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Hẻm Gems: The Chuối Nếp Nướng That You Can't Find on Google Maps

Before the birth of TikTok and food review channels, many Saigoneers already grew up with their own set of staple food gems. As a youngster, I would visit the city's familiar, delicious food stalls with my mom and little brother after a long day at school, snacking on all the desserts and food. Even though many stalls do not exist on Google Maps, thanks to word of mouth, they are always lively and crowded from opening to closing.

Cô Tư by her dessert trolley.

A Saigon native, I, too, have my own mental list of Hẻm Gems. It is hard to keep track because I consider too many to be staples. Among those, cô Tư's chè chuối nếp nướng always has a special place in my heart. Chuối nếp nướng, or grilled rice-wrapped banana, is a popular dish in the southern region of Vietnam. Usually served with rich, thick coconut sauce and crushed peanuts or sesame seeds, this southern specialty delivers a wide range of tastes and textures. When I was still in junior high, whether it was a rainy or hot day in Saigon, I always looked forward to going home with my mom and a bag of three or four grilled bananas wrapped in sticky rice and soaked in coconut milk. I could devour at least two of them even though it was almost dinner time.

My childhood memories about cô Tư and her chuối nướng trolley have faded over time. Even when I tried to search for this familiar taste in America, the chuối nướng there does not taste the same. Therefore, upon returning to Saigon, I had to revisit the chuối nếp nướng stall in search of the familiar flavor again.

Grilled bananas are taken off the heat once the leaf is burnt.

Located in a humble alleyway on Lý Chính Thắng Street, the chuối nướng corner looks like any typical street food stall you will encounter on Saigon's many winding streets and lanes. My ride-share driver even got lost when we tried to find the right hẻm. My memories of the exciting rides with Mom to bulk purchase chuối nướng came back as I made my way into the small alley. It has been 10-odd years since I last visited the chuối nướng street stall, but the place seems to stay unchanged: in the middle of the hẻm stands the familiar wooden trolley that has followed cô Tư since she started her business. Although almost 40 years have passed, she is still there, making chuối nếp nướng and other popular desserts that have comforted hundreds of families over many generations.

Cô Tư has been with my family since I was a child eating chuối nướng with my mom after school.

“Welcome back, little one!” cô Tư greeted me while flipping the lumpy bananas. On the charcoal grill, the bundled bananas were carefully wrapped in green banana leaves and neatly spread across the cooking surface. Some had already turned golden brown, ready to be served to customers.

Grilled pockets of crispy rice and soft banana.

First, cô Tư removed the leaf cover and scraped off the sticky rice's burned part. She cut the grilled bananas into bite-sized pieces, poured a layer of sweet coconut milk on the freshly cut pieces, sprinkled crushed peanuts on top, and voilà, a mouth-watering treat was ready to be savored. The plate came out with its distinctive smoky flavor balanced by rich coconut milk. The coconut milk contains small chewy tapioca balls, a great treat in my opinion. The chewiness makes one savor the grilled bananas a little longer and rounds up all the different textures of the desserts. Cô Tư offers two coconut milk options: with and without green scallion. The latter always runs out first. The added salt and scallion in the milk make the dish more multidimensional and savory, which works quite well with sweet, filling bananas.

Scallion coconut milk is a special sauce that sets chuối nướng here apart from other versions elsewhere.

I received the small plate of chuối nếp nướng from cô Tư, took my first bite and was instantly taken back to my childhood days. There it is — the same crispy sticky rice; sweet, tender banana; and savory coconut milk. The crispy crust is made thick enough to be both crusty and chewy at the same time. It perfectly complements the sweet soft banana on the inside. The salty and tangy scallion coconut milk is the dish's star here, as it helps reduce the banana's sweetness while bringing out the rest of the savory flavors. All these elements create a perfect combination that can easily bribe any hungry foodie to go for a second serving.

There are no tables here, so you must sit on a stool. Most people only order takeaways.

Though cô Tư’s chuối nếp trolley is located in a hidden alley, it quickly became busy right at opening at 11am. Beside chuối nếp nướng, cô Tư offers other fast-selling pastries, including bánh bò, bánh chuối hấp, bánh da lợn, bánh bột báng đậu xanh, and khoai mì hấp. These desserts can be eaten alone but are much more delicious with coconut milk. The grilled chuối nếp nướng often sells out the most quickly, so one might miss out on this signature dish if they arrive at the stall late at around 5pm.

Preparing order after order of chuối nướng.

While I slowly finished up my plate, several motorbikes stopped at cô Tư's stall. One female customer made an order of six chuối nướng alongside three servings of bánh bò with scallion coconut milk. Cô Tư became busy with her banana charcoal grill while other members of her family helped cut and package the food. Around the corner, another customer came by while casually catching up with cô Tư. “I have eaten here with my parents since I was very little and my grandmother was still alive,” said the customer, who was in her early 30s.

Bánh khoai mì nướng.

Bánh khoai mì hấp.

Chuối nướng.

Bánh da lợn.

Cô Tư's chuối nướng and pastries have nourished generations of Vietnamese over many decades. Each patron often bulk-buys at least 3–4 chuối nướng for their family members. Besides serving city residents, she has once packaged and shipped as many as 200 grilled bananas to customers living abroad. “I hope to be able to serve my chuối nướng and bánh bò for many more years. I’m not planning to retire yet,” cô Tư shared.

A plate of chuối nếp nướng nước cốt dừa.

Since the hẻm is quite narrow, most get their desserts to-go, though sometimes a few sit and eat their treats in one of the small red stools in front of cô Tư's house. Chuối nướng is not only a snack, it’s a humble-looking yet addictively delicious dessert that connects people of all walks of life. By the giant pot of green scallion coconut milk, fragrant steamed pastries, and chuối nướng smoke, great conversations and laughter are shared, one’s sweet tooth is satisfied, and the belly is happily filled.

Chuối Nếp Nướng Cô Tư is open from 11am to 5pm, Monday to Saturday.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5
Price: 5/5 — VND20,000 per plate
Atmosphere: 4/5
Friendliness: 6/5
Location: 4/5

Hương is a native of Saigon, hailing from the burnt, dry state of California, with a big smile and a bigger passion for travel, food, and cultural exploration.

Chuối Nếp Nướng Cô Tư

152/5 Lý Chính Thắng, Ward 14, D3, HCMC

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