Been shying away from ‘worker’s restos’ for a while, but dropped by one again today for lunch. Com binh dan are buffetesque, cheap tankfillers. Tofu, fish, squid, beef, pork and egg dishes are displayed in large tubs and trays alongside buckets of rice, rau muong, cabbage and a deep vat of canh (soup). Same deal, same time, on every street in Saigon. I find Sau Danh at 115 Ly Chinh Thang street in District 3. It’s an al fresco affair. One step sideways and your on the street. Com binh dan are not gastronomic goldmines. They have a job to do and they do it with minimal faffin’. That said, the fried tofu was a bit old and tough, but the ca kho tho (caramelized fish) was enjoyably passable, but no classic wahooo! moments here. More shots from various in Saigon. 13,000VD or as the title says, 50p – 47p for all you nitpickers out there – with a lovely tra da thrown in.
Behind the British Consulate, British Council and Sofitel Saigon on Le Duan street is a small street lined with five Com binh dan (Food for the workers) restaurants. Nothing new here, we’ve covered similar joints before and I won’t go into any anal depth today. To be sure, you’re not gonna find any Michelin stars on the paint peeled wall or starched white napkins on the grubby blue plastic tables. You will find cheap, healthy, nutritious fill.
Generous selection of wares including squid, tofu, beef, pork knuckle, fish and rice dishes. If you’re grabbing a mang di ve (takeaway) you’ll need to stump up anywhere between 6,000 – 10,000VD depending on what you choose.
One thing I’ve never quite got is the deep-fried fish at these places. They’re fried to buggery, taste of nothing and the bones are way too big to eat, so it’s pick, pick, pick, grumble, pick, sigh.
Stuffed Tofu and Ca loc (some kinda river fish) are my usual orders at these places. Filler not a thriller and, like I say, not gourmet, but worth a sniff all the same.
Today we’re in the hinterland of District 10 at a Com binh dan restaurant at 264 Hoa Hung street. I originally blogged this for a Moveable Feast feature at The Food Section. This stall is two steps and a hop up the road from a large prison and around the corner from a soldier compound. Com binh dan is a ‘type’ of fast-food restaurant. It translates roughly as ‘Food for workers’. I’ve covered a similar spot in District 1 before. It’s midday, and the two Pho restaurants along this street are closed, so it’s a ‘worker’s lunch’ for me. This joint doubles up as a Pho shack from 4pm onwards, but it’s the standard rice, meat and veggies on offer from the glass cubicle shop front come lunchtime at number 264.
The Saigonese are early scoffers – 11am on the dot – and even though it’s only midday, the selection is sparse. Fish, tofu, pork chops and sautéed beef. I plump for the caramelized pork chops and a slab of minced pork stuffed tofu, pickled greens, a bowl of cold pondweed soup called Canh rau bo ngot and a Nuoc Thit Kho dipping sauce which is a sweet chili fish sauce dipper. The earthy Canh (soup) gets its flavour from the bo ngot leaf.
This set is as basic as it gets at these cozy-up-to-the-pavement-lean-to’s. It won’t win any gourmet competitions, but it’s a quality fresh filler that’ll see you through to the next scheduled stop, which without fail is at 7pm for Saigon’s eight million-plus stomachs. As with other lunchtime lean to’s the tucker is rustled up that morning. In the heat of Saigon, where fridges are still a luxury for many restaurateurs, freshness must come first. This lot’ll set you back 8,000 dong.
Yesterday I added one more weird thing to my ‘Weird things experienced in Vietnam’ list. After nearly seven years it’s a fairly lengthy list. But, yesterday was different. I like taking photos, although I’m no pro. Point ‘n’ shoot ‘n’ hope is my style. And I’ve no interest in snapping airports, military installations, junkies, copshops, girlie bars, illegal street racing or whatever. So, I was a little surprised when I was apprehended, while cadging a crafty photo down the fish sauce aisle, by security down at Big C supermarket at 38A To Hien Thanh Street in District 10. Photography, apparently, is verbotten. Intriguing. Nice aisle though ehh?
The Big C is a decent stop off for beef, veal, chicken, pork and stock bones. There’s also a half decent fish stall. Those little white chaps happily swimming around above make passable fillets in fish ‘n’ chips at pieman towers. On a good day, the journey from tank to pan can take as little as thirty minutes. They bash them to death and fillet them for you in Big C. Tasty. Like most other big supermarkets in Saigon, Big C also serves Com Hop (takeaway grub). It’s a similar idea to the Com Trua I blogged up a while back. In fact, it’s exactly the same idea. Although, with all that fresh fish swimming around you might think the fish dishes are fine and on this take they were.
I opted for the stuffed tofu, Ca saba (Saba fish – kinda like a Mackerel), rice and veggies. The saba fish is quite a firm fella, with plenty of taste. The tofu had well-spicy minced pork innards and was smothered in a tangy tomato sauce. The veggies were not good. Big C serve this with a Canh (soup). In this case it was a limp thing with chunks of carrot and potato knocking around inside. Forgettable. There are other fish dishes to choose from along with fried chicken, pork and beef, stuffed gourd etc. There’s also an automated rottiserie with whole chickens grilling away. For 8,000VD it’s fine filling stuff. Nothing more. Comes with chopsticks and spoon for street scoffing if you fancy.
Com binh dan restaurants are like Vietnamese greasy spoon shacks without the bacon, sausage, black pudding, fried egg or litres of lard. ‘Food for workers’ is how I think Com binh dan translates. Cheap eats all day long, offering a range of meat, fish and veggie dishes normally displayed in a glass case shack front. You choose your ‘main’ and it comes along with rice and a soup. I very nearly didn’t bother stopping at this one at 36 Nguyen An Ninh in District 1 as the dishes didn’t look that interesting. The one I was planning to try, just around the corner a wee bit, was ramming and I wasn’t gonna stand and scoff or takeaway. There’s a couple of tables out front at No. 36, most folk slip inside, I went al fresco.
I ended up with a cold deep-fried sprat with more bone than meat together with a nuoc mam (fish sauce) dip. Com trang (Plain rice) and cucumber plus a gelatinous, sweet Canh (soup) with malabar spinach. It’s basic. And for 7,000VD I wasn’t expecting crack cuisine. What I did get was functional food in the open air that topped the tank up and sent me on my way. As Com binh dan go, this was below average. However, it’s worth sniffin’ around the locale, there are better and more popular restaurants although you might have to scoff standing. No. 36 also sells a Lau De (Goat hotpot) for 20,000VD, Bun Cha Ca and Banh Canh Cha Ca for 5,000VD and a Hu Tiu for 10,000VD.