HCMC, District 1 Food: The Classics

by - July 28, 2017

Singaporeans are well versed with the usual Vietnamese cuisine which consists of Phở (noodles)
Bánh mì (baguette), and Cơm tấm (broken rice bowl). Needless to say, Vietnamese cuisine is so much more than that.
A trip to Ho Chi Minh revealed that the city is filled with Vietnamese cuisine from the streets and heavily contrasted with sprawling cafes and hipster hangouts which rival those found in Singapore and Bangkok. It has an extremely interesting food scene where the classics co-exist with the new age food.
This post focuses on the classic Vietnamese cuisine which you should definitely try when you're in the area.
1. Phở
I found that beef phở is a lot more common than chicken phở, which is interesting given that the major religion in Vietnam is Buddhism. A quick google would reveal that the best phở in District 1 (and perhaps one of the best in Ho Chi Minh) is a little family owned restaurant called Pho Hoa. This restaurant has been run by generations of the same family and is extremely popular amongst both locals and tourists.
DSC01360  A bowl of beef phở costs about S$5 and it comes in a huge bowl with generous amount of beef slices. The broth is super good. It's light and sweet. However, I recommend that you only try the beef phở and nothing else. For Singaporean standards, the fried dough fritter is poor as it's soggy, chewy and very thick. My Vietnamese spring rolls were disappointingly hard because they weren't served fresh but pre made and left out in the open for too long.  
 Pho Hoa
Address: Pho Hoa, 260C Pasteur Street, District 1

2. Bánh mì
I've always found bánh mì an extremely interesting food. It's basically a French baguette stuffed with Vietnamese flavours. Fusion food at its best actually. Unsurprisingly, bánh mì was introduced in Vietnam during the French rule. And because this is a simple dish to make, you can find it very easily along the streets. I've tried a few all around District 1 and the undoubted best, hands down (and which the internet agrees!) has to be Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa.
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You are staring at one of the most delicious sandwiches ever. It is stuffed full with all sorts of meats and assorted vegetables, complete with mayonnaise. Their baguettes are freshly made at the shop, which you can get a glimpse of while joining the extremely long queue outside the shop. The baguette is crispy on the outside and extremely soft and fluffy on the inside. This shop has quite a following and you know it's good when it's mostly locals.

Total damage? 35,000 dong (i.e. S$2) per sandwich!
Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa 
Address: Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa, 26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, District 1
Note: This shop only opens in the afternoon onwards

3. Cơm tấm
Cơm tấm (broken rice) is made from broken rice grains (hence the name), which is one of the cheapest grades of rice. Nonetheless, the Vietnamese have made it an extremely delicious dish, especially when served with grilled pork chop, which is one of the most popular meats.
I didn't research on the best cơm tấm in District 1, but instead, stumbled into Com Tam Cali Restaurant, a restaurant known for their cơm tấm, after a tiring night of shopping at Bến Thanh night market at 9.30pm.
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I find the broken rice dish here delicious. The rice is soft and the meats are well marinated and full of flavor. They pair really well with the very plain broken rice. I also had a few of their appetizers and drinks which were all good as well. The spring rolls were thankfully fresh and I like the deep fried fish cake with quail egg, which was very juicy.
I will honestly say I don't know what amazing broken rice tastes like as I've only had authentic broken rice once. And when the only other comparison I have is the one served in Singapore's Vietnamese food chain, Con Nam (which by the way, is bland and terrible), the ones served at Com Tam Cali Restaurant is objectively delicious. Plus there were groups of locals there as well so I take it as a good sign!

Com Tam Cali Restaurant
Address: Com Tam Cali Restaurant, 32, Nguyen Trai, Ben Thanh Ward, District 1
4. Seafood (crabs for me!)
Given that half of Vietnam is geographically surrounded by the sea, seafood would be a local delicacy to try. One of the better known seafood places (crabs specifically, because I love crabs), is Quán 94 Đặc Sản Cua Biển. And no, I don't think this shop has an English name so I suggest you hail a cab or grab/uber and key in the local address. Do not attempt to pronounce.
Đặc Sản Cua Biển translates to sea crab specialties, so you can bet that's what is good there. It's pretty much like the "zi char" you find back home in terms of the kitchen, and menu. We have fried rice, noodles and all sorts of seafood. I was told to try the crab meat vermicelli and soft shell crabs.
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The soft shell crabs are nothing like those served back home where they sell you parts of a whole crab for like $20. Here, they serve 3 whole crabs for only S$15. They're crispy and I like the batter which was of the right thickness. The (real) crab meat fried rice is also good and fragrant.  I can't say much for the crab meat vermicelli. I believe it's because I ordered the soup version. All the locals ordered the dry version which must be the nicer one.
The only qualm I have with their crab meat is that they come with cartilage which I found was a hassle to eat. Unless you're supposed to actually consume the cartilage, which I'm not used to. It was great that they were generous with their crab meat portions but that also meant I had a lot of cartilage to 'spit out'.
Price wise, it's not the cheapest given that the fried rice and vermicelli were S$5 each. And a quick look at the menu showed that the fresh seafood was about S$20 and above.
Address: Quán 94 Đặc Sản Cua Biển, 94 đinh tiên hoàng ,bình thạnh, District 1
Note: There are 2 Quan 94 stalls side by side. I went to the one nearest to the street corner which I was told is the original.
5. Vietnamese Coffee
Now this is a must, unless you can't take coffee, in which case, try their refreshing teas as Vietnam does have its own tea plantations.
My first coffee from Trung Nguyen

The slow drip coffees are a trade mark of Vietnamese coffee. They're thick and strong (and really bitter so I must always have mine with condensed milk). There are 3 very famous coffee chains which can be found everywhere in the city: Trung Nguyen Coffee; Highlands Coffee; and Phuc Long Coffee & Tea Express.
My personal favourite however, is none of the above 3. Instead I really like the coffee found at Café Vy. I find that their coffees have the right balance of "strong-ness", thickness and bitterness.  Plus, unlike the above 3 cafes which are reminiscent of the Starbucks concept, Café Vy is a street café. It is by the street, non air-conditioned and customers sit on the short stools found on the usual streets in the City. This place is extremely popular with locals especially on weekend afternoons.
You can also choose to buy their coffee beans and they'll ground them into air tight sealed packets for you to bring home. I have one at home and my parents absolutely love it.
Café Vy
Address:  277E Lê Thánh Tôn, Bến Thành, District 1

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