Just finishing three days in Saigon, the first stop of our Vietnam trip. Although the general advice on the boards and the books has been to ignore mid-range places and stick to the cheap street food or the expensive restaurants, we've found the opposite (or maybe we didn't understand what others meant by 'mid-range' and 'expensive'?).
Our street food attempts were only fair. At Ben Thanh market, we spent some time wandering to find the most crowded stand with the most older people and locals who looked like they weren't choosing only on price -- but the pho and the fried rolls were only unexceptional. Not much depth to the soup, and the rolls weren't that crisp.
On the expensive side, we ate at Nam Phan, the most upscale Vietnamese restaurant in Saigon. It's on the corner of Le Thanh Ton and Hai Ba Trung. The space is gorgeous, but the service is surprisingly pretentious and erratic. I liked the banh xeo ("country pancake" of rice flour folded over bean sprout, spring onion, and shrimp), especially because it came not with lettuce but instead a bitter thick green leaf for wrapping. The best dish there was the ca kho to, the fish in claypot -- the fish was full-textured and the sauce complex and rich, not overpoweringly caramelly or salty. But the stuffed squid with pork and tomato and the grilled eggplant were both dull. (Our dinner for two was around $35 -- about what we pay at our favorite place back home. More on that in a minute.) The other expensive moment was dessert at the Caravelle, Saigon's swankiest hotel. The brownie was inedible. We consoled ourselves with Oreos the next day.
The mid-range winners were the following ($3-6 range all told):
Cha Ca La Vong -- though its Hanoi location is the original and famous one, we took noodlepie's advice and went to the Saigon branch. They serve one dish: whitefish fried tableside with dill and other herbs, served over rice noodles with condiments including powerful fermented shrimp paste. It's unlike anything I've had in the US and delicious, though we ruined both our shirts as the rice noodles flipped turmeric-infused oil all over ourselves.
The big winner: Ngon. There are several branches around town. We had lunch at on Nguyen Du and the breakfast buffet on Le Thanh Ton. For lunch, we had a even better version of banh xeo -- lighter and crispier than at Nam Phan -- as well as stir-fried morning glory (like water spinach or 'kang kung' in Malaysian) with garlic. The best dish was the tofu with ground pork and tomato, with reminded me of ma po tofu in its pepperiness but the tomato maybe suggests Yunnan Chinese influence? The breakfast buffet had make-your-own bun (vermicelli noodle salad with grilled pork and fried rolls), pho, several types of sticky rice, and numerous other things, all with an array of condiments. Both the variety and quality were great -- I wish we found it our first morning here rather than our last.
We've had a couple of Vietnamese coffees a day, and my favorite is the rich brew at Trung Nguyen, the ubiquitous chain here (plus one in Tokyo's Roppongi neighborhood, which I tried last year). I like #6, which is a smoother blend than others.
Back to our favorite restaurant at home: Yummy Yummy, on Irving near 11th Ave in San Francisco's Inner Sunset. The owner is from Saigon and goes back regularly to catch up with the local food scene. With only a couple of exceptions, their food is every bit as good as everything we've had in Saigon. This morning I remembered that on our last visit to Yummy Yummy the owner gave us one restaurant recommendation for Saigon, and I dug it up just now: it was Ngon, the place we stumbled upon and became our favorite. Can't wait to tell him.
Next stops: Hoi An, Hue, and Hanoi. More reports to come.