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Hẻm Gems: The Refreshing Simplicity of Veggies, Roots and Mushrooms

Explaining the food at Rau Củ Nấm Vegan Restaurant is simple; it’s all in the name: vegetables, tubers, and mushrooms.

The ideological clash between advocates for veganism and their opponents can get deafening sometimes on the inter-web over the past years. We’ve all seen the memes and pop culture depictions. On one hand, the most extreme subscribers of the “meat is murder” school of thought stage protest outside steakhouses, lambaste burger bars, and egg at BBQ restaurants. From the other camp, the Ron Swansons of us stroke their beard smugly while gulping down giant slabs of meat whose cholesterol content is guaranteed to clog even the hollowest of arteries.

Ever since I started watching international TV shows and consuming English-language media, I’ve found the dichotomy fascinating, coming from the viewpoint of someone whose native cuisine has always embraced veganism with hands as open as those of Buddha’s. Buddhist vegetarianism has been an integral part of my life for the longest time. I remember waking up for school as a kid and being greeted by a bowl of hủ tiếu chay or a bánh mì chay during special days of the lunar month. We live in a community with many practicing Buddhists, so according to my mother, food stands and eateries will sell vegetarian food for two days every lunar month: the 1st and the 15th.

Mì trộn.

According to the Buddhist Sangha of Vietnam, when it comes to vegetarianism, followers tend to choose either cyclical vegetarianism (chay kì) or eternal vegetarianism (chay trường), though the former is often recommended as stepping stones toward achieving the latter. Buddhist teachings in Vietnam acknowledge that not all followers can immediately make that drastic transition between an omnivorous diet to a strictly herbivorous one.

Most followers avoid meat two days a month, while there are many other variations of the diet depending on how devout one is and whether it’s compatible with one’s lifestyle. Some eat vegetarian for four days, six days, eight days or ten days a month while a few others opt for one month a year, usually during the first or seventh month of the lunar calendar.

Bún chả giò nấm.

Vegetarian meals, thanks to Vietnam’s sizable population of Buddhists, have been normalized and accepted as part of our culinary tapestry. Chay restaurants make vegan food year-round, while some eateries switch to meat-less versions of their specialized fare every full moon. If you’re hankering for some expertly cooked chay dishes but are on a budget, head to local temples, which sometimes serve up well-rounded banquets of vegetarian food free of charge every month.

At Saigoneer, we’ve celebrated many vegetarian establishments in various shapes and flavors — a rustic cơm trưa chay stall with ingenious vegetarian renderings of common meat dishes, a pay-any-amount buffet that helps feed the less fortunate, and even an entire eatery housed in a temple. This week’s featured Hẻm Gem, Rau Củ Nấm Vegan Restaurant, doesn’t stray far from general principles of Vietnam’s chay food: simple, affordable, and comforting.

Rau Củ Nấm is based in a residential neighborhood in District 7 just a short walk from Nguyen Van Linh Avenue. It’s wedged between bike-washing services, print shops and casual cafés, though the interior is surprisingly polished and show the owner’s attention to details. Plant pots grace tabletops; smooth jazz plays in the background; and a well-lit menu hangs above the cashier. Every feature contributes to the restaurant’s soothing ambience that would make for a lunch spot deserving of future returns.

The dining area and kitchen.

Rau Củ Nấm’s menu can be divided into full meals, either rice- or noodles-based; and accompanying snacks. Diners can pick a pasta, mixed noodles or mixed rice for their main course and choose to nibble on some gỏi cuốn, chả giò or a hearty seaweed soup.

The gỏi cuốn nấm, a rice-paper roll filled with mushroom and jicama, becomes alive when dipped inside the peanut butter sauce. The refreshing herbs pairs well with the rich nuttiness of the sauce and accentuated by the texture of the mushroom. Bún chả giò nấm is a vegetarian play on bún chả giò, complete with vegan fish sauce that’s bright and tangy. Even if you’re used to the non-vegetarian version, you’re not missing much here because Rau Củ Nấm’s chả giò is quite complex and neatly put together.

The gỏi cuốn nấm with peanut sauce (left) and the cơm xào (right).

After two competent performances, I’m a little disappointed by our order of mì trộn and cơm xào. The former is a bundle of green noodles surrounded by steamed vegetables and a sauce and the latter is brown rice with stir-fried vegetables. Both are made with fresh ingredients and nicely cooked vegetables in an effort to keep the dishes on the healthy side, but suffer from a lack of seasoning. The mì trộn earns brownie points for its usage of green noodles made from chùm ngây leaves, but it’s too much for the accompanying spicy soy sauce alone to lift the dish up flavor-wise. The plate of cơm xào is light and filling, but could also do with additional salt. But, perhaps this is the point that Rau Củ Nấm is trying to make in their cooking style that I missed — that overly salted food is doing a number on our health.

While some dishes have room for improvement, at a price point of VND45,000–55,000, they provide an affordable and nutritious meal that I will be very happy to order again. Had the restaurant been based nearer to where I live, it would have become a frequent hangout. After our meal at Rau Củ Nấm, I’m met with a familiar welcoming feeling that takes over me every time I eat vegetarian food. It could well be a placebo, but I personally believe that there’s a special sense of wholesomeness that only eating light, plant-based food with minimal oil and flavoring additives can evoke.

Rau Củ Nấm is open from 9am to 2pm and 4pm to 9:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5 

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 3/5

Khoi loves chả giò, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Vegetarian casual dining

557 Le Van Luong, Tan Phong Ward, D7

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