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Hẻm Gems: At Sadec Quan, a Celebration of Mekong Delta Noodles

While bánh tằm is more often regarded as a popular street food dish in the Mekong Delta, my entrance to the world of this dish was family gatherings in Saigon.

Hailing from Bac Lieu Province, which is where bánh tằm is believed to have originated from, my mom and her sisters would occasionally recreate some of Bac Lieu’s delicacies whenever we gather for our grandparents' death anniversaries: bánh củ cải, canh chua cá kèo, duck curry and bánh tằm bì frequented the dining table in my teenage years. As time went by and more family members moved to different parts of the world, fewer portions of these were given out.

Bánh tằm is a generic name for a type of noodle that is often used as a base for bánh tằm bì, which contains bánh tằm noodles, herbs and vegetables mixed with (shredded pork skin mixed with toasted rice powder) and drenched in coconut cream and sweet fish sauce.

Bánh tằm bì xíu mại.

Bánh tằm noodles are different across different Mekong Delta provinces, depending on the type of rice available in the area and the noodle-making process. Newly harvested rice versus older rice also makes for a great difference in flavor and texture. Contrary to bánh tằm dishes found in Saigon eateries, which feature thick, short strands of silkworm-like noodles, the bánh tằm that I know and love is significantly longer, thinner (almost the size of the rice vermicelli in bún bò) and chewier, and therefore, in my opinion, better complements the hearty coconut cream and makes for less doughy bites. The thinner strands also showcase their maker's shaping skills, as seen in this video.

While bánh tằm bì is the most well-known dish, bánh tằm in the Mekong Delta also exist in the forms of bánh tằm cay (bánh tằm in a very spicy curry sauce with chicken or pork meatballs) and bánh tằm bì xíu mại (bánh tằm bì with pork balls that are simmered in tomato sauce).

Even within the universe of bánh tằm bì xíu mại, different renditions exist, depending on how one interprets the term xíu mại. The two versions I’m familiar with are one that has pork meatballs in tomato sauce and one that has a slab of minced pork wrapped in tofu skin and simmered in tomato, which can be found in Ca Mau and some more “premium” eateries in Bac Lieu, such as the restaurant outside the front yard of the infamous Bac Lieu Prince mansion.

Sadec Quan’s take on bánh tằm bì xíu mại expands my bánh tằm horizon.

Located on Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, Sadec Quan is an eatery that focuses on the noodle dishes of Sa Dec, a city in Dong Thap Province that is home to one of Vietnam’s oldest rice flour “village.” The restaurant’s main dishes are hủ tiếu Sa Đéc and bánh tằm bì xíu mại.

Sadec Quan’s bánh tằm is slightly different than a typical Saigon bánh tằm, as the size of the noodle strand is slightly thinner, although not as thin as the ones I’ve tasted from Ca Mau and Bac Lieu. The noodle flavor has a nice sweetness. The noodles are a bit doughy for my taste, which might be the result of machine pressing rather than hand-shaping; however, the flavor is significantly better than its cousins in Saigon. The restaurant claims that they make their own noodles from rice, rather than rice flour, which might explain the superior flavor, as rice flour can result in a tangy aftertaste.

The dish is served with, to my surprise, pork meatballs and nem nướng (grilled pork sausage), sans the tomato sauce. A little digging on Google suggests the restaurant's take is close to a Dong Thap-style bánh tằm bì xíu mại that is often served with the grilled pork sausage and fried spring rolls.

The pork meatballs are also a step more tender than a typical Vietnamese pork meatball, which is always a plus in my book. The sweet fish sauce and the coconut cream is perfectly comforting to my southern palate.

Hủ tiếu Sa Đéc thập cẩm with pork, shrimp and offal.

Besides bánh tằm, we also tried out Sadec Quan’s dry hủ tiếu and their noodle soup. The soup packs the characteristic umami note of simmered pork bones and is topped with shrimp, offal and fresh fish slices. The dry hủ tiếu uses the iconic Sa Dec rice noodles, which are slightly wider than the hủ tiếu dai (chewy rice noodle) in hủ tiếu Nam Vang and thinner than the Chinese-type flat white noodle. The noodles were dressed in a thick soy sauce-based gravy which gives them a more luscious sheen.

If you haven’t got the memo already, while words such as chewy, gummy and rubbery sound unattractive in English, chewiness in noodles is a celebrated texture in many places. Sa Dec's hủ tiếu is the epitome of this celebration. Biting through a soft strand of noodle has its merits, however, when there is some resistance against one’s bite and you have to spend more time chewing, more time is spent on savoring the thick, delicious sauce, together with the noodles. It is a textural and flavor experience, as one creates flavor by breaking down the starch so that the gravy absorbs better. In my own (very biased) opinion, one of the best ways to taste a flavorful sauce is to chew through it.

Bánh lọt lá dứa, flan and bánh lọt lá dứa with assorted beans.

Sadec Quan also offers a variety of novel choices in terms of toppings. Beef balls, offal, fish and vegetables are all available options. It serves a variety of desserts too, including bánh lọt lá dứa, or pandan green jelly droplets in coconut milk.

For people who have an intimate connection to the Mekong Delta and those who are familiar with the texture and flavor of rice noodles there, Saigon's recreation of rice noodle dishes might fail to appeal, as some nuances in the craft of noodle-making can be erased by mass production. However, I'm grateful for the existence of places like Sadec Quan, which help feed my nostalgia for bánh tằm and the familial bond surrounding the dish.

Sadec Quan opens from 7am until 9pm every day. 

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5 — VND52,000 to VND82,000 per portion.

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Thi believes that happiness starts with sautéing garlic in hot oil.

Bánh tằm and hủ tiếu Sa Đéc

154 Nguyen Dinh Chieu, District 3

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