Viet­namese com­fort food that makes you feel at home

Oi Vietnam - - Contents - Text by Brian Jung Images by Ngoc Tran

From tasty burg­ers and spicy north­ern Thai salad to fine din­ing by the Saigon River and a gourmet meal de­liv­ery ser­vice, there’s no ex­cuse to go hun­gry this month

IT WAS EVENING AND WE me­an­dered down an al­ley­way where we came upon Se­cret House by Se­cret Gar­den Viet­namese Restau­rant &

Café (55/1 Le Thi Hong Gam, D1), a new es­tab­lish­ment by Huy, who has al­ready made a name for him­self with pop­u­lar restau­rants Se­cret Gar­den and Moun­tain Re­treat. Born in the north of Viet­nam, and armed with over six years ex­pe­ri­ence in the food and bev­er­age in­dus­try, Se­cret House is by all in­tents and pur­poses a nat­u­ral full cir­cle for him. As he ex­plained the con­cept be­hind the mod­est and hum­ble de­signs re­flects his Bud­dhist be­liefs of har­mony and peace, I couldn't help but also be lulled into a sense of calm. It helped that we were seated

around an open gar­den where green crops of lemon­grass, jas­mine and corn stretched lan­guidly out to­wards a clear sky. Soft light­ing and wood sur­rounded us and Huy also pointed out a wall that was made from mud and rice, all to give the sense of coun­try­side Viet­nam. For him the busy city life sur­rounded by the ur­ban jun­gle re­ally needed a place for both ex­pats and lo­cals to re­live the com­fort of home as well as taste it.

And taste it we did. For those with richer palettes this is not the place for you. Huy ex­plained that the menu con­cept was de­lib­er­ately kept sim­ple, in fact one could say this place's main theme was en­tirely around Viet­namese com­fort food. It's the kind of food you re­mem­bered as a kid or stay­ing with your grand­par­ents in their home­town. Ad­di­tion­ally, he wanted to also ed­u­cate for­eign­ers on lo­cal eat­ing habits. So don't ex­pect to or­der pho at night. They cre­ate sep­a­rate menus for break­fast, lunch and din­ner.

To start we had Clams with basil (VND65,000). Dif­fer­ent from the tra­di­tional French style, there wasn't heavy but­ter in this—the nat­u­ral juices from the cooked clams were per­fect. The en­tire plat­ter of clams was gone in­stantly so for big­ger groups I highly rec­om­mend getting two por­tions. Next we had Com Chay Cham Kho Quet (VND75,000), which was crispy rice served with a kind of sam­bal—a mix of a fish sauce re­duc­tion with bits of pork and dried shrimp. This was not like dip­ping your na­chos into a bowl of salsa. Be care­ful and use it spar­ingly or else you'll get a heavy strong dose of fishy shrimp fla­vor. I learned the hard way so take my ad­vice on that.

A fa­mil­iar sight for those who've lived in Viet­nam a bit was see­ing the Banh Khot (VND75,000), mini sa­vory pan­cakes with a sin­gle shrimp or cala­mari on top. Served with a light fish sauce, th­ese were soft and de­li­cious, the pan­cake it­self slightly doughy and per­fect for dip­ping.

The main course was a mas­sive Lau Rieu Cua Dong Bap Bo (VND395,000, enough for four peo­ple)—ground crab meat­balls filled hot-pot served with thin slices of beef. The veg­gies sourced from the gar­dens as well as the meat were as fresh as if just plucked in the morn­ing. For me the best part was ac­tu­ally the grounded crab meat­balls swim­ming in the broth. The ground crab mixed with a light egg bin­der melted in the mouth like a soft piece of tofu yet wasn't overly rich or heavy or fishy. The broth it­self was de­li­cious and unlike other hot­pots there’s no MSG or overly salty broth. This was smooth, and had rich deep fla­vors ac­cented by the fat from the beef and the ground crab meat­balls. I found my­self deliriously spoon­ing in mouth­fuls of the broth de­spite be­ing al­ready quite full.

Lastly, Tra xa chanh (VND30,000), lemon­grass tea with lime, was packed with lemon­grass, lit­er­ally picked from the ground to the side of where I was sit­ting, tasted cool and fresh, and had none of the ar­ti­fi­cial fla­vors found in other teas. An in­ter­est­ing Viet­namese take on bul­let­proof cof­fee, Ca phe Trung nong (VND50,000), con­sisted of a slow drip black cof­fee mixed with egg.

Huy has cre­ated a Viet­namese com­fort food restau­rant with a unique open gar­den theme and a calm vibe. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see how the menu grows and ex­pands to in­clude other per­haps lesser known Viet­namese com­fort food. What is com­fort­ing is that suc­cess­ful en­trepreneurs like Huy con­tinue to de­velop and evolve the food scene here in Ho Chi Minh City. I don't think this Se­cret House will re­main much of a se­cret for long.

Lau Rieu Cua Dong Bap Bo

Banh Khot

Com Chay Cham Kho Quet

Ca phe Trung nong

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