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Hẻm Gems: In the Mood for Lẩu? A Ngưu Offers Hong Kong Vibes and Tasty Bites.

I visit Tiệm Lẩu A Ngưu on a rare wintry Saturday evening in Saigon, the perfect occasion to fill one’s stomach with warm broth, noodles, and a host of other tasty accouterments.

According to the hotpot place’s self-description, Tiệm Lẩu A Ngưu is decorated based on 1970s and 1980s Hong Kong aesthetics. I have neither been to the city nor lived through the decades, but A Ngưu’s tiny 40-square-meter dining room really helps to create that very particular poetic atmosphere.

The first thing that I take notice of is how the interior is set up. As someone who follows a rather minimalist style, I can’t help but feel a little overwhelmed by the cluttered space — no patch of wall is left unembellished. Red lanterns, a Chinese calendar, and vintage movie posters intermingle with Christmas garlands and a Santa Claus with an enigmatic smirk.

The overarching color scheme inside is green, red and yellow. I wonder if they encapsulate any hidden meaning in Chinese culture or were purposely selected to evoke the tint of Wong Kar-wai movies. I choose to believe in the latter, as every trinket — from the gaudy shop banner to the peculiar tight space inside — reminds me of Chungking Express.

The seating arrangement here also differs from typical street nhậu spots: plastic stools and short tables are non-existent. Instead, guests sit around family tables and separate booths like those at The Goldfinch from In the Mood for Love. Is this a deliberate choice by the owner to conjure up that cinematic wistfulness? And would it still be romantic if Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung relished hotpot together instead of steak?

We pick a round table for our party of eight, who are all ravenous and have no desire for Instagram showboating. A Ngưu offers two types of broth of eaters’ choice with every hotpot. There are six to pick from and dozens of toppings. We opt for spicy and non-spicy options to sample a wide range of tastes. The spicy soup is Mala, named after the sauce from Chongqing, and is rich with Sichuan peppercorns and chillies. The owner tells me that the name makes up of two characters meaning "numbing" (麻) and "spicy (piquant)" (辣) in Chinese. One can guess the condition of their mouth after tasting just by the name.

Nonetheless, the level of heat has probably been adjusted to take pity on some demographics of local eaters — our team included — that can’t endure too much chili. The non-spicy broth is named Longevity, whose major taste profile includes milk and bone stock.

I, for one, am a fan of spiciness, so my attention is firmly docked at the half of the pot with simmering Mala broth, almost always dipping my toppings into its peppery, oily water. Still, my colleagues do review the Longevity half favorably. When the water recedes, the owner is happy to refill the sections with additional broth so the fun can continue.

A Ngưu’s offering of toppings, like vegetables, mushrooms or seafood, is not unique to such eateries but we still order nearly everything on the menu, just because we can. My favorite is something I’ve never had before: century egg-filled fish balls. The richness of the egg goes unexpectedly well with the heat of Mala soup, but alas I could only try the last fish ball. Of course, despite not being an authentic Chinese hotpot component, Hai Con Tôm noodles are a prominent star of our banquet.

Flavor-wise, Tiệm Lẩu A Ngưu is admittedly neither an outstanding nor accurate reflection of Hong Kong cuisine. Nevertheless, the sense of warmth and comfort here — emanating from the bubbling broth and the cozy interior — is enough to warrant A Ngưu a place in my to-revisit list. Does it matter whether the food is wholly authentic if it’s able to make me yearn for an unlived lifetime?

Tiệm Lẩu A Ngưu is open from 5pm to 11pm. Visit the restaurant’s Facebook page for more information.

To sum up:

Taste: 4.5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4.5/5

Location: 5/5

Tiệm Lẩu A Ngưu

11C Vũ Huy Tấn, Ward 3, Bình Thạnh

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