Ho Chi Minh City has everything you need to rot your teeth, fatten your gut and make you feel warm and fuzzy all over
Clockwise from cupcake: The banana-cinnamon buttercream cupcake from Sweet + Sour, sweet almond tofu, the pumpkin flan at Pumpkin and Coconut, the bánh ít in District 6 and the chocolate peanut donut at Fresh Donuts in District 1
I have been cursed with a sweet tooth my entire life - that is eight cavities and two root canals in 29 years. I hoped, when I moved here, that all of my sweet eating would stop or at least slow.
But Ho Chi Minh City offered more sweet junk than any town I have ever lived in. And the offerings are getting better every day. For those of you who grew up in the States and miss your mom's cookies, consider this a guide to some of the town's best comfort food. For those of you who grew up elsewhere, but can eat a box of cream puffs for breakfast and feel no remorse (VND100,000 at Chewy Junior 34 Tran Hung Dao Street, District 1), consider this your guide to an early onset of diabetes:
A fleeting donut
Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants own all of California's best donut shops. And yet, bakeries in Southeast Asia fall short. Last summer, a wholly-Vietnamese shop called Fresh Donuts began making them the way Uncle Sam intended - cake rings covered in a firm frosting shell. The manager attributes the quality of their product to imported American flour, which they will stop getting (due to an inexplicable hiccup in the supply chain) some time next week. The clock is ticking.
Address: 33 Nguyen Thi Minh Khai Street, District 1. VND17,000.
Durian for dummies
If you do not understand durian yet, you need to get yourself to the Golden Elephant. The fruit itself is the best dessert on earth - proof that someone up there loves us and wants us to be happy. But for all you clueless whiners out there, this Thai restaurant serves a tiny slice of God's custard with sweet coconut milk and salty sticky rice. If you don't like that, you are not getting in to heaven.
Address: 34 Hai Ba Trung Street, District 1. VND50,000.
The late breakfast
Last month, a bad case of hypertension kept Thanh home for nearly two weeks reducing her popular sidewalk chè spot to a barren green wall. She has recovered and now shows up to work at around 2 p.m. From then on, Thanh slings bowls and bags of cow bean sticky rice, hot tapioca soup, corn porridge, and green bean goo until there is nothing left in her pots - and there never is.
Address: Corner of Cong Quynh and Cao Ba Nha streets, District 1. VND5,000 per bowl.
Dessert for the dead
Most Central and Southern Vietnamese families place bánh ít (banana leaf-wrapped sticky rice pyramids stuffed with beans or fruit) on the altar during the anniversary of a loved one's death. Evidently, these are a hot ticket in the spirit world. But I am already a fan. Thankfully, a family of hủ tiếu vendors cranks out bright purple bánh ít for 25 cents a pop. Their best rendition contains a pungent paste of dried coconut, durian and chopped peanuts. Please remember to put a few out for me when I'm gone.
Address: 16B Street 762 (essentially an alley that begins at 762), Hong Bang Street, District 6. VND5,000 apiece.
Pumpkin pie redux
Traffic hits a wild bottleneck around the intersection of Nguyen Trai and Chau Van Liem. Every night, the corners overflow with waiters carrying blazing hotpots and plates of chicken rice into packed restaurants. A few steps away from all this madness, hidden behind a phalanx of dour condom vendors, sits Coconut and Pumpkin. This clean quiet shop sells a huge range of cool, tasty desserts, everything from custard-stuffed crullers to jellied coconuts. On a hot night, consider going out for a wedge of flan-filled bí đỏ (pumpkin squash) - a cool, sub-tropical riff on the heavy Thanksgiving Day pie.
Address: 85 Chau Van Liem Street, District 5. VND100,000 per kilogram.
The cupcake I hate to love
Up until a few years ago, cupcakes were considered the most banal and wholesome of America's dessert items. Then Sex and the City hijacked the innocent cakes and turned them into its calling cards for vapid promiscuity and conspicuous consumerism. Eight years after the show stopped airing, a pair of bored rich ladies opened Cakewalk, a boutique "cupcakery" in downtown HCMC. Their logo is a high-heeled shoe with cake in it. It hurts that their PB&J (vanilla cake filled with real strawberry jam and topped with peanut buttercream) tastes so good. But it does.
Address: 84 Nguyen Cong Tru Street, District 1. VND50,000.
The cupcake I love to love
Barbara Kuehne, a Vietnamese-American mom who grew up in North Carolina, has been baking cupcakes in her HCMC kitchen for the past two years. You have probably seen them on sale at L'Usine Café. Kuehne recently opened the Sweet + Sour Bakery on the ground floor of her ritzy apartment in Thao Dien. Soon, her cupcakes will invade the shelves of Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf. Eventually, I suspect, they will take over the world. Which is fine by me. Because everyone deserves a taste of her cinnamon butter cream frosted banana bread cupcake before they commence an eternity of bánh ít.
Address: Ground floor of AVA Residence 40/4 Nguyen Van Huong Street, District 2. VND50,000.
Tofu me? Tofu you!
If you find yourself driving around Ho Chi Minh City sweaty and aggravated, pull over at Banh Canh Trang Bang Hoang Ty. Ignore everything about this restaurant - a hot, crowded pork roll place that stinks of mắm nêm. Flip to the back of the menu and point to the picture of chè khúc bạch, a chilled cup containing buttery cubes of "cheese tofu" (they allegedly contain heavy cream), preserved longans, slivered almonds and a few hunks of ice. This thing will make you feel ten degrees cooler and, somehow, lighter.
Address: 70-72 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3. VND28,000.
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