicelli, lettuce, Vietnamese herbs, starfruit, cucumber, and rice paper. The final condiment and definitely the highlight is the mam nem, a fermented anchovy, pineapple, and garlic dipping sauce.

We watch as the vendor expertly char grills our bo la lot over smoking hot coals. Once done she drizzles them with mo han (Spring onion oil), sprinkles them with crushed roasted peanuts, and then leaves us to wrap our own rice paper rolls.

I inhale the wafts of charred betel leaf, quickly wrap all the ingredients into the rice paper, dip my roll into the dipping sauce and take my first bite. My mouth waters, the deep earthy flavour of the mam nem dipping sauce, perfectly compliments the juicy betel leaf parcels, and just like that they’re all gone.

Balut - Hot Vit Lon

When I was little my parents, uncles, and aunties would always get together a few times a week and nhau (drink, eat snacks, and catch up). Our parents would supply the snacks, a mixture of nuts and finger foods like pickled onions and dry shrimps, and as kids we always looked forward to those evenings, but also dreaded them. We loved watching our relatives laugh and have fun, but we would dread being left to clean up the aftermath of their hours of drinking and eating. On occasions the adults would have Balut, boiled fertilised duck egg. Of all the family gatherings, the ones that involved Balut invoke my fondest memories. It is a simple yet delicious dish which I know is not for everyone.

Best street food in Thao DienHot Vit Lon and very necessary Bia Saigon from Kim Thao / Lewis Nguyen

Kim Thao

104 Xuan Thuy. Thao Dien. 
3:00 pm - 11:00 pm
VND 10,000 per egg

Kim Thao is a stop in Saigon that I always make sure to visit. The super popular foodie destination is always filled with customers of all ages, sitting on small plastic chairs or queuing up for takeaway balut. Be warned, on this occasion my brother and I regrettingly choose to sit right in front of the sugar cane juice machine, which constantly sprays us with cane juice and pokes him in the back on a number of occasions. Choose your seat wisely. 

We order four eggs each and in a matter of seconds we have our eggs, accompanied by egg holders, rau ram (Vietnamese mint), salt and pepper, pickled chilli, and lime. I’m used to having my balut with just salt and pepper so I give my brother the lime and pickled chilli.

The eggs are excruciatingly hot and when held up for examination I can see the precious liquid broth through the slightly transparent shell. I quickly crack the top of the egg, I usually choose the larger part of the egg and make that the top. I sprinkle a bit of the salt and pepper onto the egg and sip the liquid. It makes for such a great broth. Once all the broth is gone I sprinkle some more salt and pepper and then eat the rich yolk and delicate duck meat. My brother loves eating the egg white as well but it’s a little too hard for me so I usually leave that behind.

The four eggs don’t last very long at all and we find ourselves ordering a couple more each and just as our parents, uncles, and aunties did back in the day, wash them down with plenty of Vietnamese beer.

Balut is a delicacy which is definitely not for everyone, but for those of us who love it, Kim Thao is the place to go.

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