First, my legal “potential conflict-of-interest” disclaimer Dong Hoa Xuan is Hai’s restaurant. Therefore, you might think I would be pre-disposed to give him a great review. And you might be right.
BUT, the truth is in the eating! I speak from my tastebuds, when I say that anyone who has time for only one meal in Saigon would be very well-advised to have that meal at Hai’s place.
[Eating Tip: Everything is cooked fresh daily ... so when they run out, they run out! TRY TO ARRIVE BETWEEN 11:15 am -Noon FOR THE BEST FOOD SELECTION!]
The past few week’s have been busy ones and I haven’t had time to take the bus from my apartment over to the Binh Thanh District. Today, the last day before Hai closes his doors to celebrate the Tet holiday week, I thought I’d venture over to see how his business was doing.
All the tables were full at lunchtime. Always a good indication of how the neighbors feel about the food. I sat beside a young Vietnamese couple and exchanged smiles and “Chuc Mung Nam Moi”s (Happy New Year – Tet).
I decided to try 3 dishes today – cá kho tộ, bao tử, and canh khổ qua. If you have a chance to enjoy only one meal in Saigon, breakfast or lunch, I’d consider ordering these exact 3 dishes at Dong Hoa Xuan. It turned out to be a delicious and memorable sampler of classic Saigon food!
First, cá kho tộ. Fish simmered in a rich spicy sauce. The fish steak was perfectly done. Presented in individually simmering small black ceramic pots, the fish steak was moist and meaty – with only a few bones. (Remember, in Vietnam, if it doesn’t have bones,it’s not fish!) The sauce was smooth, salty, a bit spicy and mostly, amazingly delicious. Small bits of green onions and bits of pork bacon floated in the caramelized sauce. I began by spooning sections of the fish and the sauce over the rice that was served with the cá kho tộ. Major yummy! I couldn’t quite stop eating and move on to the next dish before hitting bottom.
But the surprise of the meal was the bao tử - pork stomach!
To tell the truth, I’ve tried pork belly before. After years of avoiding this questionable-sounding food item, some months ago Hai convinced me to try his version of his grandmother’s specialty. One morning, I broke down and gave it a try. I remember thinking, “Oh, okay, I see – not bad … a bit squid-like in its texture, but more flavorful — so what else do you have?” Obviously, okay, but it was not my first choice. BUT, this morning, after Hai told me that his bao tử had now become the #1 demand of his customers, I thought maybe I had missed something before. Clearly, I had. Hai had tweaked his sauce recipe into something amazing and mouthwatering! The bellies were cooked to perfection – tender, yet firm – and the sauce, now a “secret” blend of flavors from the pork, tomatoes and yet-to-be unveiled herbs and spices, was the highlight of the entire meal! This is a must-try Vietnamese specialty.
So maybe that would have been enough for lunch ~ but I needed my veges for the day. And again, my choice for this third dish, canh khổ qua, was superb. It helped put this meal and this restaurant over-the-top!
Khổ qua is a uniquely Asian vegetable, uniquely shaped and flavored. First and foremost, it’s bitter. Deliciously so. Here it was presented in a soup. The firm and tender melon is filled with a ground pork and mushroom stuffing and sits in a broth that subtilely bursts (yes- that’s possible) with the combined flavors of the pork, the green onion, and the bitter melon. I thought the broth itself could have been an excellent soup for lunch. But, the stuffed khổ qua is incredibly “easy and mild” to eat. Somehow it’s very comforting to the belly as it completes the meal.
I left Dong Hao Xuan very impressed and very happy. As I walked back to the bus stop I thought – this is the meal, the 3 dishes to eat – cá kho tộ, bao tử, and canh khổ qua - if you have a chance to enjoy only one meal in Saigon. Again, a delicious and memorable sampler of classic Saigon food.
POSTSCRIPT: I had a late morning meal at Dong Hoa Xuan today and enjoyed yet another amazing food trio!
POSTSCRIPT #2: If you’re not already too full after enjoying a great meal here, immediately next door you can try some delicious chè chuối for dessert. Slightly fermented bananas (or a host of other ingredient choices) topped with a delicious coconut milk creamed sauce. Absolutely delicious – and filling!
We rate Hai’s Place – Dong Hoa Xuan as YUM YUM YUM here at Eating Saigon!
OPEN 7 a.m.until 2 p.m.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Everything is cooked fresh daily … so when they run out, they run out! TRY TO ARRIVE BETWEEN 11:15 am -noon FOR THE BEST FOOD SELECTION!!
Dong Hoa Xuan
49 No Trang Long
Binh Thanh District
View Dong Hoa Xuan ~ Hai’s Place in a larger map