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Meatless in Saigon: Exploring Local Vegetarian Cuisine
by Cathy Danh, Saigon Times, Nov 1, 2007
Saigon, Vietnam -- One would imagine that in a society where roughly 85% of the people are practicing Buddhists, vegetarian restaurants could be found on every corner. While this may be true in some parts of Asia, it is certainly not the case in Saigon, where eateries specializing in com chay are few and far between.
<< Two Huong Vien regulars enjoying a meat-free lunch
Exceptions to this general trend appear on the first and fifteenth of each Lunar Calendar month, when all Buddhists shy away from meat. On these particularly auspicious days, nearly all workers’ lunch establishments (com binh dan) serve vegetarian options.
Whereas vegetarian cuisine in the West often means a bland plate of grilled vegetables or strange faux meat products, Vietnamese vegetarian fare sticks to familiar flavors and ingredients. Unlike scientifically derived products such as Tofurkey and Boca Burgers, which tend to leave eaters feeling deprived, the fresh vegetables and soy products employed at com chay restaurants are skillfully transformed into wholly satisfying delights.
One of the best features of vegetarian establishments in town is their extensive menus. From rice entrees to noodle soups, it seems that every Vietnamese dish can be deliciously vegetarian-ized.
For those seeking meatless fare for dietary reasons, religious leanings, or just personal preference, there are a handful of well-run and exciting Vietnamese vegetarian restaurants in the city worth getting to know. Just a warning, there is a good chance that you will be dining next to a group of Buddhist nuns or monks while digging into a hearty plate of meatless goodness.
Quan An Chay
174 Calmette Street, District 1
This vegan-friendly eatery features a casual buffet where diners can pick and choose items that suit their fancy. The buffet selections change daily, which always keeps things interesting. The price of the meal depends on the weight of food.
101 Vuon Chuoi Street, District 3
Huong Vien’s specialty is vegetarian renditions of Vietnamese classics such as pho, lau (hot pot), and bun rieu.
The xoi ga chay (sticky rice with “chicken”) is especially stellar and unbelievably similar to the meaty xoi ga and xoi man sold street-side. A plate of xoi ga chay is priced at VND4,000.
Another winning dish is the banh hoi thit nuong (vermicelli noodle cakes topped with grilled “pork”). The meaty mouth-feel and smoky marinade of the soy “pork” is nothing short of excellent. A heaping portion of banh hoi thit nuong is priced at VND10,000.
004 C/c Doan Van Bo Street, District 4
Lien Hoa serves Chinese and Vietnamese cuisine at rock-bottom prices. At VND10,000 per dish, one can eat healthily and economically. House specialties include banh beo chay (steamed rice cakes) and banh bao chay (steamed buns).
492 Nguyen Dinh Chieu Street, District 3
A must-try treat at Giac Duc is the thit heo quay (barbecued pork). The dish looks and tastes so ridiculously pork-like, it is hard to believe that no swine were harmed in the process. The true genius of this dish lies in the tapioca film that brilliantly fakes the layer of fat found in real thit heo quay. A portion for two is priced at VND10,000.
Giac Duc also makes one of the best canh chua (sweet and sour soup) in town. The VND5,000 bowl of soup is brimming with okra, elephant ears, tomatoes, and bean sprouts.
Tiem Com Chay Phap Hoa I
200 Nguyen Trai Street, District 1,
Extremely popular with the local crowd, Phap Hoa prepares a large selection of Vietnamese specialties and dishes employing mock meat. Although the ambiance is bare bones, the friendly staff and solid food more than make up for it.
545A Ba Thang Hai Street, District 10
Although Thanh Luong’s menu is slightly limited compared to the others, the quality of the food is first-class. The best way to enjoy Thanh Luong’s offerings is by ordering a variety of dishes and plenty of steamed rice. The dau hu xa (lemongrass tofu) and bean curd with mustard greens are solid choices.
“Sardines” wrapped in seaweed, one of the more interesting menu items, taste surprisingly fishy for a creation made entirely inland.
An Lac Chay
175/4 Pham Ngu Lao Street, District 1
In the heart of the backpacker quarter, An Lac’s main clientele are travelers and local families. The restaurant prepares both Vietnamese and international cuisine and according to locals, An Lac’s pizza is most excellent.