This will probably elicit a howl of protest from Asia-travelling hounds but ... I've been underwhelmed with the food in Saigon. Since moving here a couple of months ago I've had some good food, even some very good food (most of it snack items like noodles and spring rolls, rather than restaurant dishes). I've also had lots and lots of mediocre food. But I had yet to eat anything that elicited the sort of constant cravings I felt for all sorts of snacks and dishes in Bangkok, everyday. In Bangkok I could walk down most any street, stop at a vendor, and have a food revelation. In Saigon, to my taste at least, finding the very best requires a bit more work.
I hit the jackpot Saturday. Inspired by a post on the San Fran board about chao vit ("chao" for congee, "vit" for duck), over the weekend I ventured out to the unofficial temple of chao vit in Saigon. When queried about where to go for the best chao vit in Saigon, 10 out of 10 locals (I asked about 10) pointed us to this place. The restaurant Thanh Da Chao Vit sits on a hot, dusty, half-paved street in hot, dusty Thanh Da district, about a 15-60 minute drive (depending on the traffic --avoid the rush hours) from Saigon's District 1, where most of the hotels are located. If you go --- and every chowhound visiting Saigon should --- you'll want to arrange for your taxi to wait for you, as we didn't see any at all in the vicinity of the restaurant.
Thanh Da Chao Vit is openair and barnlike, with metal tables and plastic stools and, blessedly, plenty of ceiling and floor fans. Walk in past the glass case of hanging ducks and the industrial-sized pot of simmering chao and take a seat on a plastic stool at one of the metal tables. At 1:30p, past lunchtime, the place was about 3/4 full of happily slurping locals. We asked for two orders --- no need to specify what as chao vit is all that's offered. If you'd like to cool down with some iced Vietnamese tea ask for "che da" and, while waiting for your food, observe the chao tender keep it going with the occasional addition of some duck livers, bones, and water.
Placed before us were: soup bowls of loose, walnut colored congee with bits of broken rice; plates heaped with curled slivers of lemon grass, small crinkle-cut kohlrabi and carrot, and slivered scallion doused in a tangy brine; a platter of hacked-up roasted duck, the golden skin lightly peppered and soft rather than crispy, the flesh moist; and small bowls of a brownish-red dipping sauce in which I tasted sesame oil, lots and lots of shredded ginger, a bit of chile, perhaps some vinegar, and ??? Also provided were dishes of red chili pounded with garlic and salt, for doctoring dip or chao.
The chao itself was completely satisfying, so rich with duck flavor that the platter of fowl almost seemed like gilding the lily (we ended up taking alot of the rich fatty duck home with us). Diners attacked the various elements in a variety of ways. Some spooned the dipping sauce onto their vegetables and alternated bites of this "salad" with spoonfuls of chao and chopstickfuls of duck. Others ate the duck dipped in the sauce and the veggies dipped into the congee. I chose the latter method and, as the meal wound down, ended up with a delicious sludge of zippy veggie pieces, duck bits, and sauce leftovers in the bottom of my chao bowl.
Another highlight of the meal was the restaurant's bahn tran, or rice cracker. These don't appear automatically, you must ask for one of these 18-inch diameter, toasted sesame-encrusted disks. About a quarter inch thick, these grease-free, fish taste-free (not to be confused with prawn crackers) marvels are toasty, solid rather than airy like prawn crackers, shatteringly crispy, and the perfect accompaniment to the dipping sauce. I crave them about as much as I do the chao vit.
Chao Vit Thanh Da (don't be drawn in by the woefully un-customered pretender down the street)
20/1 Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Than Da District,
hours: morning into the night (though chao vit is considered mostly a morning-until about 4pm food)