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Hẻm Gems: From Nghệ An, a Turmeric-Tinged Miến Lươn Feast in D7

Once upon a time, deep in the distant kingdom of District 7, there was a miến lươn place. 

The enduring tavern.

Its noodles were delicious, its eels fresh, and its barkeep amicable. The rustic tavern quickly gained the favor of the local hoi polloi and started attracting even pilgrims from nearby hamlets lining up to relish its well-crafted seafood broth. Alas, the eatery’s growing eminence also stirred the green-eyed monster living in the heart of its neighbors, who deigned to establish their own taverns dishing out miến lươn right next door to the original. The three rival noodle lodges coexisted in relative peace, until one fateful year, a treacherous plague swept through the realm, sickening many and rendered the populace destitute. Not many had the coins to frequent eel establishments anymore, and so, with dwindling patronship, the middle eel tavern had to shutter, while the original powered through and remained a beloved place of gathering for new footmen and regulars of yore alike.

The open kitchen.

This might or might not be Miến Lươn Phạm Gia’s origin story, but the COVID-19 pandemic did force one of three miến lươn places on No. 79 Street to close. Phạm Gia is based deep inside a residential enclave in Tân Quy Ward of District 7, where one wouldn’t know to look unless they call this place home, like Saigoneer’s resident photographer. A few months ago, his recommendation for a bánh cuốn Hải Phòng Hẻm Gems was a veritable treat, so we placed utmost trust in his approval of Phạm Gia, apparently yet another long-enduring family favorite that has stood the test of time — and worldwide pandemic.

The humble dining area of Phạm Gia.

Miến Lươn Phạm Gia looks just like any casual restaurant one would come across anywhere in the country: black plastic stools, bottles of half-congealed chili sauce, a giant menu with patched-up numeral decals showing the effects of inflation, and an open kitchen where every single activity from dish-washing to pepper-sprinkling is there for your gawking pleasures. Here, the eel comes in two main styles: deep-fried or tenderly stir-fried. One can opt to have their eel cuts with noodles and broth, stir-fried noodles, porridge, or with bánh mì and broth. Each standard portion costs VND70,000, which might be steep for just one meal, but for miến lươn, it’s comfortably below average in Saigon.

The menu that has been through several rounds of price revisions because of inflation.

Freshly chopped onion and herbs.

I am no expert in the cooking of miến lươn, but I’d fancy myself a veteran in the consumption of miến lươn. It’s essentially a northern dish, for the region is where these elusive freshwater eels call home. Few experiences can be as soul-soothing as sipping warm miến lươn broth on a cold morning in Hanoi, letting the herbs, the umami, the crispiness permeate your being until you’re thrumming with satiation. Our family’s go-to miến place in District 1 has gradually increased their prices to the point of no return, and I have been on the lookout for a replacement for a while. Will Miến Lươn Phạm Gia’s offering suffice?

A bountiful plate of fried eel is provided. I only added a few pieces into the bowl for the photo.

Our photographer colleague and his spicy palate. It's unreal.

My bowl of crispy eel and noodle broth arrived with a faint whiff of sesame oil and a thin layer of turmeric-tinged oil on the surface. Deep-fried chunks of eel were thoughtfully provided on a separate plate to keep the water from softening them. Strands of spring onion and bits of rau răm contributed to the greenery of the bowl’s ecosystem. In talking with the lady who handled our order, I found out that the family hailed from Nghệ An, and this golden-hued miến lươn is a style they brought from their hometown, in contrast to the clear broth I’ve had in Hanoi. But I am overjoyed to report that Miến Lươn Phạm Gia’s version is no less enjoyable. Dip the eel quickly in nước lèo, make a swirl of miến on your spoon, scoop up a sip of broth and everything comes together like a harmonious embrace.

Stir-frying noodles for a quick sear.

Soft chunks of eels being fried.

My colleague’s stir-fried vermicelli with julienned carrots and herbs had a nice bite and subtle flavors to me, but judging by the way he had to quite literally flood the plate with chili sauce, it was either grossly under-seasoned or he is a spice-crazed maniac. I’m leaning towards the latter. Another lunch companion got the version with broth and a bánh mì to dip and munch, but this proved to be the least ideal way to enjoy deep-fried eel: the dryness of the bread and the fried lươn compounded into a textural monotony that didn’t exist in the noodle versions.

The platonic ideal of a bowl of miến lươn.

In Vietnam’s pantheon of noodle dishes, miến lươn is especially easy to love. Vermicelli strands have just the right amount of chewiness, unlike phở which can get soggy fast or egg noodles’ dogmatic spring despite ample soaking time. Miến’s flat cross-section makes chopsticks maneuvering a breeze, compared to bánh canh’s slippery rotundity. And finally, for those Vietnamese like me whose bone-handling skills leave much to be desired, the deep-fried, boneless lươn with no fishy aftertaste is a godsend. This also makes miến lươn one of Vietnam’s most child-friendly seafood breakfast options there are.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 4/5
Atmosphere: 3/5
Friendliness: 3/5
Location: 4/5

Khôi loves curry, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Phạm Gia - Miến Lươn Nghệ An

110-112 No. 79 Street, Tân Quy Ward, D7, HCMC

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