Saigon, the city that never sleeps. Despite the recent lockdown, the city is quickly rebounding to its chaotic best. As our favourite restaurants have reopened, we checked in with four chefs – Viet Hong from Monkey Gallery, Pedro from Kiba, Daniel Hohng from Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar, and Francis Thuan from Esta Eatery – about where they get their foodie kicks. Expect directions to secret street eats, smokey BBQs, and steaming bowls of noodles…
Đọc bài viết bằng tiếng Việt
When we meet for the first time at Kim Xuyến (66 Trần Quang Diệu), there are some awkward first introductions. But over bowls of chao ga, conversation quickly starts to flow – how the industry will grow, the challenges of kitchen management, kimchi recipes, collaborations, and, naturally, favourite places to eat.
“Saigon is going to accelerate now, expect a new wave of bars and restaurants,” Viet Hong wisely predicts. Our other three chefs nod in whole-hearted agreement. All four: Viet Hong, Pedro Goizueta, Daniel Hohng and Francis Thuan are rising stars of the scene. And they’re all exploring the idea of creative cuisine, rich with local ingredients: Monkey Gallery with its omakase-style tasting menus, Esta Eatery (now in its second location near the famous Vietnamese restaurant Cuc Gach Quan) with its fresh Dalat produce that they use to create modern Asian dishes licked with smoke, Kiba Saigon whose Spanish chef grows his own greens upstairs at the restaurant, and Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar, the reinvented icon, with its elevated seafood and innovative takes on street food.
“At The Monkey Gallery Desert & Dining our ambition is to improve the eating habits of Vietnamese. In our ‘exhibition area’ dishes are presented and enjoyed as works of art,” Viet Hong elaborates about the restaurant where he’s head chef.
Upon opening last year, Monkey Gallery immediately took an iconoclastic approach to their operations. Out went traditional employee titles like waiter. Staff became gallery attendants or artists in the kitchen.
It’s the culmination of the French-trained chef’s ten years working in kitchens. Years that led him to a culinary conclusion: “turn simple ingredients into superstars”. His time in Japan helped tune his philosophy. “The interesting thing is that in Japanese cuisine, raw materials account for around 90% of the success of any dish,” he reminded us when we first met back in December. In his hands, dishes come out that are brilliant and brave.
“At Esta Eatery we have this respect for mother nature too – with lots of local ingredients,” Francis Thuan begins. “Every dish is created with understanding and rich experiences with multinational cuisine. I hope that Esta Eatery will be known as the intersection point for diverse cultures and cuisines from around the world.”
If he’s a little breathless, that’s because Esta Eatery recently reopened in District 1’s Tan Dinh Ward at a bigger, bolder venue, with the same fire-obsessed philosophy. “It’s hipper and funkier than the first spot, and now we have this big open kitchen so every table can see how their food is made,” Francis Thuan adds proudly.
Next up, Kiba Saigon, the kind of breezy feel-good restaurant every city needs. “At Kiba, our name says it all,” Pedro smiles. “It’s short for kitchen-bar, so besides smoky crispy prawns, beef rendang and our trademark croquetas, there’s also homemade vermouth and some killer cocktails…”
Lately, the place has been buzzing again thanks, in part, to their warm welcome towards culinary guests from the neighbourhood like Dobee Lam from ComXiu – Modern Hong Kong Kitchen. Pedro is from Marbella, the resort city on Spain’s southern Costa Del Sol. There, healthy, natural produce is in abundance – Andalusian olive oil, fresh fish, and sun-kissed vegetables. The commitment to fresh, natural ingredients has stayed with him to Kiba Saigon where he even grows his own aromatic herbs and leafy greens like mustard leaves, kale, Swiss chard, basil, lemongrass, mint in his hydroponic garden upstairs.
Finally, newly opened Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar’s executive chef Daniel Hohng, introduces himself. Daniel has quite a resume. He worked alongside industry legends like Charlie Palmer, Helen An, Wolfgang Puck “and every single moment in those kitchens helped forge me into the chef I am today” he grins.
After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he became a sushi chef, and fell into a far too comfortable routine. To break out, he chose to take minimum wage and some lowly kitchen positions. “But the pain and struggles opened my eyes to what it takes to move to the next level as a chef,” he says.
At Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar, fifteen years into his kitchen career, he helps develop the menu, he trains the kitchen staff and oversees kitchen operations, “while taking pride in creating the most exceptional, joy-filled experiences for guests”.
It’s a careful balancing act, taking on the evolution of a restaurant first opened in 1955 with the fourth-generation owner and chef Vinh Q. Le. “But it’s something to take advantage of too,” Daniel Hohng argues, taking all that knowledge, and adding some modern culinary chutzpah, “like with one of my favourite dishes, giant blue prawn ceviche in cold tom yum broth where the locally-sourced giant prawns are as fresh as they come. Then they’re combined with crunchy banana chips and that broth…”
“Other than that, my go-to’s are geoduck clam sashimi or lobster sashimi to start, and I’d finish with mantis shrimp or grilled lamprey fish with a glass of white wine,” he adds proudly. “It probably goes without saying that I love seafood. And, honestly speaking, the best I found was at Saigon’s original Ngoc Suong restaurants. Fresh, good quality, large portions…”
What one dish sums up Saigon for you?
Francis Thuan: Cơm tấm, for me, typifies a Saigon staple. Specifically, I’m choosing the cơm tấm shop at 236 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh. It’s been in operation for more than 20 years and most of the meat is marinated one day in advance so its very tasty, especially their ribs and bacon. So, so delicious.
Pedro Goizueta: I’m completely addicted to one particular BBQ pork and vermicelli noodle dish. I’m not sure if this dish comes from Saigon or not, but I strongly associate it with the city. The dish is bún thịt nướng. And when anyone asks what’s the best food in Saigon, I have no hesitation in pointing them towards this restaurant on District 1’s De Tham Street. I probably go to Bún Thịt Nướng Kiều Bảo three or four times per week…and I don’t get bored.
Daniel Hohng: It has to be pho. Sure, people say they could eat pho every day. I actually do! There’s a small place near Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar where I eat beef pho for a late lunch. It’s not even a pho restaurant, it’s a café – called AR Coffee. The chef there is an old grandma who barely speaks English but wears a western chef’s jacket. Her pho fuels me for the dinner shift even though I end up sweating my ass off eating that hot beef soup that I load with Vietnamese herbs and chillis…
Francis Thuan: I was also really impressed with the crab soup in the alley at 360 Pham Van Chi, District 6. It was amazingly delicious. Everything. Good taste, no MSG, fresh, firm meat. Even their pepper is different. Just mentioning it is making my stomach hungry again!
Viet Hong: Then there’s Thanh Dat noodle soup in Co Bac, District 1. It’s one of the rare 24-hour shops that still guarantees excellent quality every minute of the day. And it’s only 40K. Spices and broth there are very standard: the filling consists of minced meat, liver, tongue and shrimp. But the secret is they are all extremely fresh. The shop is always packed with customers coming in and out. On the plus side, you never have to wait for too long to get a seat.
Pedro Goizueta: There is another special restaurant in District 11. There you get good food and a martial arts show! The place is Kung Fu Noodles, Mi Keo Kungfu Khai Ky. The chef hand pulls the noodles in this kung fu fashion by the entrance to the restaurant. And the noodles are delicious…
Daniel Hohng: I also love that I can find com tam everywhere in Saigon. It’s so simple but so full of charm. I never tire of it. I usually order extra side dishes to fill me up. That also adds a fun element. I want to understand the subtle differences between different restaurants’ and street food vendors’ sides and styles.
What food do you miss most when you’re out of town?
Francis Thuan: Saigon’s something of a melting pot, especially for different cultures within Vietnam as people drift to the big city from the provinces. So, when I travel domestically, I try to find the food at its source. That means I don’t miss Saigon food too much when I’m away.
Viet Hong: I agree. However, after a few days out of Saigon, I’m craving oc. Oc Chut Chit and Oc Loan around Ban Co are two places I love the most. Every visit, you have to wait a long time to be seated. But it’s worth it. I’ve talked to the owner of Oc Loan. He gets up at 2am every day. Then he heads over to Binh Dien to personally select the fresh snails that he’ll serve to his beloved customers that day. The dishes are very fresh. Very rich. And they taste very good with a cold beer!
Daniel Hohng: My answer is a little different. Being here, I miss food from Korea. Especially sannakji, or live octopus. The chef will cut it into small pieces and then serve it immediately.
It’s traditionally served with sesame oil and seeds that complement the dish’s ocean-fresh aroma. When you eat it, you can feel the legs wriggling in your mouth. They say it’s good for “stamina”.
After you finish up in the kitchen, where do you go for late-night eats?
Francis Thuan: Me and the guys in the kitchen often hang out. You’ll probably find us at Quan Oc at 79 Quoc Huong in District 2. We’ll cool off with some beers and chat about the long, hard, but fun day we’ve had. The grilled rice paper with salt and chili there is a must-try!
Viet Hong: I really like dim sum. This cuisine is a rich source of inspiration for my dishes. I go to Sủi Cảo Hà Tôn Quyền often. Crispy dumplings…crispy everything. And fragrant broths that are the perfect way to recharge after the battles we’ve had in the kitchen.
Pedro Goizueta: I like slurping down a bowl of good Japanese noodles when I’m hungry at night. Mutahiro Ramen is my favourite. Find it deep in Saigon’s Japan Town. The broth here has a very natural but characteristic flavour. You can feel the proprietor’s passion for Japanese food and for his customers.
If you’re joined by friends and drinking is involved, head to nearby 5KU Station on District 1’s Thai Van Lung. The dishes there are really flavoursome, and it’s a great place to chat and chill and down a few beers.
Daniel Hohng: After service, I like to go eat Vietnamese goat hot pot. My favourite place is Lau Be Bau Sen in District 5. It’s not the kind of place you can drop by for a quick bite, so I don’t go there too often. But when I really feel I need to unwind and reward myself for getting through another tough shift, this is top of my list.
How about the best bar to have a good after-work drink in Saigon?
Daniel Hohng: I usually head over to Candi Shop (74 Hai Ba Trung) for drinks. The venue is dramatic, the DJs are always fun, and they have eye-catching performances. There’s usually a nice crowd there too. It’s the sister establishment of Drinking & Healing so you can expect the same quality cocktails and snacks.
Viet Hong: For me, it has to be Drinking & Healing. In addition to their unique drinks and top-notch hip hop music, Drinking & Healing also serve French fries with truffle cheese. And satay chicken. When that drunken hunger buzz hits, you will be powerless to resist.
Pedro Goizueta: I’m a beer guy. So, I usually head over to Tê Tê TapHouse. Especially now that these talented craft beer guys have added more seafood snacks to their menu and a fun collaboration with Union Jacks Fish & Chips.
Francis Thuan: I love Yugen Bar, Dat Nguyen’s new place. I like the way he approaches cocktails. They’re classic and perfectly made, and there’s always something special about the technique. My tip? Order the White Negroni.
If you crave sweet things, which is your go-to dessert place?
Francis Thuan: If you are looking for a new experience that is different from the mass-produced classic cakes, visit Viet Hong and the team at The Monkey Gallery Desert & Dining Bar. And I’m not just saying that because he’s here.
The desserts there really are artworks that blend Vietnamese folky flavours with international cooking techniques. The semi-solid mango tea dessert my pick.
Pedro Goizueta: They don’t open late, but nevertheless I’m choosing Ivoire Pastry Boutique. Plan ahead. Keep some in the refrigerator at home. It will win the heart of any sweet lover. Their creme brulee mille crepe is one of their specials. And it’s sold only on Sundays…
Daniel Hohng: I don’t have a particularly sweet tooth. But, for my wife, I will head to a dessert shop on a date. Recently, I was deeply impressed by the blueberry chiffon cake at Godmother Bake & Brunch. The cream filling was so velvety and there were blueberries inside, so it was extra fun to eat…
Viet Hong: I have to choose something from The Monkey Gallery Dessert Bar & Dining, right? Our desserts aren’t too sweet. They’re more creative and focused on interesting textures. I suggest you order the Love Pop, the Deconstructed Tiramisu, or the Milk Tea Souffle.
Elsewhere, the same as Pedro, I love Ivoire Pastry Boutique. It’s the best pastry shop in Saigon right now. Try the Canalé, the Watermelon Cake or their Black Forest.
Finally, if you’re home and hungry, what’s your favourite food delivery order?
Daniel Hohng: If I’m feeling super lazy, and cooking is out of the question, I order Korean-style fried chicken from Chivago in District 1. Korean people love pairing fried chicken with beer. We have a saying, “chi-maek”, which is a combination of the words chicken and maek-ju (which means beer in Korean). I can’t think of a better way to finish the day than with some crunchy, crispy fried chicken and a can of cold beer while zoning out to the TV. Damn, I’m craving chi-maek just talking about it.
Viet Hong: I’d order Dobee Lam’s modern Cantonese cuisine, from Com Xiu – Modern Hong Kong Kitchen. His char sui is really tasty with great texture. Perfect with a steamed bao bun…
Pedro Goizueta: I like the way Saigon always surprises me with its culinary offerings. Even with barely any money in your pocket, you can eat and drink well. When I want vegetarian, I order from The Organik House. Otherwise, I’ll order some Cantonese dan dan noodles and some char xiu meat from Dobee Lam’s Com Xiu – Modern Hong Kong Kitchen, the same as Viet Hong again. And then I’d open a nice bottle of wine at home to pair it with, kick back, and enjoy…
Co-written by Karen Thanh Nga and Lan Anh Pham with photos and video by Khooa Nguyen, Jerry Tuan, and Johnny Viet.