BackEat & Drink » Saigon Hẻm Gems » Hẻm Gems: Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già's Squid Game Is to Die For

Hẻm Gems: Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già's Squid Game Is to Die For

It’s safe to say that one of the most authentic culinary experiences one could have in Vietnam is to sit on a stool, in an eatery that feels very much like someone’s house, and slurp on a bowl of piping hot noodles. The noodles here can be any dishes from the plethora of noodle dishes so dominant in Vietnamese cuisine, and this hủ tiếu mực, or squid vermicelli, establishment has got all of the above to offer.

As a local who has spent all her life in Saigon, I always took pride in the unique culture of this city and how well-versed I am in it. So when I was introduced to Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già by a Korean person, who had then only been in the city for months, my ego certainly took a hit. But that goes to show how Saigon can surprise you at any turn.

Walking under the signage of the Hủ Tiếu Mỹ Tho stall into the alley, one is greeted with the yellow sign of the squid noodle place.

Located in a narrow alleyway adjacent to one of the busiest most bustling boulevards of Saigon, Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard, the eatery is surrounded by bars, pubs, fancy restaurants and luxury department stores. The area is the last place anyone would expect to find such a street eatery. The entrance to the alley is so inconspicuous that one might just walk past it without having a second look. Normally, with such hidden locations, business owners will place colorful signs or sandwich boards to signify their existence, but besides a sign one would only see half way through the alley, there are none at the entrance. Another hủ tiếu spot — a long-enduring hủ tiếu Mỹ Tho that was our first-ever Hẻm Gems review — also operates at the opening to the alley, but only during morning time and serves a different kind of hủ tiếu. I wonder how many people have been there looking for hủ tiếu mực only to mistake the eatery out front for it.

Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già has been opened for decades.

The joy of discovery is often about how it changes our assumption or enlightens us on a particular matter or sheds light on something we never even thought about. The glamor of the downtown ambience adds a certain delight to learning there's a place that would otherwise only be found in very local residential neighborhoods. Amidst the heap of meticulously organized high-end restaurants, where people would often dress to the nines and be on their best demeanor to dine at, the place is reminiscent of what I call a “bình dân” atmosphere. A bình dân eatery is where people would go for food even in their pajamas; no dressing up is needed and the whole place is probably not Instagrammable. There’s a looseness and comfort one would feel here. While I was walking along the alley and as the eatery eventually revealed itself before my eyes for the first time, I couldn’t help but be in awe. The same reaction was evoked from people that I later on introduced to the place. Finding out the place feels like unlocking a gem in a game, and it gives rise to an inarticulable sense of achievement.

The casual vibe of the place will immediately put one at ease, even though it might be hot during summer.

Upon arrival, one will see that the eatery is split into two consecutive spaces. Decor-wise, there’s nothing outstanding about it. The one on the right is basically someone’s living room, with an altar right above your head. Stainless steel stools and tables fill the space. Originally, this was the only space available for dine-in customers. As a regular here, I’ve frequented the place many times ever since it first opened. And on a visit here after two years, I noticed the expansion on the left, with wooden stools and tables, the two spaces don’t really match, one might even say that the two somehow clash with each other. However, the space is clean, with utensils and sauce bottles neatly placed at the corner of each table. For many Vietnamese, including myself, a clean and neat space suffices to enjoy a meal. Though the space is somewhat limited, it is quite standard for a Vietnamese eatery.

Dry and broth options.

Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già specializes in seafood hủ tiếu dishes, with hủ tiếu as the carb base of every dish, a variety of seafood is available for customers to choose from. It goes without saying that squid is the star among the seafood options here, but eaters can also opt for shrimps and oysters or even pork ribs. As with any other noodle eateries, dishes can come in a broth or a dry variation, but the dry version here really sets the place apart from others. Usually, sauces that go with dry hủ tiếu will be a mixture of soy and oyster sauces, with some other types of condiments or seasonings. But the owner of this eatery went the extra mile to concoct a more distinctive kind of sauce, a tomato-based one with other ingredients such as minced pork and aromatics. The thick consistency of the sauce lends a silky mouthfeel to the noodles, adding a layer of complexity to the dish. As tomatoes are packed with naturally occuring MSG, the sauce brings out the umami flavor of tomatoes very well without the sourness.

A dry portion of hủ tiếu mực comes with a bowl of noodles drenched in tomato-based gravy, and a bowl of broth with morsels of protein.

Unlike other types of dry noodle, where the accompanying broth is always too meager for a broth-lover such as myself, a generous bowl of soup is always served along with the dry noodles here. With it comes fresh and chewy squids, soft meatballs and poached quail eggs, garnished with fried shallots and of course, chopped green scallions. An interesting combination of textures is present in the bowl of broth, the chewy and somewhat crunchy pieces of squids, the melt-in-your-mouth softness of the meatballs and quail eggs all come together in harmony. The quail eggs are poached slightly so that the yoke is still runny, adding a bit of richness to the taste without overpowering other ingredients. In classic Vietnamese fashion, greens are served with each portion, a mix of poached tần ô and bean sprouts. The fried shallots also add a fragrant smell to the broth. Add some chili oil for a touch of spiciness to your dish, and try dipping the toppings in the spicy green sauce for extra heat.

Time to dive in!

To maintain the freshness of the seafood, the owner explained in an interview that he calculated the average amount of seafood sold every day and placed orders accordingly. This helps to avoid storing food overnight, and that everything can be made fresh and sold within a day.

The price is generally reasonable for its location, dishes range from VND50,000 to 60,000 with a complimentary iced tea.

Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già is open from 6am to 9pm every day.

To sum up:

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

Hủ Tíu Mực Ông Già

62/3 Tôn Thất Thiệp, Bến Nghé Ward, D1, HCMC


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