BackEat & Drink » Street Food » Hẻm Gems: Home-Cooked Taiwanese Comfort Food for a Cold Saigon Day

Hẻm Gems: Home-Cooked Taiwanese Comfort Food for a Cold Saigon Day

District 5, Saigon’s Chinatown, is full of delicious eateries serving Cantonese food. For something new, try Va Thanh, an unassuming restaurant with top-notch Taiwanese home-style cooking.

After high school, I lived with a host family in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, for nine months. While there, I immersed myself in the language, the culture and, most importantly, the food. My host father was an excellent cook, and most nights I would feast on whatever he made. He had a preference for pig’s ears, something I quickly learned to enjoy.

I love Taiwanese food. It is somehow sweet, savory and light all at the same time. For me, Taiwanese food has become synonymous with comfort, and it takes me back to nights sitting around my host family’s table in Kaohsiung chatting about our days. When I first came to Saigon, I immediately started searching for Taiwanese restaurants. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon Va Thanh.

Va Thanh operated in Saigon since 1998, and they just moved to a new location in District 5 four months ago. The entire restaurant is spotless and very minimalist. A television hangs prominently for all customers to see as restaurants in Taiwan often have the news playing and Va Thanh is no different. The owner told me that if he doesn’t keep the news on, customers complain. At lunchtime, there is a steady stream of Taiwanese clientele chatting away while watching the latest developments.

The food is excellent, and it’s obvious the owners care about quality. All of the wheat-based products are homemade. They have a small workplace where workers hand-wrap dumplings and make piles of noodles. Buns and scallion pancakes are made in bulk as well. Some are cooked that day, while others are kept frozen and available to take home. The frozen dumplings (VND120,000 for 40) are a steal.

Dumplings are my guilty pleasure food. My friends in Taiwan would often make fun of me for going to the same dumpling restaurant near our university every day for lunch. District 5 has plenty of places to buy phenomenal ha gow and shumai, two Cantonese-style dumplings often seen in dim sum that I love. However, sometimes I want to eat steamed dumplings with chives.

The dumplings at Va Thanh hit just the spot. The wrappers are thick enough to be chewy without being so thick they completely swallow up the filling. Likewise, the filling has just enough chives to be fragrant without being overpowering. At Va Thanh, they sell dumplings fried, boiled, and in beef broth. The boiled ones are my favorite, but all three styles are excellent.

Of all the dishes I’ve eaten in Taiwan, beef noodle soup is the one I crave the most. It was the first dish I ate there that got me hooked on the cuisine. Va Thanh’s beef noodle soup (VND90,000) is the ultimate comfort food. The beef chunks are tender, and the combination of the broth and handmade noodles is indescribably satisfying.

Bitter melon is an acquired taste, and it took me many times of eating it to enjoy it. I really appreciate how Va Thanh’s fried bitter melon with egg (VND85,000) has somehow managed to minimize the bitterness: it’s still there, but it’s balanced out, making it much more approachable.

Taiwan is most famous for its various xiaochi, or snack foods. My fondest memories of Taiwan are those of nights with friends, wandering through hectic night markets, walking past shops selling knock-off clothing, and munching on xiaochi bought at stands peppered throughout the markets. Guabao, sometimes called ‘Taiwanese hamburger,’ is the epitome of the Taiwanese xiaochi. It is a steamed bun stuffed with pork belly and pickled vegetables, topped with ground peanuts, rounding out the dish with a distinctly sweet flavor. The guabao at Va Thanh (VND50,000) is on par with those I’ve eaten at various night markets across Taiwan, and it might be my favorite dish on the menu.

Va Thanh also sells biandang, Taiwanese bento boxes. In Taiwan, biandang is ubiquitous. It is the ultimate cheap lunch, usually featuring a mixture of various meats and vegetables with a generous serving of rice, and anyone in a rush can give Va Thanh’s a try.

For people looking to eat quality Taiwanese food at a reasonable price, Va Thanh is the place to go. The service is excellent and the food has that homemade touch. They are considering opening up new locations across the city in 2020, so be on the lookout for a new Va Thanh near you. In the meantime, it’s well worth going to the location in District 5, eating a satisfying Taiwanese meal, and taking some frozen goods home to eat later.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Brendan hails from the state of Mississippi and is working on eating so many dumplings he turns into one. He also loves ice cream and is constantly on the lookout for new coffee shops to waste away an afternoon in.

Taiwanese food

40 Huynh Man Dat, Ward 2, D5