BackEat & Drink » Saigon Hẻm Gems » Hẻm Gems: In Saigon, Go Mô Rứa for a Well-Crafted Huế Culinary Feast?

Hẻm Gems: In Saigon, Go Mô Rứa for a Well-Crafted Huế Culinary Feast?

In the Huế dialect, mô rứa is a phrase one might encounter often in daily conversation. When a Huế resident asks “Mi đi mô rứa?” they might be wondering where you’re heading.

As someone with roots in Central Vietnam, I’ve made it a personal goal to pick up as much of Huế’s lexicon as possible so I won’t feel out of place if and when I ever make a trip to discover my hometown. That goal is still unfulfilled, but the vocabulary has remained in my mind. When I first set eyes on the stylized banner at Mô Rứa, a sense of curiosity swelled in me, as well as an unexpected connection.

Like a long-lost friend, the banner seemed to call for me: “Hey, where are you heading? Stop by to hang out.” Of course I accepted, and here we are.

Unlike the bold, regal tinge of red of the entrance, the interior appears much more understated, with wood tones that remind me of old mansions in our former imperial capital. Mô Rứa is based in a tube house at the eastern end of the frenetic Phan Xích Long Boulevard.

As a whole, the restaurant’s architecture does not stand out too much from its neighbors, but a number of visual cues will evoke the Huế ambiance during your visit: glazed roof tiles, longevity motifs, polyptychs, revolving lanterns and bunches of colorful joss sticks. Hawk-eyed diners might notice that the eatery’s logo is a clever combination of its name, Mô Rứa, and the Thiên Mụ Pagoda.

A preemptive disclaimer for those seeking Huế classics: there’s no bún bò here. But I believe its lack thereof presents a great opportunity for one to step out of their comfort zone and try new facets of Huế cuisine.

During a visit with the Saigoneer team, we managed to sample much of the menu’s entrée section, and in a following meal, I got to munch on two delicious appetizers: fig salad (vả trộn tôm thịt) and baby clams (hến xúc).

Like the name suggests, the salad’s main component is vả, a figgy fruit found in Thừa Thiên-Huế. They’re boiled, thinly sliced, and mixed with shrimp, pork, and a special vinaigrette. Each spoonful balances textures and tastes from different elements, from the savoriness of the meat, the tannic fig, to the crunch of bánh đa.

The baby clam dish is a mix of tiny hến, chopped herbs, and crushed peanuts. I was just as impressed by the plate, as the clams are not fishy or overpowered by other ingredients, but played nice in a harmonious way to create a chewy-crispy-tasty mixture that we quickly demolished.

If in the mood to try out nearly all of Huế’s most famous dumplings and steamed buns, patrons can opt for the Huế platter comprising bánh bèo, bánh nậm, bánh bột lọc và bánh ướt, served with four petit bowls of sauces specifically concocted to suit their bánh. Here, each steamed morsel is wrapped in lá dong, a plant brought in from Huế whose leaf blades give the packets their unique shade of earthy green.

In my personal assessment, Mô Rứa’s Huế steamed treats are not mushy or greasy like versions found elsewhere. There’s a balance between softness and glutinosity. The shrimp floss is an ideal topping for the rice flour dishes, adding an umami touch and complementing the simplicity of the carbohydrates. My favorite has to be bánh nậm thanks to its coconut-y aftertaste and salty shrimp. If not restrained, I can probably wolf down 10 pieces in a sitting.

We ordered cơm âm phủ (“Purgatory” rice) and cơm lá sen (lotus rice) as entrées. While there are many folk versions of the legend behind cơm âm phủ, the Huế-born-and-raised owner of Mô Rứa tells me that the rice dish is an adaptation of Chinese eight-treasure rice (八寶飯) to cater to the Huế palate. It was first popularized by Âm Phủ, a rice eatery in the city, so the dish gradually took on the name of its maker. Legend has it that the place is next to a hotel called Thiên Đường (Heaven), so Huế residents have a saying: “Ăn Âm Phủ, ngủ Thiên Đường” (Eat at Âm Phủ, Sleep at Thiên Đường).

The making of the rice plates is similar, both consisting of shrimp, char siew, chả, shrimp floss, fried shallots, pickled vegetables, herbs, and grilled pork. The portion size is ample enough for guests seeking a filling lunch. The rice grains are rich without being too oily, and blend well with the flavor of grilled meat and nutty lotus seeds.

Cơm hến and mì hến are both famous street eats from Huế, and Mô Rứa serves these pavement staples in a similar price range to their Huế counterparts. Rice, instant noodles, young mango, fried pork rind, peanuts, chili paste, clams, and more — these come together to form a rustic snack as inviting as what one would come across on Central Vietnam streets.

There’s a savory sweetness to the clam meat, accentuated by umami mắm ruốc, crispy pork rind, shreds of tart young mango, and fresh herbs — not one taste or texture comes out as the most prominent, but every bite is a harmony of different bursts of flavor. A bowl of cơm or mì hến would be a neat small treat for lunch or afternoon snack when one feels peckish but not in need of a full meal.

Of all the menu’s listings, I was most curious about bún thịt nướng, which shares a name with a Saigon classic. Luckily we didn’t make the mistake of assuming they’re the same, lest we miss out on one of the most refreshing take on bún thịt nướng in the city. Huế-style bún thịt nướng is a unique creation that features different sauce, spring rolls and grilled meat.

At Mô Rứa, a bowl of bún thịt nướng only stars grilled pork belly, apart from rice noodles, but only this charred protein is already a game-changer. Pork belly, noodles, herbs, pickles, and a housemade peanut sauce make for an unorthodox bún thịt nướng experience.

Following a full meal of heavy dishes, guests can wash it down with sips of hyacinth bean tea and a lotus seed chè made of soft nuts and a simple syrup — the perfect ending to a feast filled with proteins and carbs. Alternatively, the sourness of roselle tea might serve as a palate cleanser or mouth-watering companion for a chat with friends.

On my personal journey to discover the treasure trove of food that is Saigon, I’ve come across many cases of skin-deep beauty. At Mô Rứa, the transition from visual to degustatory pleasures went over more swimmingly than expected, making for one of the most successful Huế food experiences I’ve had in recent memory.

Judging by both their affordable price and very dedicated craft, Mô Rứa will be a prime pick in my personal repertoire whenever someone asks where to find flavors of Huế in Saigon.

Mô Rứa is open from 9am to 1:30pm and 4pm to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 4.5/5

Location: 4/5 — A note to newcomers: there are two locations on Phan Xích Long with the same address, but the one near the intersection with Hoa Sữa is the correct one.

Mô Rứa

45 Phan Xích Long, Ward 1, Phú Nhuận

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