This alleyway in District 12 is much like a zillion other Saigon rabbit warrens. It functions as a market from 5am and street stalls start shuffling their feet by 6am before shutting up shop, or moving location around mid-day. If you come across a nondescript alleyway like this it’s well worth poking your nose up its entrance to see what you can sniff out. More often than not this is where Saigon’s crack cooks crank out superb home-tweaked renditions from the extensive Vietnamese kitchen hit parade.
This stall is a house, a kitchen and a restaurant all in one. No signs, no menu, no napkins, no fuss – just grub. Like all the best street stalls, it’s a one dish show – Bun rieu (Crabmeat noodle soup) – it’s a pieman fave and after yesterday’s, similar, but more basic, Canh bun I couldn’t resist comparing notes when I stumbled across this stall. I counted four separate stalls down this alley, each serving a different noodle dish. Not one stall has a sign up to advertise its wares or to help clueless foreigners. These alleyways are strictly local affairs. Everybody knows Mrs. such-and-such serves Bun rieu at number 23 and Mrs. such-and-such churns out Pho at number 10 etc.
You can be certain if you nip down an alleyway and there’s only one stall flogging Bun rieu along its entire length it’s selling it ‘cos the locals eat that particular dish there and nowhere else. Vietnamese folk are discerning about their food and they love to gossip. If a stall is crap, word spreads, no-one goes and it shuts down. The theory, according to pieman, goes like this. Over time, in any given street or alleyway, the cooks who cook the best bring down all the rest leaving the best of the best of the best. I’m sure this isn’t always true, but you get what I mean.
However, this rendition would seem to prove the theory. It’s the best Bun rieu I have ever tried. I think you’ve really gotta throw in the purple monster (the Mam tom I mentioned yesterday) in the pot on the table above and half a teaspoon of that freshly minced red chili for a heat heavy hit. Squeeze in a lemon, chuck in a bit of hedgerow and off you go. At 4,000VD, it’s cheaper than the last one I tried in District 1. The tofu chunks are slightly smaller and so are the synthetic looking slabs of congealed blood, and that’s no bad thing. At least it’s all bite size. The broth leaps with tomato sweet tangy vapours. I supped this fella to the bottom of the bowl and it’s not every day I do that. I’ll be back for more from this stall.