Nha Hang Thien Nam
Every once in a while, you happen to stumble across an absolute gem that has been around for years, but you never knew existed. And recently I was lucky enough to do just that.
Only a block away from my restaurant The Elbow Room is Nha Hang Thien Nam. Thien Nam is arguably one of the oldest continuous restaurants in the city centre, if not all of Saigon. This family-run establishment has been going strong for three generations and remains largely unchanged since its opening in 1961. One older member of the family, decked out in old-school suspenders, told me its look, location and food has never changed.
Entering the restaurant is like taking a trip into the past. The decor is European-Bavarian with white-cloth tables and French stained-glass windows. The walls are bare except for the chalkboard menu. Clad in bow ties, white shirts and black slacks, some of the waiters are as old as the restaurant itself. Ours had worked there for more than 20 years.
A steady stream of Vietnamese families, both young and old, filled the tables, where they browsed Thien Nam’s two different menus — one western and one Asian. The western menu has options such as beefsteak, escargot, risotto and pasta. The Asian menu is made up of a mix of Chinese and Vietnamese fare.
We ordered the crispy-skin chicken and deep-fried mantou (Chinese steamed buns). Both were divine. Since the escargot wasn’t available, we decided on the baked clams with Swiss cheese instead. The clams were literally floating in hot melted butter. Calories be damned. The Vietnamese baguette served on the side was perfect for sopping up the last of the sauce. Next came the deep-fried pig’s brain. I like pig’s brain but the batter on this one was bland. My friend ordered hu tieu to sip between dishes. It wasn’t bad, but isn’t something I’d come here for.
For my finale I decided on the pan-fried pork chop with pomme frittes. It was so tasty and tender I wondered how they had made it that way. Even I have a hard time getting pork chops that tender. They also have an array of sauces — soy sauce, plum sauce, sweet and sour, Dijon, and vinegar chilli — on the table to match every dish.
It’s places like Thien Nam that make Saigon such an interesting city to live in. Just when you think you know the city inside and out, a great surprise that has been under your nose for years reveals itself.
Thien Nam Restaurant
53 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia, D1
08 38 22 36 34