BackEat & Drink » Saigon Hẻm Gems » Hẻm Gems: A Thai Feast on a Hẻm Pavement, With Vietnamese Fusion Twists

Hẻm Gems: A Thai Feast on a Hẻm Pavement, With Vietnamese Fusion Twists

While Thailand and Vietnam have long been perpetual rivals in the football arena, at this streetside Hẻm Gem, the two cultures forge a harmonious relationship.

As two of Southeast Asia’s most robust economies, Vietnam and Thailand have formed a close connection in history, economy and even social customs. Thailand is among Vietnam’s major investors and Vietnamese travelers are always eager to “invest” some attention in the Thai tourism industry, which welcomes over one million visitors from Vietnam annually.

The nations also share many similarities in their culinary cultures. For example, one of the most common greetings in Thai is “kin khao rue yang,” an equivalent of the Vietnamese “ăn cơm chưa.”

When it comes to the attributes of food, Thai and Vietnamese cuisines diverge significantly in flavors and preparations. Of course, some ingredients are present in both, like fish sauce, peanuts and rice, but across the board, Thai food is much more generous in spice usage and heat level. Frying, stir-frying, and roasting also show up more often in Thai cuisine than Vietnamese cuisine.

In this rather unexpectedly fantastic street eatery that I discovered in Phú Nhuận District, the owner married Thai and Vietnamese cuisines to create a delightfully amicable eating experience.

A director-turned-chef

Việt Thái is a casual dinner place located in a wide hẻm on Phan Xích Long Street, run by Tô Quốc Nam, its fascinating owner. When Saigoneer paid him a visit, Nam was dashing back and forth between the cooking area, tables, and even the parking lot. A walkie-talkie in hand, he oversees every step in the catering process, from cooking, billing and, sometimes, sharing a drink or two with diners as an especially personal form of “customer service.”

“I once was a director, but now I enjoy cooking more,” Nam introduces himself to me. His hands nimbly shave down young papaya using a wooden mandoline. After years at the helm of TV drama productions, the most important project of Nam’s life turns out to be a humble eatery. He admits to not having any sentimental bond with Thailand, but picked Thai food to be the star of the show just because he likes eating it, and “people also like eating it.”

Việt Thái officially opened two years ago. Nam left the TV studio and camped down in a variety of restaurants to learn how to run an eatery and test recipes. “In preparation for the launch, I spent six months experimenting with ingredients and sauce until I was satisfied. I made tons of adjustments; at times I had to discard the whole thing after cooking,” Nam shares.

Tam, Thailand’s signature salad, is created with a pestle and mortar.

After half a year of practice, Nam entered the F&B world with over 100 recipes. In Vietnamese cuisine, eaters like me observe a tried-and-true mantra: “jack of all trades, master of none.” Seeing Việt Thái’s 100-entry menu, I can't help but wonder “with this many different dishes, will they be able to do them justice?” Still, the feast that we enjoy on the day completely dispels our initial reluctance.

Same same, but different

Of course, the first thing we do is to order a pad thai and a tom yum — Thailand’s world-famous national dishes.

Tom yum and pad thai are the most famous national representatives of Thailand on the global food map.

At a glance, the portion of pad thai we ordered seems quite standard with rice noodles, bean sprouts, peanuts, chili flakes, etc. However, the omelet is not mixed together with the noodles, but is laid on top as a golden yellow “topping.” The noodle strands are al dente, not too greasy, and carry the tamarind sauce well.

Nam’s tom yum, however, is a non-traditional remix with a thicker broth and cilantro leaves instead of lime leaves. I personally think that the dish’s coconut milk flavor is more pronounced than lemongrass and lime. The soup’s flavor profile shifts towards sweet and rich instead of sweet and sour like the original, making it more in line with the Vietnamese palate. Additionally, Nam adds a baguette for dipping. I wonder what Thai people would think when they see us whirling bánh mì in their soup like a bò kho or ragout.

Strong seafood and fish sauce notes fill the plate, but the salads we eat are not fishy.

The Thai gastronomic universe has myriad fresh salads, but Việt Thái focuses on two main families: tam and yam. Tam is a salad of vegetables that were bruised in the mortar, while yam is a general mixed salad — be it with meat, veggies, seafood, or starchy items.

We order a portion of tam with young papaya and blood cockles (a version of son tam hoy krang). The thinly shaved papaya strips are still quite fresh, in a well-seasoned vinaigrette of fish sauce, chili, lime, and sugar. Each bite of the salad is crunchy and deeply umami. The plate of glass noodles salad with ốc hương appears to be a typical plate of yam wun sen, though with a localization in the form of ốc hương, a chewy sea snail that might not be well-known in Thailand, but is the king of ốc feasts in Saigon.

Sticky rice and grilled meat is a perfect storm.

We would be remiss to sample Thai street food without mu ping — a BBQ pork skewer dish. Without knowing Nam’s recipe, I could only guess that there might be cilantro, pepper, garlic and soy sauce in these perfectly marinated pork patties. The marinade probably has coconut milk as well, as the pork morsels retain their moisture even after being grilled directly on coal.

In Thailand, mu ping is often enjoyed with sweet sticky rice. Việt Thái substituted this with purple cơm lam grilled in bamboo tubes. The crunchy grilled rice and tender pork go quite well together. The lingering fragrance of charred pork is hard to resist and will for sure entice you to order more.

What about mu ping with a chao dipping sauce?

The meal’s headliner and the Saigoneer team’s favorite is Việt Thái’s salted egg yolk crab curry. Compared to green or red curry, yellow curry is the most unctuous and thick with coconut milk, something it shares with Vietnamese curry. However, Nam’s salted egg sauce propels the dish from commonplace to special. The spice mix is still there, but now there are savory notes from the egg yolk, in addition to firm flecks of crab meat. This curry is also accompanied by a bánh mì, so feel free to clean the bowl up to your heart’s content.

A new curry is born.

All in all, Việt Thái is honestly not the most authentic representation of Thai cuisine in town and there are many other restaurants with more spot-on recreations should you feel a hankering for authenticity. Still, if you’re in an open-minded mood and want to try something refreshingly creative and aptly seasoned, Việt Thái is a sterling choice to bask oneself in the culinary brilliance of Thai street food right in the heart of Saigon.

Việt Thái is open from 3pm to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4.5/5
Price: 4/5 — VND65,000–220,000
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5

Việt Thái 

544 Phan Xích Long, Ward 3, Phú Nhuận District


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