A traditional southern treat in the city center

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The ground level of Tam Tac Restaurant in HCMC's District 1

"Tam tac" is a  phrase used to compliment somebody or something in Vietnamese.

Clearly, the owner of Tam Tac, a two-story southern Vietnamese restaurant on Suong Nguyet Anh Street, hopes we'll all compliment the food and the lovely space in the same way.

The restaurant attracted me the first time I saw it for its quiet, elegant ambience with light yellow lights and low melodies seeping from the walls. The ceiling's electric lights are veiled in silk lanterns shaped like rice seeds, exuding the feeling of the Vietnamese countryside.

My two friends and I chose a table for four on the ground floor near a wooden canopy that makes the place look like an old Vietnamese house in Hanoi and Hue.

Tam Tac's menu offers a wide range of selections. There's cơm tấm (broken rice) for breakfast and lunch and a large variety of other rice dishes for both lunch and dinner. For lunch and dinner, a la carte options and a set menu are both available.

Compared to some other restaurants offering Vietnamese food in the city center, prices at Tam Tac are softer with most dishes ranging around VND20,000-150,000.

We chose a set menu for two, priced at VND500,000 (there are set menus for one priced at VND90,000 and another set menu for two priced at VND700,000), and we also ordered some dishes from the a la carte menu.

But the food from the 500,000-dong set menu was exactly enough for the three of us.

Sour soup with cat fish and goby fish cooked in brine with pork in an earthen pot on a bamboo flat basket

The set we chose included spring rolls served with garlic sauce. I highly recommend the garlic sauce. Its sourness matched the oily spring roll incredibly. The roll was hot and fragrant with a perfect crunchy cover.

Squid salad followed in a big dish that the three of us had difficulty finishing, not because it wasn't delicious, but because it was so large. The salad was quite sweet but in return for that there was a lot of fresh squid in the mixture and we were all satisfied.

The main course was a cat fish sour soup with steamed rice accompanied by an earthen pot on a bamboo flat basket (re) containing goby fish cooked in brine with pork. For a southern Vietnamese person, this is the quintessential meal.

 Tam Tac Restaurant

73 Suong Nguyet Anh Street, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City 

Like the salad, the sour soup was quite sweet as it was cooked in southern Vietnamese style in which sugar plays a major role. The goby and the pork were well imbued in nuoc mam (fish sauce) and they tasted so good that we finished everything, including all the rice.

With the set, we were allowed to choose two kinds of che (sweet porridge) for dessert.

We picked che troi nuoc (mochi dumpling in ginger syrup) and che khoai mon (made from taro cooked with sticky rice) and we expected that they would be super sweet, which turned out to be true. Too sweet, actually, and we couldn't finish them. What a pity!

Calling it a meal, we decided to have a look at the second floor. I felt regret almost immediately for not going up there for lunch.

In contrast with the elegance and fanciness of the ground floor, the space upstairs gives away a feeling of traditional old-world Vietnamese ambience with antique wooden chairs and tables and trees scattered about the place. A long table is out on the deck where guests can enjoy a meal and look down to the street below.

"Next time, we'll eat up stairs!" one of my friends said as we left Tấm Tắc. I walked out the door and uttered the best compliment I saw fit: "tam tac."

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