Since its beginnings in the French era, banh mi has been a celebrated Vietnamese staple. Every street seller has their own precise combination of paté, protein and crunchy vegetables, and sources their own fluffy bread rolls. But whose version is best?
Banh Mi Huynh Hoa (26 Le Thi Rieng, Q1, HCMC) is perhaps the meatiest. This tourist and local hotspot serves six different styles of pork, plus a generous helping of tasty paté and pork floss. At VND32,000, these bread rolls are the definition of hearty. Perfect for meat lovers, it may disappoint those who favour balance, since the subtleties of fresh, fragrant coriander and crunchy salad get lost beneath a tide of meaty extravagance.
Banh Mi Thanh Mai Hoang (107 Truong Dinh, Q3, HCMC) is another meat-famous banh mi place, but not for its quantity. Serving a balanced banh mi roll with the usual coriander, cucumber, pickled vegetables, paté and salty butter, this vendor is known for the tender, sliced, roast pork. Cooked like a slow-roasted brisket — tender, moist and soft in the mouth — add a fried egg and you’ve got a breakfast for kings. All for under VND20,000.
Banh mi would be nothing without its white bread roll. And for this, Banh Mi Hong Hoa (62 Nguyen Van Trang, Q1, HCMC) takes gold. This shop bakes its bread on-site so it is warm, crisp and fragrant. Many of the ingredients are homemade, and the banh mi is filled with three styles of tasty pork. Sprigs of coriander and long cuts of cucumber lift the otherwise rich meat, paté and mayo. Costing VND17,000, what more could you want?
Back in 2014, we went on a mission to find Ho Chi Minh City’s most authentic pho. We were brave. We knew our northern friends would scoff. Why? Because pho originated in Nam Dinh less than 100km from Hanoi.
We acknowledged authenticity is a gold standard for rating quality. But things change. If it tastes good, so what?
Here are some knockout bowls of pho... according to us.
Pho Hoa (260C Pasteur, Q3, HCMC) has been open since the 1960s. Their bowls of the good stuff are huge, with tons of everything piled inside. Offers banh quay and a flavour that is somewhere in between north and south; not too sweet, not too savoury. Costs VND65,000 to VND75,000 a bowl.
Pho Phu Gia (146E, Ly Chinh Thang, Q3, HCMC) serves up traditional, northern, savoury and unfatty pho. A rarity in a city which likes its broths sweet, this is the best version of Hanoi-style pho that you’ll find in Saigon. A bowl costs VND65,000 to VND80,000.
Pho Dau (288/M1 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, Q3, HCMC) is a favourite with Viet Kieu. The broth has a northern edge to it, and the meat is fatty, rich and tender. But instead of fresh herbs, here the good stuff comes with sliced onions. So make sure you bring some breath freshener. A bowl costs VND70,000 to VND80,000.
Pho Quynh (323 Pham Ngu Lao, Q1, HCMC) is where most backpackers try pho for the first time. This magazine isn’t a fan of their standard pho bo, but as for their pho bo kho, now that’s a little special. Open 24 hours, this place is Saigon’s answer to the mighty late-night fast food joint.
Pho Phu Vuong (339 Le Van Sy, Tan Binh, HCMC) serves up quintessential southern-style pho. Spicy, sweet, unfatty but bursting with flavour, this, as one member of our staff pointed out, is exactly how pho tastes in California. A bowl costs from VND50,000 to VND70,000.
Where would Vietnamese cuisine be without the influence of the French? Well, it would still be tasty as hell, but certain dishes wouldn’t exist. Take bo kho, a local version of boeuf bourguignon. The beef is stewed for hours together with herbs and spices like star anise, coriander seeds, lemongrass and cinnamon. Add in some carrots and serve with banh mi, sliced onions and fresh herbs or pour over hu tieu noodles, and you’ve got the perfect Vietnamese-style breakfast, lunch or even dinner.
Here are the places we reckon do the best bo kho in Saigon.
Bo Kho Ut Nhung (109/7 Nguyen Thien Thuat, Q3, HCMC) only starts serving bo kho at 1pm (in the morning they make pho bo). Fresh and flavoursome, the beef is good quality and sliced thin, with a tasty light gravy to match.
Bo Kho Vo Van Tan (Hem 194, Vo Van Tan, Q3, HCMC) is down an alleyway, and they only start serving in the early afternoon. But they sure do a good bo kho. The stew is hearty and bursting with taste, reminiscent of the kind of dish you’d eat in a European winter, and it comes with oodles of carrots. The beef is cooked to perfection — very little fat, it falls apart at the touch.
However, we reckon the offering at Ba Nam (162 Tran Nhan Tong, Q10, HCMC) might be the best in the city. The broth is deep, complex and hits all the right notes. And the beef is perfect — barely a morsel of fat and lots and lots of meat. Open at 7am, there’s a reason why Ba Nam is sold out by 10am.
In Saigon, eating com tam is an obsession. The dish — bitty rice and barbecued pork with untold variations — can be found everywhere. Yet, com tam has such character that no place does it quite like the next. Here are some great spots to get a dose of this Saigonese stomach-filler.
If you want it big and full on and you want the heat of the streets of Saigon breathing down your face, then head to Ba Ghien (84 Dang Van Ngu, Phu Nhuan, HCMC). This is the place to go when you’re hungry. Huge chicken drumsticks and heavy weight-sized slabs of pork rib come off the BBQ, the perfect burst of protein to satisfy your lust for large-portioned, tasty com tam. This place is an institution.
These days there are too many Com Tam Thuan Kieu joints to count. But we still like the garish outlet in District 1 (114 Yersin, Q1, HCMC). Serving up some of the softest, sweetest-tasting barbecued pork you’ll ever put your teeth into, with a range of tasty pickles on the side, prices here are reasonable if not budget. A plate of the good stuff comes with a bowl of pork broth on the side. A nice, palate-cleansing touch.
Every area has its local com tam joint or five. In District 2, there’s Com Tam 40A (40A Quoc Huong, Q2, HCMC). It’s messy, it’s in the front room of someone’s house, but it’s in the heart of Thao Dien. Always crowded, the rice is perfectly steamed, the ribs are meaty without being too thickly cut, and every portion is served up with some tasty pickled cabbage.
Bun Bo Hue
Anyone who knows this city knows that Saigon serves up a mean bowl of bun bo Hue. Made with lemongrass, chilli and shrimp paste, the broth is citrusy and strong and comes with thick cuts of meat and white rice noodles. So good are the offerings in Ho Chi Minh City, that if you go to Hue and you’ll be disappointed. We certainly have been.
So who does the best bun bo in Saigon? There are so many options that it’s difficult to tell. Maybe you like the Mon Hue version. When it’s done well, it’s tasty, but there are so many restaurants in the chain now that the quality varies from place to place, and day to day.
Bun Bo Hue Dong Ba (110A Nguyen Du, Q1, HCMC) gets a good write-up as does Bun Bo Hue Thanh Noi (47 Tran Cao Van, Q3, HCMC). But we have a penchant for the bun bo served up at Nam Giao (136/15 Le Thanh Ton, Q1, HCMC).
An eatery specialising in cuisine from Hue rather than a street-food place, the bun bo here is quite classic — not a twist or variation in sight. Yet the broth always manages that fine balance between being too rich and too spicy, with the taste of shrimp paste never overpowering the palate. Unless you order otherwise, the cuts of meat are lean and each table comes with a plate of cha and nem in banana leaves. Unwrap and chuck the contents directly into your bowl of soup.