Simon Stanley discovers the tastes of Osaka in Saigon’s second (secret) Japan Town, at Teppanyaki Hajime. Photos by Vinh Dao.
The city feels weirdly yet comfortingly autumnal as I trundle along Pham Viet Chanh, a bustling backstreet close to Nguyen Huu Canh. Two days of thick cloud and rain have sent Saigon’s thermometers plummeting. Taking a seat at Hajime’s teppanyaki counter, I almost want to rub my hands together and warm them over the giant hot plates sitting between me and head chef Osako Takanori, an Osaka native who established Hajime in September 2015.
As rents on and around Le Thanh Ton Street rise, this corner of Binh Thanh District is slowly gaining a reputation as an alternative destination for Japanese cuisine, with several authentic eateries now on offer on this one street alone. Without the massage parlours, hotels and, err, ‘other’ businesses, it’s a spot that feels considerably more local and more authentic than the Japan Town we’re all used to.
Hajime’s minimalist 9-seat downstairs counter is supplemented by a larger area of tables and tatami mats upstairs, plus two private dining rooms above that. To watch the chef in action, the counter suits us just fine. Grab a draft Sapporo for just VND35,000 and settle in for some fine Japanese hospitality. A strong selection of wines are also available, along with classic Japanese cocktails, highballs and shochu. In my rush to get inside and out of the ‘cold’, I’d missed the giant takoyaki grill sitting in the front yard. Still sizzling hot, we’re first presented with nine large, golden octopus balls smothered in Worcester sauce and mayonnaise (VND74,000.
Crisp on the outside and deliciously creamy on the inside, with large chunks of flavour-filled octopus (fresh daily), they put all other takoyaki I’ve eaten in my life to shame.
Next comes a platter of salmon carpaccio with wasabi and avocado (VND110,000). The flavourings are delicate yet hide a subtle smokiness that makes this a perfect winter warmer. In my head it’s practically snowing outside by now. We’ve been distracted by the salmon, and Osako is already at work on the teppanyaki, grilling a yaki yasai assortment of vegetables served with a garlic butter dip (VND95,000). Perfectly charred and with minimal oiliness, the sliced red pepper is the favourite here.
The hotplates spit and sizzle like a crackling fire as our next dish, a traditional Osaka-style yaki soba (VND90,000) gets underway. Cooked in minutes, the fresh prawns and oh-so-tender squid, mixed with pork, cabbage and soba noodles, is what Japanese cooking is all about. A seafood okonomiyaki (VND119,000) has been cooking slowly while we eat and arrives thick, glistening and dancing with bonito flakes. Were it not for the banh mi seller calling out his sales pitch in the street outside, my wintery Japanese fantasy would have been complete. Our feast ends with an Australian ribeye steak with wasabi salt and an almost slow-cooked stew-like gravy sauce (VND250,000). Flash fried in seconds, it oozes with flavour and juice, and with Osako’s secret homemade sauce, this seemingly simple dish is a knockout.
“Arigato gozaimasu!” calls the staff in unison, all bowing politely as we depart. And just like that, we are back in Saigon.