Quan Bui restaurant at 8 Nguyen Van Nguyen Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City serves fish dishes. Pescetarian can easily find tasty dishes in town.
"Vegetarian that's an old Indian word meaning lousy hunter."
This line from Andy Rooney is on the wall of one of my favorite Ho Chi Minh City restaurants, a cosy brick-walled bistro tucked at one end of Pasteur Street that trades in delicious comfort food and has a dependable delivery service. The harmless jabs at dieting and fast food remind diners that this is place to celebrate good food.
Though I envy the world's slender, bright-eyed vegetarians, I've never felt ready to swap my culinary liberty for a handful of veggie-friendly eateries, or to endure chirpy prompts such as, "Oh look, they have salad."
When I was 19 and thinking seriously about the various paths aimed at a life-long clean bill of health, a friend prodded me to discover the pescetarian diet.
For those who don't know, the rules for the pescetarian (sometimes called pesco-vegetarian) diet are simple: no land animals or poultry. Aside from mammals and birds, the world is your oyster, flounder, salmon, shrimp, clam or crab. Like vegetarians, pescetarians consume eggs and dairy plus any protein from la mer that suits their taste.
The pescetarian diet is really a compromise between an omnivorous and vegetarian diet. Pescetarians enjoy the nutritional benefits of avoiding saturated fats and cholesterol from red meat, and the heart-, brain- and weight-friendly effects of eating plenty of seafood, coupled with a number of ethical and environmental bonuses.
Of course there are minuses as well. Pescetarians have two interwoven concerns: avoiding mercury and toxins, and dealing with fewer food choices. As it happens, indulging in a variety of fish and shellfish choices solves both issues. However, for those following a pescetarian diet or anyone looking to scale back their red meat intake, HCMC can prove a challenging ground, especially for newcomers.
To make things a bit easier, I've collected here, from my two years as a pescetarian in HCMC, some of the best fish and seafood dishes I've come across. Each is flavorful enough to satisfy the pickiest pescetarian, and will leave you knowing that you're not missing a thing.
Spicy garlic shrimps pasta with cherry tomatoes and parmesan at The Elbow Room, 52 Pasteur Street, District 1. I've heard this charming two-storey venue labeled "˜HCMC's most underrated restaurant', and when you get a mouthful of Chef Tristan's firm, spicy pasta, succulent shrimp and sweet cherry tomatoes, you'll know why. Also swoon-worthy from The Elbow Room's menu is the baked Moroccan sea bass (ask for no bacon bits in your buckwheat).
Cha ca La Vong at Cha Ca La Vong, 36 Ton That Thiep Street, District 1. Perhaps the ultimate fish experience in the city, and a must-try for any visitor, this Hanoi-based dish is simply addictive. Perfect for a light lunch, the fish, turmeric, shallots and spices are cooked at your table, enhanced with handfuls of chopped dill weed and herbs and accompanied by crunchy peanuts, rice crackers, chili, fish sauce and a squeeze of lemon.
Grilled red snapper with sea salt, lemon and mint at Hai Lua, 16 Ngo Van Nam Street, or outside Ben Thanh Market, District 1. The first grilled fish I had in Vietnam and still the best, the red snapper at Hai Lua ticks all the boxes, it's hard to say what's better: the delectable charred red skin or the moist white flesh. Also superior to other versions I've tried in HCMC is Hai Lua's banh khot. These soft and crispy rice cakes topped with shrimp are best when eaten still warm by rolling into leafy spring rolls and dipping in fish sauce.
Creamy rice with sautéed buttered shrimps at 48 Bistro, 48 Le Thi Rieng, District 1. Colourfully decorated and almost too cheap to be true, the menu in this dependable French-Vietnamese restaurant carries a host of appetizing fish and seafood options, with the heavy but oh-so-tasty risotto-like creamy rice with buttered shrimps and vegetables at the top of my list on every visit.
Bun ca at Nha Hang Ngon, 160 Pasteur, District 1. A fish soup to warm your heart, the tomato-based broth holds slippery fresh vermicelli, slices of white-meat fish, shrimp balls and floating sprigs of dill weed. Remove the pork-stuffed pepper from your bowl, and you have one of most flavorful fish soups in town.
Aside from the above, pescetarians can make these restaurants part of their HCMC dining repertoire:
Papaya at 68 Pham Viet Chanh Street in Binh Thanh District does a tangy, generous seafood hotpot, plus an appropriately complex sweet and sour sea bass and filling shrimp and mushroom omelette.
Wrap and Roll, at any of its outlets, offers a crispy fried fish with green mango that is superb when rolled with fresh herbs and leaves. Steamed fish and dill rolls are also a treat.
Cuc Gach Quan, also known as the Architect's House at 10 Dang Tat Street in District 1, cooks a praise-worthy version of sea bass in passion fruit sauce, with lovely cubes of high-quality fish, a vibrant sauce and crunchy fruit seeds.
Last but not least, the city's most legendary tamarind crabs, a religious experience for some, can be located at Quan cua ba chi at 15 Pho Co Dieu Street in District 5.
Add all these to the timeless fallbacks of Japanese and Indian cuisine, sprinkle a little forethought and flexibility, and diligent pescetarians will find their time in HCMC brimming with memorable dining experiences.