Mark Twain's favorite Ho Chi Minh City restaurant

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The field greens and Japanese pumpkin at Saigon Vegan are both sauteed in some kind of magic sauce with straw mushrooms and served under a bit of cracked pepper

American children grow up being told to eat their vegetables by parents who rarely do.

Vegetables may form a significant chunk of the cartoon food pyramid we see in pediatrician offices but they do not figure prominently into our actual diets. Instead, they are regarded as ornaments for bad food.

Dramatic salad binges often take the place of regular vegetable intake. Normal people talk about eating salads for days before doing so, like runners psyching themselves up for a race.

Those who regularly and freely order salads are suspected of suffering from eating disorders, even when most of these salads contain a week's ration of cheese.

In Vietnam, vegetables magically appear at nearly every meal without the help of cheese.

They are considered indispensable in a very real and immediate sense. Any meal that does not include fresh vegetables, soup, rice, and meat is likely to incite whining.

In America, I raised eyebrows for eating stems of basil and chewing on sticks of rosemary. But I found kinship among the herb eaters of Vietnam a people who believed in every man's right to a crispy crunch.

Vietnam taught me to love my vegetables. I crave them. Indeed, I need them every day.

To get my fix, Irely on one fantastic restaurant: Saigon Vegan.

Saigon Vegan would never be allowed in America. If they air-lifted the entire building into some progressive college town, its menu would be immediately polluted with mushy beans, unpalatable heaps of brown rice, and bland packaged tofu.

Every dish would be seasoned with self-righteousness and you would only eat there to atone for some great food crime, like Thanksgiving.

Saigon Vegan seems, at first, too quaint to be any good.

The expansive dining room features an array of handsome wooden tables and chairs situated on a kaleidoscopic antique tile floor. At odd times Hue chamber music fills the room.

Don't be fooled by the décor. An encouraging chaos prevails, keeping prices modest and crowds to a minimum.

Ordering is always a bit of a mystery and patrons are wise to wear long pants to discourage the ever-present ankle-biting mosquitoes, the only meat-eaters in the joint.

A giant, somewhat puzzling poster titled Famous Vegan Celebrities looms large over the room allowing Michael Jackson, Henry Ford, and Mark Twain to preside over every meal.

All of these touches were added by Tam, the soft-spoken owner, who runs a number of high-end T-shirt shops on Bui Vien Street. Last year an attempt to open a second branch over one of those shops failed in less than six months.

"We just had some trouble getting the staff right," he said.

Since the closure of the Bui Vien restaurant, Tam (a longtime vegan and all around mellow guy) appears to have left his District 3 place alone.

Nothing about it ever changes, thank troi.


Address: 378/3 Vo Van Tan St., District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. (closed from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.)
Tel: (08) 3 834 4473
Price range: between VND30,000 and VND70,000 per dish
The menu is typical of a Vietnamese vegan place, the kinds of restaurants that cater to the lunar calendar crowds. It features plenty of stir fries and noodle dishes where meat has been swapped for tofu. There are a few good hot pots.

But the restaurant's steamed vegetables alone are always good. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, Saigon Vegan proves that cooks do not need to destroy the vegetable to save the meal.

Try the bi do (Japanese pumpkin, sautéed with straw mushrooms and firm tofu) and rau cai ngot (steamed field greens). Both are served on large oblong platters, which provide enough food for two big eaters.

Lovers of chao (fermented tofu paste) should order a plate of steamed okra and do battle with one of the funkiest and fruitiest dips in town.

All steamed vegetable dishes go for VND40,000 apiece.

Solo diners should consider the VND50,000 com thap cam a plate of stir-fried tofu and steamed vegetables with soup and rice. The dish is never the same, even for two people ordering it at the same time.

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