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Hẻm Gems: A 'Secret' Hakka Feast Only for Those in the Know

I first heard about Tiệm Cơm Ninh Giang 寧江客家飯店  from some Hoa friends in the city.

“It’s the type of place only us người Hoa know,” they told me. “It’s a little pricey, but it’s worth it. The food is really good.” The more I asked around about the restaurant, the more I heard that same sentiment — “Only người Hoa know about that place.” The restaurant isn’t hidden by any means, but driving past, one would have no idea that it’s serving some of the most unique food in Chợ Lớn.

Ninh Giang serves hakka-style meals for a small subgroup of the Hoa community in Saigon.

There are five major subgroups in the Hoa community here in Saigon: Cantonese, Teochew, Fujianese, Hainanese and Hakka. The first four groups are all named after the region they came from. Hakka people, on the other hand, have a name meaning “guest people.” They originated in central China and migrated south. Currently, there are significant populations of Hakka people across Southeast Asia, as well as in southern China and Taiwan. Cantonese food dominates the Chinese food scene in Chợ Lớn. I love Cantonese food, but sometimes I get a craving for food from different parts of the Chinese community. Tiệm Cơm Ninh Giang serves Hakka food, and it’s my go-to spot when I’m looking for something different.

Ninh Giang is located in a corridor of a hẻm lined on both sides with metal tables. Bright lights illuminate the area. Groups of men drink at tables, adding new Tiger beers to the growing mountain of bottles underneath the table. Families chat away in Cantonese as they eat steamed chicken and spare ribs. It is a place of food, family, community, and really good food.

Truly a hẻm feast.

I first learned about Hakka culture while living in Taiwan. My host family and I often spent weekends in Meinong, a district of Kaohsiung known for its thick Hakka atmosphere. My host dad grew up there and he spoke fluent Hakka, in addition to Mandarin and Taiwanese. While he spent mornings visiting his father, I would bicycle through fields, occasionally stopping at shops selling oil umbrellas painted with floral designs. We usually ate lunch at home, but occasionally we would go out to one of the local Hakka restaurants. It was there that I learned to love pig’s feet and lots of other Hakka dishes. I was delighted to see that Ninh Giang has pig’s feet on the menu, and as a hot pot dish as well!

From top to bottom, clockwise: thú linh chiên (fried intestine), sweet-and-sour pork ribs, dậu hũ dồn (stuffed veggies and tofu), and hotpot.

Hot pot is easily one of my favorite foods. I love how communal it is, and it’s also so diverse in its offerings. Here in Saigon alone, you can get spicy Sichuan hot pot at Haidilao and Taiwanese hot pot at Manwah. Vietnamese goat hot pot is also abundant. For a new variation, try Ninh Giang’s take on the dish. They have a few different options that range in ingredients, from just chunks of tofu to fish balls and pig’s feet. My favorite is the lẩu giò heo, a steaming pot of red broth made from red yeast rice and filled with a healthy serving of pig's feet and a side of veggies. The meat is tender. The vegetables, if just barely cooked, offer a nice crunch.

Đậu hủ dồn (also called yong tau foo) is quintessential Hakka food and it’s a must-order if you visit Ninh Giang as well (you’ll notice quickly I think almost everything is a must-order at Ninh Giang). It’s a dish with so many different variations and eaten across the Hakka diaspora. The one at Ninh Giang is particularly stunning. It’s a smorgasbord of tofu, peppers, and bitter melon stuffed with fish and meat. Not only does the plate look appealing, with a scarlet flash of pepper skin, but it also tastes wonderful, with a mix of bitter and spicy.

Bitter gourds and chilis are commonly used to envelop fish paste in đậu hũ dồn.

The thú linh chiên giòn, or fried intestines, are crunchy pillows cut up into bite-sized servings. Alone, they are delicious. With the sauce, they are out of this world. As we were leaving, we were raving about the food to various members of the family who run the shop. When we talked about just how much we loved the fried intestines one of the aunties said, “Well actually, that isn’t totally Hakka food.” Seeing our perplexed looks, she continued, “We’ve got this uncle who lives in France working as a chef, once a year he comes back to Vietnam and teaches us new things. The fried intestines, that’s something he taught us. The sauce, though, that’s all us. That’s from Vietnam.”

The perfect golden rings of thú linh chiên giòn.

One of my favorite Chinese dishes is sweet-and-sour spare ribs. I love it, in part, because it reminds me of American Chinese food, which usually has an abundance of sauce and is inevitably savory and sweet. Ninh Giang’s sườn xào chua ngọt is so evocative of American Chinese food that it could easily have been lifted from any Chinese buffet in the US. I mean this not as an insult, but as praise for the dish, in the complexity of its flavors and homemade-tasting fatty goodness. The pork is crispy. The sauce is sweet, and there are uncooked pineapples and tomatoes cut up and served on the same plate, creating sour bursts. The dish begs for a steaming pile of rice to soak up the sauce. For me, it’s the uniqueness of a taste of America, served up in a Hakka restaurant in Saigon, that gets me wanting to go back to Ninh Giang time after time.

Ribs are coated in batter, fried, and then coated in a layer of sauce.

Ninh Giang is bustling with activity. Busy wait staff, a mixture of family members and hired staff, move back and forth across the alley. They were incredibly accommodating on my last visit, giving us extra bowls for our pig feet bones the moment we asked. Their shirts are red with gold lettering, and if you take a moment to look at them, you’ll notice that there’s a slight spelling mistake. Instead of writing “Ninh Giang,” they’ve written “Linh Giang.” When I asked about this, the waiter just laughed and said, “Oh yeah, I’ve never noticed that before. I guess it is wrong.” He went back to working, completely unbothered. I kind of love it, how this adds even more to Ninh Giang’s casual atmosphere.

Never let a simple typo ruin your business.

The menu doesn’t have prices on it, but don’t fret. After finishing, a waiter or the owner comes around and calculates the price for you on a little piece of paper. It’s not as cheap as your typical hẻm food, but frankly, this isn’t your typical hẻm food. As long as you don’t order anything crazy expensive (like crab), it shouldn’t be too much. For four dishes that easily could have fed four people, we paid VND619,000. It’s well worth it. If you order too much, don’t worry. It’s easy to take most of the food home, except maybe the fried intestines, which are best enjoyed fresh. At Ninh Giang, they do one of my favorite things that some restaurants do here for takeout. In the US, when you take soup home, it gets put in a container. At Ninh Giang, it gets poured straight into a plastic bag and rubber banded to avoid any leaks. There’s an elegance to this solution.

As the rainy season gets here, I would definitely check the weather before heading out to eat at Ninh Giang. They do have awnings that can be rolled out in case of rain, but since the restaurant is very much outside, it’s best enjoyed on a clear day.

Ninh Giang is a place to sample a taste of the Hakka diaspora in Saigon. It offers a totally different style of Chinese food than most of the other restaurants in Chợ Lớn. There’s also a familial and culinary connection to France that further adds to the restaurant’s many layers. I have a mental list of “places to bring friends that visit Vietnam,” and Ninh Giang is at the top. It’s absolutely a must-visit.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Brendan hails from the state of Mississippi and is working on eating so many dumplings he turns into one. He also loves ice cream and is constantly on the lookout for new coffee shops to waste away an afternoon in.

Hakka food

145/2 Duong Tu Giang, Ward 15, D5

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