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Hẻm Gems: Saigon's Street Food Unicorn

Not only are unicorns real, they are edible. In fact, these beauties are an animal of such mythic deliciousness that you should count yourself lucky to even catch a glimpse of one, much less feast on its flesh. On a busy corner in District 1 during rush hour traffic, I had the privilege of spotting the great cá da bò – known to English speakers as the unicorn leatherback – before it promptly disappeared at the hands of our hungry dining group.

This is not, as you might expect, the four-legged variety of unicorn (and yes, there are several varieties of unicorns). As it turns out, there is another type of unicorn that has the ability to swim. I introduce to you the rare, legendary and magically delicious unicorn leatherback fish.

The scene for this rare sighting was Vy Da Quan, a modest corner shop at the intersection of Ly Tu Trong and Nguyen Trung Truc. The restaurant opens for lunch, closes and reopens for dinner around 4pm. It’s a typical Vietnamese joint with wooden tables and chairs sprawling out on the pavement once the sun goes down. The obligatory shoeshiners and street vendors are included free of charge.

We arrived as the restaurant staff were setting up, and it’s a good thing we did. This legendary creature takes nearly an hour to cook, and at night the place gets busy so plan ahead. But don’t let any of this deter you: order a couple of iced Saigon Specials, try to forget about the oppressive heat and remember you’re in for a real treat. This is a unicorn you're eating.

Firstly, the fish is grilled to perfection. Secondly, it doesn’t have any trace of fishiness. As a picky eater when it comes to fish, the unicorn leatherback was a pleasant and surprising treat. The meat is vividly white, steamy and good enough to make you forget about the eyeball juice you just accidently ate. When you get the whole fish, you really get the whole fish: eyeballs, insides and all.

Last but not least, the unicorn comes with a gorgeous sauce. The green chili catapults this dish to a new level, but be careful: this condiment kicks harder than Bruce Lee and tends to sneak up on you. Still, dunking those delicious flakes of fish into the sauce is completely worth the temporarily runny nose, overactive tear ducts and sweat. If nothing else, your excessive perspiration is a sign of a good meal.

By the time you’ve reduced this unicorn to a mere skeleton, the server will swing by to collect the carcass. But he’s not dumping it in the trash just yet; instead, the waiter will take the bones back to the kitchen so they can fry that up, too. What you end up with is crispy calcium chips which run counter to the insane spiciness of the green sauce and round off a truly excellent meal.


To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 3/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Location: 4/5

 Kyle likes eating, walking down random hẻms and drinking enough cà phê đá to kill an elephant.

Vy Da Quan

62 Ly Tu Trong, Ben Thanh Ward, D1


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