Lunch. Barbecued shrimp paste on sugarcane or Chao tom. With ‘angel bun’ (fine cold vermicelli noodles), sprinkled with chopped peanuts and chopped spring onion, rice paper, slices of cucumber, raw beansprouts and a nuoc mam (fish sauce dip). Bloody great lunchtime nibble from the Banh xeo shed on Dinh Cong Trang street. More snaps. And a recipe. Who thinks these things up? Shrimp paste on sugarcane. Marvellous.
I was having lunch at the scoffmungussly good banh xeo lean to on Dinh Cong Trang street the other day. I noticed a group of women at the back of the alleyway preparing cha gio (spring rolls) and chao tom (sugarcane wrapped in shrimp paste). This table is also used to prep the herbs, lettuce and mustard leaves that always accompany banh xeo. Click the pics to watch some lo-fi cameraphone filming of how to make cha gio and chao tom. You’ll need Quicktime to view.
This is Bun Ta – ‘Everything is Bun’ restaurant at 136 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia street in District 1. It’s fairly new and I mentioned it pre-opening, but never got around to blogging it up. I went there for the first time four months ago during its opening week. What’s unusual for such a swank ‘n’ chic, minimal ‘n’ groovy resto is the menu. It’s predominantly filled with the signature dishes of the Saigon streets. Dishes I’ve never seen any chef jazz up any differently from the next stall. The chefs at Bun Ta adhere to that rule. What we’ve got here is streetfood on posh plates, at clean tables in snazzy surroundings – Nice idea – All the groovy, beautiful people born with a Motorola attached to their right ear are here. Yep – if you’re Vietnamese and you eat at Bun Ta – you’ve made it.
The eating area is spick, span and spacious. And it’s busy. On this visit, it was almost full by the time we’d finished. The subtitle to the restaurant name gives the menu away. We’re in noodleland. Bun rieu, bun mam, canh bun, bun bo, bun moc etc. Yup – everything really is bun. But is it fun?
Dodging the soup section for a minute we start with chao tom banh hoi – barbecued shrimp paste on sugarcane – served with some trippy colourfully tiedyed bun. It comes with slices of cucumber, starfruit and green banana and a nuoc mam – fish sauce – dip and rice paper to wrap. The chao tom are kinda small, but it looks fabulous and tastes great. The shrimp paste crumbles very easily off the cane into small chunks. However, it does make for a light lunch and you may need another dish if you want to flex your belt to its more usual position. Next up is bun oc – snail noodle soup.
I’ve been holding off blogging about Bun Ta as I wanted to gauge this soup with another, more street, bun oc. The Bun Ta bun oc is good, it’s very good. Packed with flavour, tofu, tomato, blood and snails. But is it that good? Well… no it’s not. I am nitpicking here, but I have three problems with Bun Ta. Firstly, it serves a perfectly respectable soup in pleasant, comfortable, air-conditioned surroundings and you get to sit near lots of gorgeous, nouveau riche Saigonites. But… I’m more… you know… old school. Bit of grime, crusty chilli sauce bottles, flies buzzing around, rusty, dusty fan creaking overhead and soup that arrives with the waitresses thumb inserted in the broth. You won’t find any of that at Bun Ta.
Secondly, there’s the price. Am I really willing to spend nearly six times the regular price to pay for the surroundings in which I eat? Well. No. I’m not. But plenty of folk will. Saigonese are mad for flash and that’s why I think Bun Ta might just do very well, thank you very much. "Give ’em what they like, but dress it up nice and charge them more" The last problem is the location, the owners chose a bitch of a spot. It’s right next door to the exceedingly popular, very good, more reaosnably priced, more atmospheric and downhome Quan An Ngon restaurant. If I was in the area and it was a toss up between the two, downhome wins everytime. Lunch for two including drinks and a rice dish for the toad came to 247,250VD. Here are a few more snaps and here’s the Bun Ta website. Final bonus link: another diner’s point of view.
A few quick additions to our ongoing journey through the Ngu Vien restaurant menu. Above we have a Vietnamese classic, Chao tom (Shrimp paste on sugar cane) served with sliced starfruit, cucumber, lettuce and green banana. There’s a couple of side dishes along for the ride too; rice paper to stuff your hacked up Chao tom inside and Bun (cold vermicelli noodles). You’ll also get a nuoc mam (fish sauce) dip. This is one of the better versions of this Chao tom I’ve found. And only 22,000VD for one. You can also gnaw the sugarcane when you’re done with the meat. Neat. The Chao tom at Quan An Ngon in District 1 comes with "angel" bun. Also neat.
This is billed as Ca Thu Chien (Fried Mackerel). It’s not a mackerel, it’s a firm fleshy fish with a light flour batter fried within range of crispiness, but no further. Scrummy and simple. Dip it in the nuoc mam. Whenever I order food at Ngu Vien I always end up with two or three different varieties of fish sauce on the table. Difficult to keep track of which one should go with which dish… Ca Thu Chien goes for 39,000VD.
Last up is Goi va (Fig fruit salad served with sesame rice cakes) This is very similar to the jackfruit salad we covered during our last visit to this restaurant at 40 Ky Dong Street in District 3. On reflection, I’d say this was even better than the jackfruit. No mean feat. It’s a warm salad with shredded pork mingling with the fig fruit. The fig fruit is softer than the jackfruit version, although it does lack that surreal jackfruit texture we discussed before. The shoddy snap doesn’t do this justice. Highly recommended and’ll set you back 42,000VD. For previous Ngu Vien reviews, go to Part 1, Part 2 & Part 3. View the business card.