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Hẻm Gems: Pho Chay Nhu and 35 Years of Serving Tasty Vegetarian Meals

A bowl full of noodles is one of the things that make me feel lucky to be alive, and alive in Saigon in particular.

There are a plethora of noodle soups to fall in love with in Vietnam, and Pho Chay Nhu offers a wide variety, meat excluded.

After discussing featuring Pho Chay Nhu as a Hẻm Gem, I went back to the restaurant on a quiet afternoon after leaving the Saigoneer office. This was my fourth time going, but somehow I still managed to drive past it. I don't know if this says more about my derpish sensibility or the obscurity of its entrance. Likely a melange of the two.

The restaurant is located along Truong Quyen Street, sandwiched between Dien Bien Phu on one side and Vo Thi Sau on the other; a quick walk from Le Van Tam Park. I entered and took a seat to the left of the owner. He sat, leaned back with arms crossed, watching what sounded like an action movie on a laptop set on one of the establishment's aluminum fold-up tables.

After receiving my bowl of the signature phở, I squeezed in as many limes as I could get my hands on, added a few pieces of red chili, and a healthy portion of basil from the plate of herbs and greens provided. Then, my favorite addition to the soup, a fried wonton, a plate of which is provided for customers to add as they please for VND3,300 each. Because I am exceedingly horny for condiments, I added quite a bit of vegan nước mắm and the lemongrass-heavy sa tế sauce.

My bowl was now ready to go. The circle of noodles was surrounded by floating mushrooms and rolled bean curd skin, which added a nice touch of umami to the clear broth. The freshness of the basil, the tartness of the lime, the kick of chili and the salty sweetness of the nước mắm were all nice compliments to the earthy flavors. Adding the oily wonton added a delightful touch of gluttony to the otherwise simple offering.

My one quibble with the dish is that the temperature of the broth wasn't as hot as I would like it to be. If a food is supposed to be served hot, I want it to basically burn my mouth. But, like I said, a quibble.

I returned a couple of days later with some of the Saigoneer crew to try some more dishes. We ordered the cơm tấm, bò kho, mì Quảng, and another bowl of phở. The cơm tấm was quite satisfying. The chewy and oily mock meats sat on a bed of rice and made the perfect bite when covered in the chili-infused nước mắm. The bò kho is a real standout dish. The vegan version of the beef stew is fragrant with a variety of sweet spices, lemongrass and chili. Including three big mugs of trà đá, our meal came to just under VND150,000.

Along with eating more food, I was able to satisfy a few curiosities on this return with co-workers. I learned that the restaurant has been open for 35 years and that the staff begins their day at 5am, preparing the food and starting to serve customers at 6am. I was also curious about the presence of beer, as most chay places do not serve alcohol. The question as to why Pho Chay Nhu's refrigerator is stocked with Tigers and Heineken was answered mainly with laughter. In addition to the beer, the fact that the restaurant stays open until 9pm makes it a good option for those looking for both a good late-night meal and a few beers.

The kitchen has a common vegetable stock, and whenever a bò kho or mì Quảng is ordered, the cook will mix in the appropriate sauce to add flavor to the common broth.

Pho Chay Nhu has what made me so obsessed with Vietnam to begin with: delicious vegetarian food delivered in a laid-back atmosphere that manages to delight with little details that stick in my consciousness more subtly than the flavors that linger on my palate.

Pho Chay Nhu is open from 6am to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 5/5

Govi is enthusiastic about the golden hour, clouds, bodies of water, trees, breezes, faces, cappuccinos and thinking about thinking about thinking about thinking.

Vegetarian dishes

54 Truong Quyen, Ward 6, D3

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