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Hẻm Gems: Quán Ba Hí's Comfort Food Is Perfect for Eating Your Feelings Away

I've always found comfort food to be the most authentic passage to experience any type of global cuisine. Yet, when I try to find the word for it in my native tongue Vietnamese, the semantics just seem to fall flat.

A cheaper alternative to seeking therapy, comfort food offers an instant distraction from life problems through the sheer power of tastiness. For every romance mishap, academic failure, and office meltdown, there is a comfort food that can help you prevail in the face of adversity.

There is no strict definition of what actually counts as comfort food, as different life paths and personal tastes can influence what spiritual meaning each person gets out of a dish. But comfort food everywhere is almost always a calories-dense masquerade of carbs, fat, salt, and sugar. For Vietnamese, think a steamy bowl of porridge with extra quẩy, or a bún bò Huế special.

When I was studying abroad in the US, I was intrigued by how comfort food is such a pop culture phenomenon here. A question I heard a lot during ice-breaking sessions was “What is your favorite comfort food?” Then there's the famous movie trope where the character lies in the fetal position with a pint of ice cream. Thanks to the country's stockpile of starches and soft power, its beloved comfort dishes such as pizza, pasta, sandwiches, and more, also got popularized in many parts of the world.

In Saigon, there is no shortage of restaurants serving this kind of so-called western-style comfort food. But it is often served at a price point above average local's wage, or is localized the point of losing the originals' gluttonous appeal. And so, ever since my return to Vietnam, the void of hearty/heart-attack-inducing food has led me on a quest to find greasy fixes that wouldn't break the bank. I've found that Ba Hí, a little quán-style bistro on Vạn Kiếp, has the answer.

For those that are unaware, Vạn Kiếp is the mainstay of Bình Thạnh's street food scene, where prices are usually on the cheaper side. Ba Hí's billboard advertising its minced beef fries at VND55,000, though, still came as a surprise. I couldn't help but be skeptical when I first saw it, but there was no catch. The shop front was neat and Instagram-esque with coconut cutlery on wooden tabletops instead of the usual plastics. The trash cans were emptied. An employee was quick to help patrons park their bikes — not fine-dining by any standards, but a welcome deviation from some of the other street vendors. 

Ba Hí opened in May 2022 and serves a small menu of comforting classics such as sandwiches, fries, and salads that can be customized with different proteins like shrimp, chicken, or bacon.

The shop's signature dish is French fries, alas, my ride-or-die in the food world. I've had bad luck when trying out fries in Vietnam as they're mostly served in stale, meager portions that look like a sad afterthought. And it is more depressing than comforting to see your favorite in such an unholy display. Ba Hí's animal-style fries, luckily, do not dish out that sort of disrespect.

Animal-style, made a cult favorite by In-N-Out Burger, is a poutine-like fries topped with a hodgepodge of ingredients. For this offshoot of the dish, we have sautéed onion, purple cabbage, melted American cheese, minced beef and house-made sauce. The crispy fries, syrupy onions, and crunchy cabbage wrapped in a hug of cheesiness brought it home for me, while also taking me back to exam midnights that I spent at fast diners. 

Ba Hí also brought something interesting to the table (no pun intended) with its sandwiches. In my humble opinion, the sandwiches are actually just burgers disguising themselves in bread slices. What's nice here is that because Ba Hi has an open kitchen, you can watch your sandwiches materialize as the chef goes through the commotion on the grill. It was equally satisfying and satiating to see metal cookware clattering, onions caramelizing, eggs cracked into frames, and patties slowly smothered by cheese.

The result of this process is an extremely filling sandwich with crusty toast topped with tomatoes and lettuce. While the beef sandwich has the feel of a typical burger — greasy and full umami, the spicy chicken sandwich pulled absolutely no punches with its fiery hot sauce. What impressed me the most was that even though it stayed on the grill for a long time, the smashed patties didn't end up crumbly but rather meatily tender.

The use of chicken cartilage, coated in crispy batter, was a highlight of the meal. It and every other item on the menu come with a sauce of your choosing, and there are a few options to match your mood in case you're having a rough day. The spicy buffalo sauce, for example, is perfect for your fiery feelings for someone who will never notice you, while the creamy and garlicky ranch sauce can help you cool off from the burn. Ba Hí also offers a honey mustard sauce that is sweet, tangy, and suitable for those with a less adventurous palate.

A quit chat revealed that the name Ba Hí comes from the fact that the three young owners all have, verbatim, "squinty eyes." Friends since middle school, the three decided to join forces after years of pursuing different careers. As one member studied abroad and took a liking to comfort food, and one worked in a western-style restaurant, they decided that it was what they were going to sell.

“Actually, he [the chef/owner] loves and knows well how to make Vietnamese dishes like bánh mì, cơm tấm and bún riêu tooHe even thought about setting up a bánh mì cart, but wasn't fond of competing with experienced vendors on the market. As a result, we decided that we would make street foods that are more youthful and personal to us, like cheese-covered fries and sandwiches, to stand out from the rest,” one of the cofounders tells me.

Perhaps this is why despite the little Vietnamese influences here and there, like the chicken cartilage and Tường An margarine, the shop managed to preserve the epicurean spirit at the heart of western comfort food. With a budget friendly menu, generous portions and familiar flavors from afar, Ba Hí will be the perfect stop to fix one's cravings for soul-healing food.

Ba Hí Sài Gòn is open from 3pm to 11pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 5/5
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 3.5/5

Ba Hí Sài Gòn

93 Vạn Kiếp

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