“It’s an empty construction lot,” my sister deadpanned.
“I can see that! But according to the guidebook, Quan An Ngon restaurant should be right here!” I held up my copy of the Lonely Planet Vietnam and stabbed at the map with my index finger. “See? Right where we’re standing. Maybe they’re just building a bigger and better restaurant?”
“What edition do you have?”
I quickly flip to front cover…Crikey!
“2005,” my turn to deadpan, “This was published seven years ago! Who the hell gave me a seven-year old copy of Lonely Planet?!” Grrrrrr.
We turneded to our mom, who looked exasperatedly, and exhaustedly, at us. She had wanted to take us to Quan an Ngon restaurant which she had been to twice before and we (well, I) had insisted that I knew where it was (based on my outrageously outdated Lonely Planet) and that it was within walking distance. “Just one more block mom…”
“Mom, can you ask those ladies walking towards us if we’re even on the right street?”
Mom turned her attention to the uniformed ladies in matching brown tunics and black pants. After some exchanges in Vietnamese, my mom waved at us to follow them.
As luck would have it, we had bumped into servers from the new reincarnated Quan an Ngon, now known as Nha Hang Ngon. I didn’t quite understand the translation from the ladies but the explanation they gave for the relocation was that there was some dispute between the landowners and the restaurant owners and now the restaurant was moved a few blocks away to nearby Pasteur street (across from the Laos consulate) under a similar name.
By the way “Nha Hang” = restaurant in Vietnamese and “Ngon” = delicious.
When we finally arrived at Nha Hang Ngon, what a beautiful sight greeted us. We had been walking around central Saigon all day and our last meal was the Vietnamese Rice Paper Tacos (aka Banh Trang Nuong) which was a fun experience but not exactly filling.
So to see table after table after table of all sorts of Vietnamese food imaginable was a foodie dream come true!
As you can see from the photo, the row of tables filled with a variety of Vietnamese dishes lined the wall and was quite substantial – and I was only halfway through this side of the restaurant. There was still the back wall and the other side of the restaurant as well!
While mom went in search of a suitable table, my sister and I stopped at each table to gawk and to photograph the food.
These rice paper rolls (or summer rolls) with pork and shrimp and garlic chive garnish looked delicious (everything did in the restaurant!) but the wanna-be food stylist in me (or is it the Type-A personality?) really wanted to reach over, straighten them out, and turn them so that the beautiful shrimps all faced my me. And let me tell you that the urge was so strong that I to talk myself out of doing it.
When mom and I make these at home, I can probably devour about 10 rolls before I have to stop myself or else deal with an exploding tummy.
These summer rolls are filled with rice vermicelli, shredded pork skin (known as “bi cuon” – here’s what it looks like on my previous post), and garnished with what looks like Asian basil.
You eat these by dipping them into a sweet hoisin-based sauce but I prefer the Nuoc Mam pictured above.
These are one of my favorite appetizers: Minced shrimp that is wrapped around sugar cane, briefly steamed, and finished on the grill.
Once grilled, the sugarcane imparts a nice smokey-sweet flavor to the shrimp mixture.
Look at all these lovely ingredients!
Mounds of freshly shredded vegetables and herbs for garnish:
Have you ever had Vietnamese sausages? They are known as Cha Lua in the south of Vietnam and Gio Lua in the north.
Traditionally made of pork (I’ve tried a vegetarian version but not my thing), Cha Lua (or just Cha) are commonly found in Banh Mi (Saigon street sandwiches) and they are often added to soups and a variety of other dishes served with Nuoc Mam.
They are also great on their own as a snack – I used to raid mom’s fridge for them :).
Another favorite of mine…
(okay, they’re all my favorites!)
…Are these cured/fermented pork rolls known as “Nem.” Actually, these are shaped like squares so I guess I should call them cured pork squares. Hmm…how to better describe them?
This article does a nice job (with photos) of explaining what Nem are exactly. They are basically a type of pork charcuterie and make with mixing ground pork with shredded pork skin, garlic, whole peppercorns, chilli, and cured using a brine or vinegar mixture resulting in something sweet, sour, savory, and spicy all at the same time. Each region in Vietnam have their own secret blend of ingredients.
They come in different shapes and can be eaten as is (like a snack), used as a topping in salads (yum), or grilled (haven’t tried that yet).
Toward the back of the restaurant were a few dessert and drinks stations:
Are you hungry yet? I was famished after gawking at all this food. Mom was trying to be understanding of us taking tons of photos but I’m sure she was hungry and impatient to start ordering food.
Diana and I decided to try a local Vietnamese white wine called “Vang Dalat.” I would assume that the wine was produced in Dalat (capital of Lam Dong province) which is about 300 km (186 mi) northeast of Saigon. The bottle of wine cost 220,000 VND ($10.56).
I’m no a wine expert so I can’t tell you if the wine was good leggy or bad leggy or exactly what kind of fruity notes it had. All I can say is, “it wasn’t bad.”
And finally the food started to arrive!
I’ll let the photos do the talking…
Banh Beo Nem Nuong – Water fern cakes (bottom) with grilled pork (middle) and not sure what’s on the top of the plate but I think it’s some kind of glutinous rice roll with dried shrimp:
Banh Cuon Thit Nuong – Steamed rice rolls filled with grilled pork:
Banh Nam It Tran – Glutinous rice flour balls stuffed with something (can’t remember what, probably pork) and topped with Cha:
Banh Hoi Chao Tom Cuon Banh Trang – Pounded shrimp paste wrapped on sugar cane and served with rice vermicelli, rice paper, and fresh herbs:
More Viet lessons for you (skip if you are bored): In the title of this dish, “Banh Hoi” are the intricately woven rice vermicelli noodles (those little flat squares of noodles pictured above and below) usually sprinkled with scallion oil, “Chao Tom” is grilled shrimp, “Cuon” denotes rolls, and finally, “Banh Trang” are the rice paper wrappers.
We eat these by removing the shrimp from the sugar cane (the sugar cane should be chewed and sucked of its sweet juices before being discarded)…
…and wrapping them in moistened rice paper to form a summer roll. Here is mom filling hers with fresh herbs, mung bean sprouts, starfruit (carambola), and some kind of round sour fruit.
Banh Khot – Miniature pancakes made of rice flour, coconut milk and turmeric, and topped with whole shrimps to be wrapped in lettuce and all those fresh herbs you see on the platter and then dipped in Nuoc Mam.
I believe these are a specialty of the south that originated in the seaside town of Vung Tao:
Bun Oc – Rice vermicelli noodles in soup with snails (Oc) and tomatoes (more of my Oc feast here):
I am so glad we found this restaurant in the end despite the Lonely Planet set-back.
Whether you are a newbie to Vietnamese cuisine or an indecisive eater or a gluttonous eater (like me), Nha Hang Ngon is the perfect restaurant to go to in downtown Saigon for an immense variety of choices.
And great value for money too. Our bill for the dinner came to 693,000 VND or US$33. That’s including the $10 bottle of wine!
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Nhà Hàng Ngon: 160 Pasteur Street, Phuong Ben Nghe, District 1, Saigon, Phone; +84 8 3827 7131.
View Nha Hang Ngon in a larger map