Hue's rightful royals

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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Why two street cooks in District 3 are better than all the Nguyen emperors put together


Phien's bánh bèo will fill you up without letting you down. 
The Nguyen Dynasty gets a lot of credit when it comes to the tasty snacks served in the city of Hue.
No description of the "imperial cuisine" is complete without some mention of Emperor Tự Đức who famously demanded that every meal consist of 50 dishes prepared by 50 cooks.
Few note that Tự Đức insisted upon these elaborate feasts during times of famine and pestilence or that his cooks stole what they wanted from vendors in the local markets.
Here in Ho Chi Minh City, two humble Hue transplants in District 3 make just a few things and they make them very well.
Rather than paying lip service to Tự Đức and his crew of culinary thugs, I'd like to nominate these two for official titles. Both are from Hue and both provide their subjects with plenty of food that is cheap, delicious and authentic - which is more than Tự Đức ever did for anyone.
The baron of bánh bèo
Phien, the terse owner of this fine establishment, opens shop in the afternoon - usually around 3 p.m.
As soon as his stools hit the pavement, a team of shy waitresses begins dealing out bite-sized snacks with the alacrity of Vegas blackjack dealers.
They sell bánh nậm, bánh ít and bánh lọc - all snacks made of pork and shrimp wrapped up and steamed in soft rice or cassava dough.
Their biggest seller is bánh bèo - a chewy pudding dusted in crumbled pork rinds and dried shrimp. Some say the dish derives its name from a round aquatic plant of the same name. Few note, however, that "bèo" also means "cheap."
Give it a try!
Bánh bèo Thanh Nga
43 Rach Bung Binh Street, Ward 9, District 3. Tel: 0906 879 528
VND1,000 per bánh bèo
3 p.m-9 p.m. everyday
Cơm Hến, Bún Hến
284/9 Le Van Sy Street, Ward 14, District 3.
No number given
VND14,000 per bowl
3 p.m.-10 p.m. everyday
For less than a dollar, you can eat your fill of these mothers. Phien's fish sauce is good enough to drink alone; he claims to blend it with sugar and homemade shrimp stock. Drop a wad of chopped yellow-green chilies into your bowl and pour a spoonful over each cake.
If you're really hungry a slice of chả (a pepper-studded meat log) lends the snack some heft.
A lot of street bánh bèo are shucked from their tiny bowls in advance of your arrival. Here, you have the pleasure of carving each one out with a spoon.
The high-priestess of cơm hến
Thu arrives at her little stretch of alleyway in District 3 around the same time that Phien opens for business. If you arrive around 2 p.m., you'll have the pleasure of watching her open shop.
In the time it takes to eat an ice cream, Thu pulls a full kitchen and a miniature plastic dining room out of a small steel trolley attached to her motorbike.
After setting up, Thu sits down behind a glass display case packed with stewed fish, baby clams and chewy shrimp cakes. About six kilograms of fresh herbs hang in plastic bags on the yellow wall behind her, above two bubbling cauldrons of tart broth.
For the first hour after she opens, Thu takes it easy. She banters with her saucy sous-chef and chats with neighbors and loyal subjects she has ruled this alley for seven years. At times, you may catch her closing her eyes, seemingly to catch a few seconds of sleep.
She has earned them.
Somehow, this plump middle-aged woman manages to prepare two kinds of bánh canh noodles, three pungent bún dishes and four kinds of snack cakes, every morning.
All of her dishes sell for VND14,000, with the exception of her bánh Huế - a heaping mixed plate of shrimp and pork cakes with chả and nem chua that sells for a whopping VND20,000.
You can't really go wrong here, but if you have to eat just one thing, consider her bowl of cơm hến (baby clam rice) - a dish that is almost as complex in its assembly as her restaurant.
Thu builds the base of the dish with fistfuls of sliced banana flower, peppermint, purple lotus stem and baby lettuce. The salad base disappears under a scoop of steamed rice and buttery baby clams. The final layer is drawn from a set of open jars containing fried shallots, chili paste, fermented purple goo (mắm tôm), peanuts and pork rinds.
These huge flavors all manage to keep each other in check, making the dish a fantastic confederacy of textures and tastes.
Things get crazy for Thu as the day wears on. By 8 p.m., the alleyway resembles a zombie film. Central transplants from all over the city tromp into they alley and crowd around her little restaurant clamoring for clams from the high priestess.

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