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Year in Review: Saigoneer's Picks for Best Hẻm Gems of 2019

In 2019, Saigoneer reviewed a total of 38 Hẻm Gems, including 10 bars or cafes, 15 Vietnamese eateries and 13 places serving delicious non-Vietnamese cuisines.

Some of these joints have gone on to become all-time favorites, and some introduced us Saigon-dwellers to entirely new cooking styles, from foreign to regional. Read on to find out what our editors think the most memorable eateries and cafes of 2019 are.

1. Best Vietnamese Food

Trứng ngải cứubún đậu and other Northern snacks at Ngo 89. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Thi Nguyen: One of the best things I discovered this year was trứng ngải cứu, a wonderful mugwort-filled omelette I had at Ngo 89. Although not every single item on the restaurant's menu is stellar, the omelette is just so wonderful it outweighs their somewhat mediocre moments. People praise omelets that are cooked “just right,” meaning only some light browning on the outside is preferred with a tender, soft texture on the inside. I want to counter this egg hegemony: in my household, brown edge crispy on the outside omelette is the shit. Ngo 89’s omelette is like that, the epitome of my childhood favorite food, plus the pleasant fragrance of mugwort.  

Paul Christiansen: The omelette is SO GOOD! That mugwort adds the perfect flavor to the perfectly cooked egg.

A bowl of bún mắm nêm with crispy roast pork (left) and Hue Ky Mi Gia's golden fried duck (right). Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Khoi Pham: I’ve said this many times to many people this year, but in case I haven’t talked your ears off, here’s the gospel of Vietnamese cuisine: dry noodle dishes are one of our best inventions. From dry chicken phở in Hanoi to trusty Nguyen Trung Truc bún thịt nướng, some of my best eating experiences always involve gleefully pouring a ladle of unctuous sauce into a bowl of noodles and chopped vegetables, then mixing the shit out of it. This year, central Vietnam-style bún mắm nêm has my vote as this year’s most memorable bowl of mixed noodles. Its unabashed celebration of pungent mắm nêm, or fermented fish paste, might drive some away, but for those who value a good kick in the face of umami, Da Nang’s bún mắm nêm has a finely balanced combination of freshness (chopped herbs), filling (rice noodles), texture (crunchy roast pork) and flavor (funky mắm).

Mike Tatarski: I was so excited to try that, and was crushed when I couldn’t due to severe stomach problems.

While Hue Ky Mi Gia is certainly not the cheapest spot on this list, I’m giving its mì vịt rô-ti the nod on the basis of the insane amount of duck that comes with their duck noodle soup. I have a love/hate relationship with duck, meaning that it’s among my favorite meats, but is often served with a bunch of gristle, or cut into pieces that feature more bone than meat. That’s not a problem here, as thick, succulent cuts of duck are bathed in the broth — probably one reason why it’s so relatively pricey. Yes, you can find cheaper mì vịt dishes in Saigon, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find one that gives you more duck for your buck. 

Paul: Bottom-tier poultry. I’d pay more to have less duck in my crispy duck noodles. 

Khoi: Paul’s incendiary (read: total trash) food takes aside, I acknowledge my home cuisine’s tendency to not do duck justice, especially in vịt quay (roast duck). 

Man Tu Vegan's business philosophy is unique, as one can eat as much as they want and then pay any amount of money they see fit. Photo by Killian Davern.

Paul: Okay, don’t get me wrong; I haven’t actually eaten at Man Tu Vegan. But in my defense, I haven’t eaten at a lot of the Hẻm Gems we featured this year across all categories. And there’s a reason I write very few of them (and it’s not only because my repeated proposal of the seating area of Family Mart keeps get rejected). So with that caveat, I select this scrumptious vegan buffet as my top choice for Vietnamese eatery for a multitude of reasons.

First, Vietnamese cuisine typically does great vegetarian dishes thanks to the diverse range of fresh vegetables, tofu and versatile sauces. Everyone that has visited this particular spot raves about it, including Khoi whose taste buds I trust with the utmost severity. Plus the pay-whatever-you-like price scheme is just whimsical enough to brave the crowds that come during lunchtime. Finally, whenever my sister visits me here in Saigon she asks me the best vegetarian places to go, and I figure by selecting this I earn major points with her. Will 2020 be the year I finally make it to Man Tu? Definitely, probably, maybe not? 

Khoi: As someone who has actually eaten at Man Tu, I can attest to its excellence. Every time I visit, everyone is nice, appreciative and very mindful of other diners and the amount of food they take — a rare atmosphere in this age of indulgence and mukbang parties. You know, I do think it’s a perfect place for you, Paul, because you can pick as little food as you’d like and no one would bat an eye.

 

Nominations:

Thi: trứng ngải cứu — Ngo 89

Khoi: bún mắm nêm — Bun Mam Nem Di Bay Da Nang

Mike: mì vịt rô-ti — Hue Ky Mi Gia

Paul: vegetarian buffet — Man Tu Vegan

 

2. Best Non-Vietnamese Food

Sticky, smokey jerk chicken wings at Jamaica Jamaica (left) and Champ Quan's sticky rice with ant eggs (right). Photo by Alberto Prieto and Kevin Lee.

Mike: There are a number of strong contenders in this category, but I have to go with Jamaican food at Jamaica Jamaica; to my knowledge, it’s the only Caribbean place in town, and the flavors of everything I’ve had there are incredible. It’s a tiny place that usually doesn’t even have a menu, it’s just whatever ingredients the guys have been able to get for the day. Prior to visiting, I was familiar with jerk chicken and plantains, but Jamaica Jamaica allows you to dig a bit deeper into the eponymous cuisine. The bully beef, for example, became an instant favorite, and it helps that the guys behind it are super proud of the food, and a lot of TLC goes into the dishes. 

Thi: I agree with this, when I went they were just opened so we only had curried goat and jerk chicken but everything was so delicious.

Paul: I loved a lot of the options for this category (shout out to Hajime’s okonomiyaki), but ultimately the nod goes to Champa Quan for one single reason: ant eggs. I’d never eaten an ant egg before. Chicken, quail, sturgeon, salmon and duck, sure. Even ostrich. But never ants. This Laotian spot serves up the irresistible insect albumens. Soft, creamy, a wee nutty, they were terrific, if a bit unsubstantial. It’s the 21st century, time to think beyond chickens.

Mike: Insects are the future of protein

Thi: Champa Quan is also my choice for this category. For me, it’s due to the fact that almost everything we ordered on that day came out delicious. I love all the combination of spices and aromatics behind all the dishes that we tried, from the pork salad, especially the pork salad, to the ant egg sticky rice dipped in jeow. Ant egg might just be an ingredient, but the way its flavors was incorporated in perfectly cooked sticky rice is what makes this place my favorite.

A platter of mixed Ethiopian dishes at Sara's, with doro wot in the center. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Khoi: Liking a specific cuisine or restaurant is one thing, but so rarely does one get to discover the rich stories and context behind a food joint. Which makes my experience with Sara Ethiopian a highlight of my year as a food lover. Sara and Berhanu, the owners, are two of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Before the restaurant’s existence, I was completely ignorant of Ethiopian cuisine, even after hours spent on Wikipedia, but I walked away feeling comforted, uplifted and informed, and with a newfound appreciation for homemade food and the people who while their days away at the stove to cook it. Sara’s food, of course, is divine; her doro wot is complex, silky and leaves you intrigued, always wanting another bite. It’s stories like this that make me feel grateful to be living in the current time, when cultures and people meet in the most wholesome of encounters. 

Paul: That is beautiful, Khoi. And really what makes writing and exploring these so fun. That spongy injera is great as well and I think next time I'm there, I will ask for some of it to-go so I can experiment with using it to make bánh mì. Perhaps a bánh mì ốp la using the omelette that at Ngo 89 that Thi so rightly identified as divine?  

Mike: I haven’t been to Sara in Saigon, but I went the other day in Phnom Penh (check them out here) and it was fantastic!

Thi: I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE her doro wot and chickpea stew!

 

Nominations:

Mike: Jamaican food — Jamaica Jamaica

Paul: Laotian food — Champa Quan

Thi: Champa Quan

Khoi: Ethiopian food — Sara Ethiopian

 

3. Best Bar or Cafe

The homey interior of Saigon Retro Cafe. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

Khoi: The name Saigon Retro might seem redundant during this era of boutique cafe boom in Saigon because the majority of cafes follow a vintage theme of sort. Transforming one’s old apartment into a cozy coffee shop is a trend that I can wholly get behind, as it lends an air of authenticity to every single piece of quirky knick-knack, tattered book on the shelf or mug on the wall. Saigon Retro Cafe has become one of my favorite go-to spots to catch up on some writing or simply lounge around to read a new book.

Surrounded by old ads and carefully curated playlists — which mainly consist of soft jazz or Trinh Cong Son classics — you can easily sink a few hours into the work momentum. They also provide free tea and bánh tai heo for one’s snacking needs, amenities that one doesn’t always need but will always appreciate. The sitting space has some rustic touches, but is always clean and filled with natural lighting, a winning feature considering how some retro coffee shops in town could be so downright dingy and moldy that you half-expect a raccoon to pop out of the ceiling to say hi.

Paul: Are there ever cats there, Khoi? One of my favorite aspects of retro cafes is the frequent presences of friendly felines.

Khoi: There aren't any, but to park your bike, you have to go to the courtyard of an old tenement a few doors down. And there are a bunch of cute kitties there, in addition to a fascinating peek into the building’s residents. 

Co Cafe is a treasure trove of old artifacts. Photo by Kevin Lee.

Mike: While I haven’t exactly become a regular at Co Cafe, it’s among my favorite cafe discoveries this year. Conveniently located between home and work, it’s on a fairly quiet corner and draped in greenery. While this means it’s a bit darker inside than the ultra-modern, high-ceiling artisanal cafes sprouting up around town, there are some great nooks to settle into for some work or to just hang out for a bit. It’s also just steps away from the canal, meaning there’s a bit of “fresh” air around — or you can gaze out at the Golden River complex and ponder the future of the city. 

Paul: I love this cafe! They always play really great retro music when I’m there. I think the playlist contains just favorites the owners have been listening to for decades. 

Some bars or cafes, we go to for the ambiance, like Khoi said, but other times, its purely for the product. Considering that it consists of nothing more than a single espresso machine on the sidewalk surrounded by a few chairs scattered on the sidewalk, Ca Phe Tam Huong definitely falls into the latter category. The coffee is just so damn good and at unbeatable prices. Credit for the quality goes to the shop owner, Hieu. A coffee enthusiast, he passionately selects the beans and decides on the roast while selling it without a shred of the pretentiousness that sometimes surrounds boutique coffee. “Making coffee is not difficult, but it’s not easy, you just must love it,” he told me. That love is evident in each sip.

Unlike our previous picks, Ca Phe Tam Huong is extremely casual: it's just one coffee machine and a few chairs, manned by Thanh, the only barista (left). Photos by Killian Davern and Vinxent Nguyen.

Thi: I’m agreeing with Paul. A rarity! Indeed, this place has been my go-to if I need coffee fix on days I overslept and couldn’t make coffee at home. And I agree — lots of cafes rely on ambiance or decor as their main appeal; nothing wrong with that, but I think places like Ca Phe Tam Huong needs a shout-out too. I drink my coffee black without sugar so it’s very hard to mask mediocre coffee in that form, but this place doesn’t fuck around.

Mike: Ca Phe Tam Huong is great, though the cart that opened even closer to our building has stolen quite a lot of my business. 

 

Nominations:

Khoi: Saigon Retro Cafe

Mike: Co Cafe

Paul: Ca Phe Tam Huong

Thi: Ca Phe Tam Huong

 

4. Best Ambiance:

Thi Cafe is a surprisingly cozy spot right in central District 1. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Paul: This falls into the booming category of retro cafes that you referenced Khoi, but Thi Café rises above the pack for me thanks to its fantastic location in a hẻm in central District 1 and the individual care that is taken to putting together the random assortment of old Saigon objects including magazine clippings, photos, albums and audio equipment. Occupying the first floor of a classic tube house, it also has a good layout with separate areas. 

Thi: I think I mentioned before elsewhere that the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal is my favorite place in town so Champa Quan, which looks over the canal and Thi Nghe Bridge easily wins this category for me. The canal is special because I basically grew up with it and it grew up with me. I live in a neighborhood where, in order to go anywhere, I have to cross the bridge over the canal. Go to kindergarten, cross the canal. Primary school, cross the canal. Go to the park, cross the canal. Secondary school, high school, university, work, the damn canal has never failed to show up. I went through a phase of profound hatred for it in the past and saw how it changed into this nice area where actual humans can hang out now. 

Fancy some spicy nhậu food? Champa Quan has both the right snacks and atmosphere. Photo by Kevin Lee.

Paul: The canal really can’t be beat — it’s my favorite place in the city as well. And conveniently home to some of my most frequented restaurants and cafes including last year's mega-favorite Quan Cuu Non greek spot, the always charming cafe Lao Hac, and Cau Ba Quan’s interesting Vietnamese-meets-Cajun food. 

Khoi: To me, this category is more about a feeling that a food place evokes in you. And I keep returning to this one image of a Saigon sunset taken by our photographer Alberto right outside the bánh đập place in Tan Binh — rows of houses turn on their night lights, their glare striking and stark; in front, bikes blend together in a motion blur; and in the distance, a spectacular sunset serves up a swirl of magenta and violet. Before joining our writer Nhi on the trip, I had never eaten bánh đập, I had never been to that neighborhood in Tan Binh, so the experience, coupled with a breathtaking sunset, felt strangely surreal, like I was suddenly plucked away and dropped into a street-side shop in central Vietnam in the 1990s.

Mike: Khoi already covered this above, so I’ll just add that for me, Saigon Retro Cafe is a terrific little spot that finds the perfect balance between vintage and cheesy.

A beautiful sunset in Tan Binh. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Nominations:

Paul: Thi Cafe

Thi: Champa Quan

Khoi: Quan Ba Sau, a bánh đập dập place in Tan Binh.

Mike: Saigon Retro Cafe

 

In Memoriam

Saigon's robust F&B scene means that new restaurants, cuisines and trendy cafes pop up every day, but at the same time, one could wake up one day to find their most treasured cơm tấm spot gone. In 2019, we bid farewell to Joy Bak Kut Teh, the subject of one of our most popular and favorite food documentaries to date. The pork ribs and broth dish is the product of its creator's efforts to bring Singaporean cuisine to Saigon. Eating fantastic food is one of the reasons we continue our Hẻm Gem series year after year, but it's the life stories of their creators that make the experience fulfilling. Have a look at the documentary below.

 

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