Tristan Ngo wears many hats. He is a chef, proprietor, and food writer. Tristan believes in good food, good wine, and good conversation. “Food is life,” Tristan says staunchly, “All good conversation, friendship, family and love revolve around food and wine.” Right now, Tristan writes a column in lifestyle magazine AsiaLife called Local Eats. He is also doing a VTV4 television program called Fine Cuisine. It’s safe to say he knows the good, bad, and ugly of the industry. Today, we pick his brains about the oldest (and best) restaurants in town.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
As did most successful people in the industry, Tristan Ngo kicked off his career with a few lowly restaurant jobs. He waited tables, washed dishes, and cut vegetables. But he knew that he wanted to make it big in this industry one day. He drudged on, with the vision of his future pushing him eagerly forward. In his spare time, he buried his nose in cookbooks. He also binged watched cooking shows. Among his favourite were Everyday Cooking with Jacques Pepin, Cookin’ Cheap, The Galloping Gourmet, Yan Can Cook and The French Chef with Julia Child.
Tristan Ngo was intent on carrying out all his education himself and did not attend culinary school like his peers did. Because of this, he endured criticism when entering the F&B field. “I had to build myself from the ground up,” Tristan Ngo tells us, “all while most people were telling me I was wasting my time.” Luckily, what Tristan did have under his belt was two business degrees that came to the rescue when he started his own business.
In the time that he isn’t writing or filming, Tristan Ngo manages catering services and often appears at food events as guest chef. He spends his downtime with his beautiful family or with his Harley Davidson, joyriding with the Saigon HOG (Harley Owners Group). But even when he’s doing his extracurriculars, he mind is always on food.
Thien Nam Restaurant
Why: A unique blend of Western and Eastern cuisine.
Thien Nam Restaurant is an old favorite dating from 1961. It lives just down the block from Tristan’s Elbow Room and a few doors away from Bam Bam and Commas. Patrons order from chalkboard menus affixed to the walls. Or from two oversized vintage menus, one for Chinese food, one for French and Western.
Western favourites include beefsteak, escargot, and pasta. And not only are the menus old school, the establishment itself is three generations old. Even the staff–donning white shirts, black slacks, and bow ties look generations old themselves.
According to Tristan Ngo, this restaurant does fried foods amazingly. He likes the crispy chicken and deep-fried mantou (Chinese steamed buns). He follows this with Swiss cheese-covered baked clams. And he finishes the meal off with pan-fried pork chops and fries. “They are so tender,” Tristan Ngo says shaking his head, “Even I get a little pang of jealousy thinking about the chef’s finesse.”
Where: 53 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1 // 08 3822 3634 // 10am – 10.30pm
Chuyen Ky Restaurant
Why: A restaurant that’s been in business for over 60 years.
Among the oldest restaurants in the city is Tiem Com Tho Cho Cu Chuyen Ky. It is owned by a woman named My. Before that, it was owned by My’s mother. And it was brought into existence in 1948 by My’s grandmother. The restaurant’s name translates as “potted rice place in the old market”. Most know it as just Chuyen Ky.
Tristan Ngo suggests that we sample the local favorite – rice with steamed ginger chicken. The small clay pots in which this is served don’t just lend a novelty look. The dish is cooked in this earthenware. “I love the potent nature of the ginger and appreciate its ability to pierce through the other flavours of this dish,” Tristan Ngo says passionately. Another popular go-to is the double-boiled black chicken soup, or ga ac tiem. A good hangover cure. Like a lot of what is offered on the menu, this dish is nutritious and delicious. It is flavoured with wolfberries, dried red dates, and ginseng, along with sundry other Chinese herbs. This is the pitch-black chicken you might’ve seen on the exotic food television shows. Check this one off the list of fun foods to try here at Chuyen Ky.
Where: 65-67 Ton That Dam, D1 // 08 3829 0150 // 9.30am – 9.30pm
Tan Sanh Hoat Restaurant
Why: A restaurant that is famous for its traditional noodle soups in D3.
“As far as I know, this one is the oldest restaurants in Saigon,” Tristan Ngo tells us, “This is reason enough to give it a visit!” As could be expected, these guys have been perfecting their craft since their opening in 1934. While the food has been perfected, the place itself has stayed very humble. Owned by the Phuc couple, this Cantonese eatery is crowded yet well-kept. And the Phucs ditch the formalities.
Tan Sanh Hoat Restaurant is famous for its traditional noodle soups but it also does steamed buns, ha cao (steamed shrimp dumplings), xiu mai (pork dumplings) and chicken feet. Tristan Ngo says that the food is good but pretty standard. What does go above and beyond is the broth. “To this day, I have not tasted a better one,” the chef attests.
And they have any type of noodles that suit your fancy: flat, egg, vermicelli. You can have them with wontons or dumplings. “Tan Sanh Hoat is popular during off-peak hours,” Tristan Ngo reminds us, “Try this spot for an in-between meal treat.”
Where: 322 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, D3 // 08 3834 0858 // 4am – 12pm
Tiem Com Truyen Ky
Why: A District 11 gem serving ethnic Chinese cuisine.
Tristan Ngo’s wife opened his eyes to this District 11 gem. Tiem Com Truyen Ky is a Hakka (ethnic Chinese) restaurant that is hidden in a narrow Ly Thuong Kiet alley. Ethnic Chinese food, culture, and people have been an integral part of Vietnam for ages. Tristan’s wife herself is ethnic Chinese. She vouches for the authenticity of their wonton, congee, mooncake, and other typical Chinese fare.
You have to keep your eyes peeled when looking for this place. But while it’s not easy to find, you will notice that there is a small crowd of motorbikes indicating the general location of its entrance. Like most Chinese restaurants, this one is extremely well-lit. It seems to perpetually boast a small crowd of waiting patrons at the front. Tristan Ngo tells us, “I like to take a gander at the tables to see what dishes appeal to me.” There are almost too many tables and chairs for the room. It makes for a cozy ambiance.
You may want to take a Chinese or Vietnamese friend with you as the menus don’t include English translations. They also don’t include prices. Not to worry, dishes are consistently cheap.
To help, here are some of Tristan’s stand out dishes. Hu qua ca ot is a lovely combo of stuffed tofu, bitter melon, and red chilli with marinated fish paste. Trung ba mau is a tri-coloured omelette with duck, salted and century eggs. Last, Tristan Ngo suggests an order of sautéed Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce. “It always hits the spot,” Tristan Ngo smiles. Steamed rice comes with anything you order, as does the soup which is a very light broth made from vegetables, chicken, tripe or pork.
Where: 39/20 Ly Thuong Kiet Street, Hem 39, Ward 7, D11 // 09 08 62 36 23 or 09 09 62 36 23 // 11am-2.30pm and 5pm-9pm
Gia Phu Phuc Kien
Why: Fujian taste in the heart of Saigon.
Fujian is a province on the Southeast coast of China and also the area on which most of the world’s Chinatowns are based. Fukienese, the people of this province, have really made a name for themselves in the culinary world.
This restaurant is hard to miss because of its signs placed right on the street and also in the restaurant’s Gia Phu Street alley and courtyard. “When I’m here, I feel like I’m in China.” Tristan gestures excitedly. The place is virtually indistinguishable, down to the look of the people in this area. The eatery itself looks like it could be a private residence.
The last time Tristan Ngo was here, he enjoyed lotus tea and a handful of the restaurant’s specialties. One that he especially enjoys is the oyster omelette dish made with hagou flour. This is dumpling flour, and it makes for an interesting, sticky-textured omelette. Another good one, he suggests, is the steamed-salted chicken which, unlike a lot of Vietnamese chicken dishes, is exceptionally tender.
Then he and his friends usually order the stuffed bitter melon and Mirasol pepper, or ot sung trau (buffalo horn chilli) with fish paste which is bold and “a little bit of an acquired taste”. Lastly, they ordered a huge portion of braised pork knuckle with toc tien, a unique vegetable textured like fine vermicelli. Representing longevity, this vegetable is popular among Asian cultures. In their respective languages, the Chinese call it “hair vegetable” and the Vietnamese call it “angel hair”.
The vegetable is great, but it wouldn’t be what it is without the five-spice sauce and coriander. Tip: order it in advance and request that it be cooked longer. It’s even more tender this way.
Where: 513/28 Gia Phu, D6 // 08 39 67 02 65
Photos by Nam Tran Duy and Khooa Nguyen.