Some nine months ago noodlepie reader Cainieu popped a comment through my door suggesting I swing by 14 or 16 Ky Dong Street in District 3. He (or she) said, "there you find the popular spot for Bun oc. I think it’s tastier than most Bun oc stalls around here in Saigon and it actually attracts loads of southerners apart from their regular northern customers. There are other dishes here like boiling snail and stir-fried snail with green bananas but I suggest you try the Bun rieu oc (that means snail soup with crab-paste)." I never forget a good tip and in a new series – called imaginatively enough Tip off – I’m here for lunch today. The alleyway above is at no. 14 and leads off Ky Dong street.
On the right of the alleyway entrance is a very popular noodle shop I spotted a few weeks back – must check that one out – but today I’m after Cainieu’s snails and I walk down the alleyway, past a fine array of shabby lean to joints selling beef, pork and chicken noodle dishes, until I reach a righthand junction at a motorbike mechanic’s shop. If you look at the top of the picture above you can just make out the Bun oc sign. We’ve had it once before elsewhere.
Down this small alleyway is a communal style courtyard with trees, concrete and quiet. Yes I know – quiet in Saigon. How odd. Good odd. I’d forgotten what it’s like to sit in a bare bones resto and not suffer motorbike fumes, parping car horns, shouting, grime and crap. Within the courtyard there are no signs out front indicating Thanh Hai
restaurant. From my limited experience, this is a very, very good sign.
It means everyone i.e. local folk know where it is and what it serves.
No need to show off with a big snazzy sign. A quick scan around tells
me that it’s probably the joint on the right hand side. I ask if this
is the snail shack. It is. And we’re in.
Mrs. Thanh Hai, who has been selling snails from here since moving to Saigon over twenty years ago, very kindly gives me a tour of her kitchen which is located at the rear of the small, eight tabled restaurant. She repeatedly apologises for the mess, the number of snails lying around in buckets, steamers and basins, the heaps of cleaned greens and the baskets of fresh noodles. Dunno what the hell she’s on about – I think this is heaven, although the 40 odd snaps don’t really convey that – sorry 🙂
First up is Oc xao chuoi xanh (Fried snails with green banana) It comes with a wooden stick and chilli/nuoc mam (fish sauce) dip. Scofftastically the freshwater snails – Oc gao – are not at all chewy and the green banana – chuoi xanh – is almost potato like in flavour and texture. The deal is sealed with a handful of a fried purple leaf called tiep to. It’s simple. it’s no bollocks fayre, unspiced and unrefined and it’s bloody great. The texture combination of green nana and snail is unusual and supremely satisfying.
Next up is Bun oc rieu cua (Freshwater snail/crab noodle soup). We’ve had several Bun rieu before, but never one quite like this. Take a look at the hedgerow for starters. It looks stunning with those green banana shavings… errr… shaved like that. Blimey. In among that lot are also beansprouts, more tiep to, hung cay (basil) and crunch–a-plenty rau muong (stripped morning glory). The broth comes from one of two large vats in the kitchen and is made predominantly, Mrs. Thanh Hai tells me, from freshwater crabs. She’s long since ditched the ancient and secret family recipe handed down and carefully guarded through generations since the Tran dynasty in favour of the more well known Knorr family recipe. Tomatoes are added along with chopped spring onions, fresh vermicelli noodles, crabmeat and the snails.
Now sit back a minute and take a look at that soup…. It’s fine, it’s very fine stuff. And it’s big, it’s in a big bowl. It’s a big soup. I know I’m going to like this, the place, the host, the soup, the look. After a while eating out in Saigon, you just know when something’s right. Mrs. Thanh Hai, not surprsingly, tells me (I think) that she serves the best Bun oc in Saigon. As if to emphasise the point she says she’s had customers from Germany and Sweden "and now you"… from Britain. We get bloody everywhere us heathens. I’ve only tried three or four Bun oc in Saigon and this is up there, it’s very up there… No strong flavour, no southern sweetness either, just hearty, yet light, fresh scoff. It’s formidable.
She also serves steamed snails among other snail-based dishes. I will be back and I will try everything on the menu and I will blog about it. Here is that menu and the business card. Without a blog and without readers like Cainieu it really doesn’t matter if I lived in Saigon for donkeys and searched and searched I doubt I’d ever have found this joint single handed. So big up to Cainieu. Nice one. Keep ’em coming. Each dish costs 7,000VD making lunch, with a hand towel and a cuppa tea, an astonishing £0.54 in old money. More snaps.