Most Vietnamese and expats think alike when mentioning the Khu Tay Ba Lo or better known as the backpacker area. Khu Tay Ba Lo literally translates into ‘Western backpack area’ is located in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City and spans between Cong Quynh, Tran Hung Dao and Pham Ngu Lao Streets. However, the area is widely known as the intersection of Bui Vien and De Tham Street, similar to San Francisco’s Haight and Ashbury but not as well known.
There are bargain shops, rooms for rent, mini hotels, bars and eateries operating 24/7 in this small compact area. To most it is a place to come for a bargain and many would not consider this area as a go to place for a fine dinning meal. I for one would beg to differ and often venture to Pham Ngu Lao and De Tham Streets hunting for an amazing local feast.
Nam Giao Restaurant on De Tham Street specializes in the cuisine of central Vietnam or mien trung. Established in 1991, this airy, clean and friendly eatery is literally an institution. Famous for their bun bo Hue (Hue style beef noodle soup), bun cha cua (crab patty vermicelli noodle) and banh beo (water fern cake) and com hen (spicy rice with clams).
Bun bo Hue is the dish that defines the central region, known for its balance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors. The unique thing about this dish is the dominant flavor of the lemongrass and chili. Bun bo like pho is simmered with beef shank, beef bones and oxtail for a long period of time in order to acquired that rich broth. To complete the dish add vermicelli, slices of beef shank, knuckles and congealed blood with a side of lime wedges, sliced onions, mint, basil and cilantro sprigs.
Bun cha cua is served with the same broth and sides as bun bo with the difference being the patty crab cakes. Made from fresh crab meat, onions, dried shallot and mushrooms, it is amazing.
Banh beo, or water fern cake because the shape of the cake looks like a water fern, is steamed in individual dishes and is white or transparent in color. Topped with chopped shrimps, scallions, mung bean, crispy shallot and a side of fish sauce, banh beo is one of Vietnam’s coolest appetizers.
Com Hen is a spicy rice dish topped with tiny little clams, peanuts, banh trang, assorted herbs, pork rind, sesame seeds, fish sauce and a side of clam broth. This dish is served in a bowl and it is equivalent to the Korean Bi Bim Bap. The chili is optional if you’re not into the heat but be aware that most central cuisine is often served spicy.
Bun Bo Hue Nam Giao
248 Bui Vien Street
District 1, HCMC
Telephone +848 38369446
Open 6am to 11pm everyday
Tristan Ngo is the Chef Patron and Owner of Skewers Restaurant and The Elbow Room.