Saigon’s District 1 Nguyen Thai Binh Ward is a world within a world. Shadowed by the glass and steel of District 1 icon, the Bitexco Tower, and bordered by the newly beautified riverfront, this gritty part of downtown Saigon is a street food haven – for proof try the bún riêu ốc at 66 Nguyen Thai Binh – that’s embedded with historical jewels like Antique Street and the Fine Arts Museum.
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
Dig deeper and there’s a hip event space hidden in an old apartment building, Hoa Tay, and must-visit restaurants like award-winning Quince Saigon – who bravely started the gentle gentrification of Ky Con, amidst mechanics and industrial supplies stores, when it opened in early 2018. Now, there’s a host of brilliant restaurants and bars, all within walking distance of each other.
Brick & Barrel
It’s become a real go-to location. And no wonder. In the same block on Calmette Street is the cafe, patisserie, and bean-to-bar factory Maison Marou, the sexy tapas restaurant, Tomatito, and like a cherry on top, or maybe a slice of good ole’ cherry pie, is Brick & Barrel. Founded by James Joloika and Tyler Maurice Kooy, Brick & Barrel was born when James approached Tyler with an idea.
“Tyler’s one of the best cocktail makers in the city, and when I approached him with the concept he was excited to begin right away,” James tells us. “And the area is really up-and-coming…definitely a Ward to watch,” he adds.
Brick & Barrel is the perfect start to our eating and drinking tour of Nguyen Thai Binh Ward – chill vibes and live music, “and that’s what we were aiming for, a place to hang out with friends, inside or outside, with live music every weekend, more than 12 beers on tap – some of which we rotate regularly – a full bar, freeflow happy hours, and then there’s the food…” James smiles. There’s American comfort food classics and a passion for spicy sauces. “I’d order the wings with Frank’s red hot sauce,” James adds, “and the jalapeno poppers, although the pizza and cheeseburger are best-sellers too.” Happily fueled up, we head off to the next location.
Insider tip: “Dive into the sauces – they’re all made in-house (except for Frank’s and the ‘Fire in the Hole’). We even make the burger buns ourselves.”
Location: 171 Calmette Street, District 1
We were buzzed when Madam Kew opened in 2020. Back then, co-owner Fabian Salvi aptly described it as, “an immersive opium-den-turned-bar with crafted cocktails and collectables.” Above Quince, and something of a sister-location, Madam Kew has ornate Chinoise design in a darkened setting with counter seating and booths in front, and secretive ones upstairs for more conspiratorial meetings.
In the downtime of lockdown, the team turned their focus to the cuisine, and now they’re offering modern Chinese food – in keeping with the concept – that leans towards vegetarian ingredients with menu highlights like their eggplant mapo tofu where the whipped tofu surrounds a delirious pool of rich and spicy shiitake mushrooms and eggplant. The cocktails, served by bartender Alexander Blake, are good too. Tipsy, we head back down the stairs and off to our next location.
Insider tip: “To begin, order the mapo tofu and a Sawadee cocktail – Thai for hello, and the perfect welcome. And after that it’s up to you…”
Location: 37 Ky Con, District 1
419. Bar – Restaurant
Fortunately, 419. Bar – Restaurant is only 5 minutes walk away. As speakeasies began popping up everywhere in Saigon in the last few years, 419. Bar – Restaurant took it one step further. The courtyard at 158 Nguyen Cong Tru has been evolving constantly over the same period with a hype sneaker store, an Italian restaurant and a craft beer bar emerging amid run-down shophouses. Locals nicknamed the area pineapple alley, ‘Trái Thơm’, because it looks like a pineapple from above.
Then 419. Bar – Restaurant opened here, although it wasn’t easy to find. In front is a nondescript coffeeshop and antiques store. Then inside, a vintage camera cabinet opens up, like a portal to another magical world, to reveal one of the city’s coolest izakayas spread over two floors. Founded by the music producer behind some of Den Vau’s millions-viewed tracks, and with a team that includes Tam from Labar and 52/3, 419. Bar – Restaurant is an essential stop on our eating and drinking tour of Nguyen Thai Binh Ward. The snacks lean towards izakaya staples, like okonomiyaki and karaage. And the drinks, true to the local location, the drinks are inspired by well-loved local drinks like Sá Xị soda.
Insider tip: “Take a stool at the L-Shaped counter, order the signature Xôi Xoài, a mango-sticky rice themed cocktail, and feel the escape from the hustle and bustle of Saigon.”
Location: 158/6 Nguyen Cong Tru, District 1
By this time, we’re a little inebriated. But Nomu Izakaya is only a few steps away. The vibe’s way more contemporary than most izakayas. The cool white signage on the minimalist facade. A counter and bar with a graffiti-style mural opposite of the kind of hip female Saigon denizen the place attracts. And there’s more table seating and booths as you enter. Suri, the co-founder, welcomes us in. “At Nomu Izakaya we serve Japanese fusion cuisine alongside modern cocktails,” she explains as we take a seat at the bar.
And rather than a chic spot just for a selfie, Suri wants the dishes and the cocktails to be the main attraction. “The care we take over presenting every item on the menu should make you curious…and want to take a photo or two,” she smiles. Their Tokyo cocktail arrives, and we see what she means. The signature is made from whiskey, mezcal, infused shiitake mushrooms and it’s topped by a bubble of smoke. And soon they’ll add an omakase room, where diners can enjoy a set menu of chef’s daily preparations.
Insider tip: “A seat at the bar is the perfect respite after a stressful day at work where head bartender Hoa dispenses positive energy as well as cocktails – of which you should try the Arigato Sour with maybe our chawanmushi or foie gras with unagi.”
Location: 152 Nguyen Cong Tru, District 1
A couple of blocks over is Agave Saigon, the ‘pipirisnais’ bistro opened by two restaurateurs from Mexico City. It’s the perfect next stop, a place to explore the fashionable, artisanal Mexican mezcal, and cuisine that goes beyond the usual standard-issue tacos. “There really weren’t any fine-dining restaurants exploring the wonderful diversity of Mexican cuisine here,” Ricardo, one half of the duo who opened Agave Saigon, explains. And one evening, with soon-to-be partner Carlos, appropriately over tequila, talk turned to introducing elevated Mexican cuisine to Saigon. “We felt the city probably wasn’t ready for full-on fine dining, so we developed a bistro-concept that’s a mix of street food and fine dining inspirations,” Ricardo adds. They also chose this location carefully. “It’s a new golden triangle for drinking and dining in Saigon, with cool places like Quince and Brick and Barrel, and many others.”
Reassuringly, they still serve tacos, alongside dishes that represent cuisine from different regions of Mexico. “There’s our bone marrow with tuna tartar, crab tostadas, volcanes, molcajetes, costras…and of course our selection of mezcals and tequilas,” Ricardo lists off happily. There’s usually five or more mezcals at the bar and over 20 tequilas. For Cinco de Mayo they’ll host an exclusive livestream of a band playing in Mexico City, and a mariachi group from Guadalarja, and they’re introducing a taco of the month concept featuring different creations from the best Mexican chefs in the world. Stay tuned.
Insider tip: “Take a seat on the balcony (if it’s not raining) for great views of the Bitexco Tower and National Bank opposite, order some tapas – probably the bone marrow and tuna tartar and our crab tostadas, a costra and some conchinita pibili…and the elixir of the gods, mezcal!”
Location: 13 Pasteur Street, Saigon
This one’s easy. From Agave Saigon, we head upstairs to Rogue Saigon. Agave took over the old Rogue taproom on the 1st floor, allowing one of Saigon’s coolest craft beer joints to focus operations on their epic space upstairs. Linh, the co-founder of District 2, alternative events space, Saigon Outcast happened to pass by the building at the bottom of Pasteur Street, and fell immediately in love with the historical location and views. The team quickly came up with a concept – a rustic rooftop craft beer bar with a sci-fi theme, that’s home to the city’s thriving craft beer scene. “Back then, the scene was in its infancy,”
General Manager, Ben, recalls, “and we felt these microbreweries needed a friendly hub to call home.” The inside has lots of industrial elements and wooden fittings, where they serve cold beer from 20 taps and lots of bar bites to enjoy them with like their double patty cheese burger, grilled pork skewers fresh off the grill, or pizza and pasta from homies, Pizza Reale.
Insider tip: “Come at the weekend, catch the live music, and drink a Rogue Trex House Lager – a beer we created ourselves that’s low-alcohol and easy drinking. Or ask our in-the-know team to help you find the right beer!”
Location: 13 Pasteur Street, Saigon
Drinking & Healing
The last stop suits our one-for-the road mood; Drinking & Healing, the legendary libations spot on the corner of Ham Nghi and Ho Tung Mau. Drinking & Healing arrived with the first wave of speakeasies and almost single-handedly turned the city on to cocktail culture. A few years later, and Drinking & Healing is packed every night. The building is more than 150 years old. And D&H occupies the top floor with two small neon-lit smoking terraces where you can take in the majesty of the Bitexco Tower at close hand.
Marketing Manager Dung leads us to the counter, the perfect place to see the crew of local bartenders in action to a hip hop soundtrack, or events like their Black Valentine with house and techno DJ, Ling:Chi. “At Drinking & Healing, we specialize in herbal infusions and elixirs, ingredients for drinks that are guaranteed to restore your health and vitality,” Dung smiles, “and at our expansive bar, the ‘healers’, our team of bartenders, are on hand to listen and then uplift your mood with a bespoke cocktail.”
Insider tip: “Come to Drinking & Healing, sit at the bar area to see the shelf, the types of alcohol not available in Vietnam, and the typical alcohol only in Drinking & Healing that are infused according to secret recipes. The barrel is in front of you, and the Healers are ready to heal and mend your feelings. And try our Signature Cocktails because each cocktail is created by a different experience of each Healer, it will heal your soul in different ways. In addition, the Healers here can make it in your way, cocktails with your requirements, from sour, sweet to other twists coming from Drinking & Healing’s bar.”
Location: 2nd Floor, 25 Ho Tung Mau, District 1