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Hẻm Gems: The Universe of Hanoian Food Beyond Bún Đậu

I tend to be cautious of restaurants that boast authenticity.

I have no personal beef against the concept; seeking the pure expression of a specific cuisine is a high-achieving and noble goal. But with the word “authentic” comes expectations, from the chef towards their own cuisine and from diners towards the range of morsels that they put in their mouth. Sometimes, expectations are not met, and disappointment ensues. In trying new genres of food, I’ve tried to follow a personal principle: to plunge straight into it, wallow in the sauces, and luxuriate in the greens without worrying if the offering stays true to its geographical roots. As long as it’s delicious.

Authenticity, to me, is also subjective and changes person to person. I’ve eaten phở trộn in Hanoi, and my idea of an authentic Hanoian phở trộn is interwoven with a vivid memory of eating chicken noodles in a semi-open stall streetside while traffic on Au Co Street hums along, two meters above me. Someone else’s idea of phở trộn might be a homemade meal crafted by a beloved family member, cooked with personal modification and heirloom secret ingredients.

So, despite the many glowing reviews praising Ngõ Đồng Xuân’s authentic Hanoian food, what eventually piqued my interest about this up-and-coming Tan Binh restaurant was actually the prospect of phở phồng and phở cuốn, rare northern dishes that are hard to find in bún đậu-filled Saigon. The intersection of Nguyen Du and Pasteur streets used to be the home of Phở Bắc Hà, a cozy nook of northern-style phở soup and one of the best fried phở the city had to offer. It anchored many a childhood memory of having an after-school meal with my dad. I don’t know how and when it happened, but the spot has been replaced by a Highlands Coffee in recent years. Parts of the metallic facade are still there, but instead of being caked in grease and enveloping plastic tables, the structure now hosts gaggles of white-collar workers and their frappuccinos.

This is all to say that I fucking miss phở chiên. I miss the sizzling rush of trying to eat the crusty pillows of fried noodles before the stir-fried beef sauce can make them soggy. I miss the semi-first-degree burn that grazes my tongue. I miss the night vibes of the neighborhood surrounding Truc Bach Lake, awash in a honey-shade sheen of evening street light.

At a glance, Ngõ Đồng Xuân does not stand out from the crowd of Hanoian food places in Saigon that existed before it and will succeed it in the future. The restaurant’s name is borrowed from a notable food alley in Hanoi famous for its phở tíu, bánh tôm, and special bamboo-stick bún chả. It’s unclear if the similar name is meant to evoke a certain northern ambiance among diners or to set a culinary goal to aspire to. Having sampled Ngõ Đồng Xuân’s food, it’s safe to say that the owner of the restaurant has achieved a commendable standard of excellence that might rival its namesake, even though they don’t serve the same dishes.

Left: phở cuốn. Right: chả ốc Kinh Kỳ.

Left: phở chiên trứng. Right: miến xào cua.

Bánh gối.

Ngõ Đồng Xuân’s menu has a spectrum of Hanoian fare from common to obscure for the Saigoneer palate, so it’s only right that we make an attempt to explore both ends of the prevalence scale: some fried phở, some phở rolls, some snail meatballs, some stir-fried vermicelli, and some deep-fried bánh gối. Upon discovering that we’re doing a review of her place, the owner — a svelte Hanoian lady whose family has lived in Saigon since 1991 — surprises us with a portion of bún chả on the house. So, for the sake of full disclosure: part of this Hẻm Gem might be influenced by one portion of charcoal-grilled bún chả.

Everything that lands on our table was well-prepared and above-average, but the rolls of phở cuốn, the patties of chả ốc, and the fried phở with egg are bewitching. A basket of golden phở noodles holds saucy stir-fried beef and vegetables — and all my hopes and dreams. It straddles the line between just crunchy enough and being a vessel to soak up the flavorsome gravy.

It’s apparent that bún chả is a point of pride for the owner through the way she delves into how to marinate (with a special coloring condiment imported from Hanoi) and grill the meat (only on charcoal for the smokiness). It’s an expertly crafted bún chả, but at this point in my life, I’ve had such an inordinate number of bún chả bowls that my enthusiasm for it has gone the way of the dodo.

My Hanoian friend voiced her approval of the meal’s tempered sweetness, a point of contention that southern restaurants serving northern food usually fail to address. I personally think the fish sauce can use a little sugar, but I’m also a milk tea-guzzling youth, so perhaps “it’s not you, it’s me.”

Our food is accompanied by glasses or refreshing nước sấu served with strips of ginger in a tall glass of ice. Sấu is the quintessential Hanoian fruit. The trees pepper local streets with tiny orbs the same way dipterocarps coat Saigon streets. The fruit, when raw, is sour and tannic, so preservists pickle them in a sugar solution to make a flavorful punch, something that the owner of Ngõ Đồng Xuân is very keen to tell us all about. “You know it’s homemade nước sấu because the fruits are scored properly to allow the juice to come out,” she divulges. “Elsewhere, they use the commercially processed kind so you don’t see the pattern.”

It’s impossible to transcribe the special flavor of sấu on paper: it’s subtly floral and resembles a sturdier, less extroverted apricot. It doesn’t try too hard to please, so it ends up being very light and refreshing. The flesh is crunchy and makes for a fantastic after-meal snack.

I didn’t sit down at Ngõ Đồng Xuân’s tiny table set looking for authenticity, just tasty well-cooked food, but I’m delighted to say that we got more than we bargained for, because this restaurant has checked both boxes with aplomb.

Ngõ Đồng Xuân is open from 10am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 2/5 for hột vịt lộn and 4/5 for cút lộn.

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi loves fried phở, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Hanoian food

63A Hoang Hoa Tham, Ward 13, Tan Binh

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