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Hẻm Gems: The Pandemic Kept Her in Vietnam, so She Opened a Thai Eatery

One of the joys of Saigon's F&B scene recently has been the expansion of international cuisine beyond the city center.

Gone are the days when your only option for certain dishes was to head to District 1, or even District 2. Take, for example, Thái Lê Ký. Located down a small hẻm off the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, this simple eatery features a spices and herbs cart outside, and a few wooden tables inside.

The decor nods to Thailand through the presence of several Thai flags and portraits of the deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej (as well as, for some reason, Muhammad Ali and a basketball hoop with no backboard attached to one wall).

Thái Lê Ký is a one-woman show, with Nhi doing the ordering, cooking and serving of food. Before the pandemic, she had lived in Bangkok for over 20 years, where she learned how to cook Thai food and eventually opened her own restaurant. She returned to Vietnam last year and has been unable to return to Thailand, where her restaurant currently sits closed and her family still lives.

"When I opened this place a few months ago, I set low prices so that everyone can come and enjoy," Nhi said. "If it's expensive, how can they come back?"

The prices are indeed amazing, with all but one dish costing VND50,000 or less. The menu features 10 dishes, including Thai staples like tom yam, khao pao and som tum.

We ordered a feast of nearly every item, and Nhi puts great care into her cooking: carefully chopping chilies and crushing peanuts out front, before completing the rest of the preparation in the small kitchen. Just to get it out of the way, the pad Thai, that most stereotypical of Thai dishes, is fine — nothing exciting, and you should definitely focus your attention elsewhere.

The khao pao, for instance, is exceptional, and uses real Thai basil imported from Thailand. The pork is juicy and flavorful, while the fried egg placed on top was the right amount of runny once the yoke was pierced. Be warned, however, that the chilies used in this and the other dishes are potent, and not for the faint of heart. Nhi assured us that she can tailor the spice level to the preference of each diner, so be sure to let her know.

In the spice arena, the gaeng keaw wharn (green curry) took the crown, and actually overwhelmed our palates a bit. Visually, this is a beautiful dish, with bright red chili slices swimming in the opaque green broth.

The tom yam, featuring pork, shrimp and squid, wasn't as hot, and had more of a sour flavor profile. This would definitely be better for those averse to spice.

The roast chicken with Thai sauce and fried rice was something of a surprise, as I haven't had it in Thailand before, but the meaty chicken breast was perfectly cooked, while the sauce added a slightly spicy, smoky touch to it.

In short, everything we had was excellent, with the exception of the pad Thai which, again, wasn't bad, but there are so many better Thai dishes. And Nhi doesn't compromise on flavors either (well, unless you ask for less spice): "I don't mix any Vietnamese ingredients or styles," she said. "I want to do real, original Thai food."

She has certainly done that, creating a must-visit destination for fans of Thai food — or just good food in general — on the border of District 3 and Phu Nhuan.

Thái Lê Ký is open from 9am to 10pm daily and is available on delivery apps.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 3/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Michael has almost no sense of smell and was an on-screen extra in Jurassic World. You can usually find him with a craft beer in hand.

Thai food

796/11 Truong Sa, D3

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