Monday, February 05, 2007

Travel Dish: Quan An Ngon (Vietnam)

This is the third in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Street Food Done Right Indoors
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, District 1
Saigon/HCMC
Major credit cards accepted (with a 3% fee)


Quan An Ngon has achieved a near mythic reputation among foodies and in guidebooks about Vietnam. Almost everyone has heard the story of how the owner hired a bunch of the best street food preparers around town and brought them off the street and into his stylish Indochine-inspired restaurant just a few steps from the Reunification Palace in District 1.

After having dinner there, I have to agree. It is just. That. Good.

With dark wood décor that is reminiscent of a Colonial home in the South Pacific, Quan An Ngon draws a steady crowd of tourists and locals every night. It’s one of the few restaurants in town that has its own parking area nearby to handle all the people coming from far and near. There’s a main dining area in the center of the restaurant, but what’s really fun is getting seated at the side bench tables that surround the many food preparers.

On both side of the restaurants, cooking stations have been created where employees cook some of the basic street faire served at the restaurant, from pho to spring rolls to rice porridge. (A warning: Despite the front-row seat to all the cooking, be prepared to sweat for dinner because there’s no air-conditioning at this place and you’re constantly feeling the heat from the burners.)

A nod to its popularity with tourists, the restaurant’s extensive menu is in Vietnamese and English.

I started my dinner with a green papaya salad (goi du du tom that) that was the best green papaya salad I had in the city. The threads of unripen papaya were so finely julienned, it just made the dish feel light and fresh to eat. (It was served with thin slices of pork and shrimp chips.) I ordered a plate of stir-fried seasonal vegetables to counter all the beef noodle soups I’d been eating, and a plate of Muc Nuong Muo Ot, or grilled squid.

The squid was slightly chewy, but it had a flavorful marinade that was tangy and spicy at the same time. Mixed with my vegetables and a bowl of jasmine rice, it was a nice light dinner on a hot evening. (And in Saigon, the nights are always hot.)

For dessert, most Asian countries either serve fresh fruits or sweetened soups made from beans or other ingredients such as black sesame seed. On Quan An Ngon’s menu, they offered a crème brulee and something called Che Troi Nuoc, which had an English translation of “floating cake with coconut milk.” I was intrigued by the idea of floating cakes, so I ordered it.

What it turned out to be were sticky rice balls in a sweetened soup, very similar to the sweet rice ball soups a lot of Asians eat for lunar new year. It wasn’t exactly “floating cakes” but I enjoyed eating the sticky rice balls, which came in a variety of sizes. And the coconut-flavored sweetened soup with thin threads of fresh ginger was warm enough to be satisfying but not uncomfortable in the sticky Saigon night.

Don’t let the restaurant’s charming décor deceive you; it’s still an inexpensive adventure. For my meal of salad, entree and dessert (which also included a watermelon juice drink), I paid D107,000 (or $6.68).

Quan An Ngon is a restaurant worth going for lunch or dinner — or both — when you’re in Saigon. You can taste a variety of traditional street dishes along with some fancy choices all under one roof.

Single guy rating: 4 stars (perfect for foodies with an expense account but you won't need it!)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

4 comments:

Seth said...

The green papaya salad looks great (it all looks great.) Was the soup very very sweet?

Chef Ben said...

No, it actually wasn't very sweet. It was just right,and slightly warm, which was nice. I'm not a big fan of sticky balls (puh-lease, no gay puns here!) but these were small enough that it wasn't a big chew. (Again, STOP it!)

Anonymous said...

Che troi nuoc, Muc nuong muoi ot & goi du du tom thit are very good. I have eaten restaurant "Ngon" many times, and i usually order "Che ba mau" or "che bap" (it is relly delicious ^^ trust me), "Goi kho bo" (like "Goi du du tom thit" but with dried tasted beef ^^) , "Bun cha Ha Noi " is delicious too, travellers must try it^^. That restaurant is hot, not only with foreigners but also with Vietnameses too ^^.I wish that they can apply air conditioner outdoor.

Anonymous said...

i was there recently and they have fans with mist installed. nice place!