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Hẻm Gems: 60 Years of Guangdong-Style Chinese Food at Chợ Cũ's Chuyên Ký

Besides being the “it” place to obtain imported goods, Saigon’s chợ cũ, or Old Market, is also a treasure trove of hidden eateries.

Editor's note: In May 2022, hearing about Chợ Cũ's potential closure, we decided to revisit Chuyên Ký for some delicious food and new photos to update this old Hẻm Gems from 2017. While the dishes at Chuyên Ký remain as tasty as ever true to the review's praises, the price has gone up to VND100,000–120,000 per dish, so keep this in mind during your visit.

Chuyên Ký is hidden behind the kiosks of Chợ Cũ.

Things have never been easy for chợ cũ, even back when it was located on Nguyễn Huệ Boulevard, known at the time as Boulevard Charner. The initial site was an unplanned trading hub brought about by its proximity to the Chợ Vải Canal. Once the waterway was filled in due to improve the area's hygiene and cleanliness, the bustling market lost its calling card and was eventually relocated to Tôn Thất Đạm Street, where it remains today.

The beautiful vintage sign of Chuyên Ký.

Fortunately, the businesses in chợ cũ met success again and the market gradually found its place in the hearts of old Saigoneers as both a foodie’s paradise and a center for cheap foreign products. Back in its heyday, the area was also an enclave of the Chinese community members of whom first arrived in the city to trade and decided to settle down. Therefore, one only has to take a stroll along the quaint street to be tempted by a smorgasbord of delectable Chinese dishes: seafood congee, roast pork and more than a handful of noodle dishes.

Cô Thủy (left) runs the restaurant with her sister and other family members. The sisters inherited the eatery from their grandmother, who was a sterling cook.

Nowadays, the local community has changed from those golden days. The street’s repertoire of food has also moved away from indoor restaurants to a bustling street food scene offering scores of mouth-watering snacks: bột chiên, bò bía and súp, to name a few.

I’ve written my fair share of Hẻm Gems for Saigoneer, but it’s been a while since we last covered a place that has all the textbook hallmarks of a “gem”: well-hidden and delicious, with a rich history to boost. Cơm Thố Chuyên Ký is the epitome of Saigon-style Chinese food cuisine.

Our lunch feast.

Despite its central location, it’s very easy to miss Chuyên Ký altogether, as the restaurant’s humble hand-painted sign is obscured by the clutter of market kiosks out front. The eatery also doesn’t have much in terms of interior design: a few sets of metallic tables, a counter and huge menus hanging on the wall.

Tiny pots of rice (thố) is a special feature here.

Chinese dishes, with a focus on Guangdong palate, are the perfect dishes to share among friends.

Chuyên Ký’s most unique feature only appeared when we finished ordering: dozens of hand-crafted clay pots containing rice. These rice pots, or cơm thố, even made their way into the place’s name and are more than just an aesthetic gimmick, as the rice was actually steamed inside these earthy creations. Each pot contains about two-thirds the amount of a normal Vietnamese bowl.

Gà xào sả ớt (lemongrass chicken) is the best dish here, in my opinion.

Canh củ sen (lotus root soup).

According to cô Thủy, Chuyên Ký’s matriarch, the restaurant purchased thousands of the pots from an artisan decades ago thanks to their remarkable quality. However, since the potter has stopped producing them, she shared that they had no choice but to replace them with mass-produced items when one breaks.

Dồi trường xào cải chua (pig uterus stir-fry with pickled chards).

Sườn xào chua ngọt (sweet-and-sour pork ribs).

Once our main dishes arrived, it became apparent that Chuyên Ký’s strength lies in stir-fried dishes, as pretty much everything was well-seasoned and delivered in a timely manner, in spite of the relatively obvious hint of MSG. We definitely recommend the sweet-and-sour pork, or sườn xào chua ngọt (VND90,000), and the spicy lemongrass chicken (VND80,000) as starters. The price of each dish may seem steep at a glance, but the portions can easily satisfy three or four hungry diners.

This article was first published in April 2017.

To sum up:

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

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

Cơm Thố Chuyên Ký

67 Tôn Thất Đạm, Bến Nghé Ward, D1

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