Street secrets in a plush place

Vietnam Heritage, Jan 2012, Advertorial

On my way to work in Ho Chi Minh City I often pass by a restaurant housed in a tall building opposite the Reunification Palace. There is always a lively scene of diners munching away in a courtyard. Many of them are tourists but around half the clientele is local, so I have always assumed this must be a good place for Vietnamese food. Its name is Quan An Ngon 138. The number refers to its place on Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street. An Ngon might translate as ‘delicious eating’. I have always wondered if it lives up to its name. The only way to find out was to pop along and try a few dishes.
I know two words for restaurant in Vietnamese. ‘Nha hang’, for me, implies usually a formal place and I would expect to pay higher prices at one. ‘Quan’, I feel, has more friendly and homely connotations. Indeed, many Vietnamese friends translate it into English as ‘pub’. Whilst this is wildly incorrect, both a ‘quan’ and a ‘pub’ are places where eating and drinking are meant to take place in a relaxed atmosphere. But the real reason for the name ‘quan’ here is that the original philosophy of the founders was to bring the tastiness of dishes popularly available at roadside stalls under the comfort and respectability of a restaurant roof.
The restaurant in question is certainly a place where you do not need to dress up and mind your Ps and Qs. The emphasis is on relaxing while enjoying your food. It is certainly not an expensive ‘joint’ if you pardon the pun. Yet the decor is quite luxurious. With its dark hardwood furnishings and rafters it is made to give you the feeling of being in a mansion in Vietnam’s ancient capital of Hue. There is abundant foliage and each tree is labelled as in an arboretum. I was pleased to be able to identify one of them as being the source of one ingredient in my meal, namely the carambola or starfruit tree.
So it was then that I sat down to lunch with Mrs Thuy, the operations manageress. Alongside her in order to facilitate the conversation was English-speaking Mr Thai, as neither of us is fluent in the others’ language. ‘With a restaurant this size it must be quite a job co-ordinating things and fostering team spirit,’ I comment. Mrs Thuy explains the place has the capacity for seven hundred guests. Forty cooks are employed. It is a huge restaurant. Judging by the countless waiters and waitresses flitting around, ‘staff’ here is truly an uncountable noun. Aside from the courtyard and main-hall dining areas
there are four VIP/private dining rooms and, in the first basement, a function hall for up to one hundred and fifty.

The other two basements are parking areas.
We ordered crocodile spring rolls (VND68,000 ($3.24)) as a starter, which came crispy on the outside and creamy on the inside. The crocodile provides quite a bite! I had an aloe vera juice (VND30,000 ($1.43)) to drink, which came neatly decorated with carrot slices on rim of a tall glass like a cocktail. There was also a glass of tea, which got automatically replenished throughout the meal.
A main dish of slices of roast duck on the bone (VND95,000 ($4.52)) arrived, with white rice. Very succulent it was too and the accompanying ginger sauce dip not too sweet. At this point Mrs Thuy suggested a culinary adventure to the North. Having lived in both Central and Southern Vietnam and only been to Hanoi a few times on business, I am unfamiliar with Northern Vietnamese food and I was eager to accept the idea.
Hemibagrus, a kind of catfish, fish was ordered. Mr Thai, who translated the menu into English, explained he found it hard to find a translation of this white-fleshed river fish, so he settled for just the Latin name. My research reveals it does have an attractive English name – the ‘crystal-eyed catfish’. It came served two ways cooked at the table.
The first way begins with garlic cooking in simmering water, for a dish known as ‘chả cá lã vọng’ in Vietnamese. Scallions (spring onions) are added. The rest of the food will soak up the juices of these two ingredients. Pieces of raw fish that look as if they would make excellent sashimi are laid to cook upon this foundation bed along with lashings of chopped stalks of dill (thì là) and other vegetables. The waitress cum cook lovingly turned and stirred the dish to ensure an even distribution of taste and soon we are tucking into a savoury delight. Mrs Thuy kindly demonstrated to me the way to eat this dish dipping the food into shrimp paste and breaking off a piece of rice cracker to envelop it in before finally popping it into the mouth and yummy!
The second way, lẩu măng chua, took care of the head and upper parts of the fish on the bone. They were served in a sour soup. The acridity of the broth derived from sour bamboo shoots and slices of unripe banana. My hosts informed me what made this truly the Northern version of this soup was the addition of starfruit (carambola). To accompany the soup there came rice vermicelli (bún).
This double dish, which easily satisfied three people, was priced by the weight of the fish at VND300,000 ($14.29) a kilo. Our fish came in at 1.3 kilograms so the cost was VND390,000 ($18.57). This would be amazing value at a night market yet alone a full-blown restaurant.
For dessert, we had fresh fruit, as is the general custom in Vietnam. For those with a sweet tooth there is an extensive list of ice-cream and several familiar Western sweet courses. To my surprise, Mrs Thuy suggested coffee and for the first time in fourteen years of living in Vietnam I find myself rounding off a meal with this beverage.
Speaking of coffee, by the time this article gets to print ‘The Quan’ is to open a cafe on the seventh-floor terrace. We took the lift to inspect it. Workmen were still in action but you could see great views across to the palace garden, the park in front of it and of city landmarks such as the Notre Dame Cathedral. It will be a wonderful place for courting couples to sit out under the stars or to strike up a business deal. What a vantage point, too, for watching the fireworks display at New Year and Tết Vietnam.
I left ‘The Quan’ with my stomach replete and taste buds and soul well satisfied. I think from now on I will simply call it ‘The Quan’ using the definite article because this is the definite ‘Quan’ and maybe definitive of a style of dining. Even my pocket is happy given the reasonable prices. This establishment certainly does not infringe the ‘Trade Descriptions Act’, though I not entirely sure Vietnam yet has such consumer protection. The proof of the pudding has of course been in the ‘ăn’ and the result is in fact ‘ngon’.n
Opposite: the crocodile spring rolls (chả giò cá sấu). Top: The hemibarus or crystal-eyed catfish. Middle: The first interpretation of the fish, chả cá lã vọng, though in this picture the fish is dished up rather than taken directly from the cooking vessel and dipped. Right: The second interpretation, lẩu măng chua, the fish ready to slice.
Photos: Ngon 138 Restaurant.

Ngon 138 Restaurant
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia St, Dist.1,
Ho Chi Minh City, Tel: (08) 3827-9666

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