Anthony Michael Bourdain was an exceptionally talented chef and author. He traveled around the world and starred in programs focusing on the exploration of international culture, cuisine, and the human condition. On one fateful day in 2008, he visited our beloved Saigon and featured the city on his show “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations.” The episode titled “There’s No Place Like Home,” was aired on TV the following year.
At that time, Vietnam was a hidden gem that had yet to be fully recognized by travelers. But Anthony came here with a daring heart. He was not afraid to dig down into the parts unknown of this country and share his findings with the outside world. Through his TV show, he helped the world understand Vietnamese culture, the people, and our food. It’s rare that a person enter a totally foreign country to find its beauty, and rarer still for someone to do it for more than a decade. But Bourdain is a great example of just one individual who changed the way many of us see the world.
On June 8, 2018, Bourdain passed away in France. Millions mourn the news of his death: various celebrity chefs and other public figures expressed their deepest condolences, as did ordinary people touched by his charm and his shows in some way, however small or big. Former U.S. President Barack Obama, who dined with him over a steaming bowl of bun cha in Hanoi, Vietnam on an episode of “Parts Unknown,” wrote on Twitter, “He taught us about food—but more importantly, about its ability to bring us together. To make us a little less afraid of the unknown.”
To honor his big contribution of bringing Vietnamese cuisine to the world, our team at Christina’s and the Best Ever Food Review Show decided to revisit all the stops featured in his episode to see how his influence over time has affected their lives. Sadly, the news of his passing has hit these lovely folk particularly hard.
Banh Xeo Dinh Cong Trang
English translation: Banh xeo: sizzling crepe
Banh Xeo 46A Dinh Cong Trang was a humble banh xeo store located in the crowded Tan Dinh market area. The venue was only known to locals in the region, that is until Anthony Bourdain’s visit. He changed owner Ms. Thuy’s life forever.
Banh Xeo Dinh Cong Trang is the perfect representative of the Southern banh xeo in Vietnam. The crusts are extremely crispy and crunchy, and the crepe is full of with juicy pork, big shrimp, fresh bean sprouts, mung beans, and green scallions. Many gourmets believe that because the crepes are made of pure rice flour, with the skillful hands of the chef, their crusts become crackly, a characteristic unmatched by the banh xeo found in other restaurants.
Another unique thing about Banh Xeo Dinh Cong Trang is that they use firewood to cook the crepes, making them taste better. You have to see the steps of making the crepes firsthand to understand and admire the chef’s skill and effort in bringing the perfect banh xeo to your table here. Despite the heat of the kitchen that lasts almost all day, your banh xeo will really be nothing short of perfect.
Enjoy it with a cool tra da on a hot Saigon day. Make sure to use your hands like the locals do–tear a piece of banh xeo and roll it in one of the giant lettuce leaves provided in the supplementary veggie basket. Dip your roll in the sweet and sour sauce, and take a big bite, while contemplating one of Anthony Bourdain’s lines: “I do not eat in a dining room with a chair and carpet.”
Location: 46A Dinh Cong Trang, Tan Dinh ward, District 1
Opening Hours: 10 AM – 2 PM / 4 PM – 9 PM
Price range: 80,000 VND (3.5 USD) for a banh xeo and 10,000 VND – 40,000 VND (0.44 USD – 1.76 USD) for a drink
Com Nieu Sai Gon
English translation: com nieu: rice in clay pot
“Since my very first trip to Vietnam to make another TV show in 2000, I was hooked. I was besotted by her landscapes, thrilled by the food, charmed utterly, enthralled by the people, but particularly by one special person – Madam Ngoc.” Madam Ngoc was “the queen of Com Nieu Sai Gon” – a well-known traditional food spot frequented by locals.
When Bourdain returned to Vietnam to film No Reservations, unfortunately, Madam Ngoc had passed away two years before. He said that he owed her “a goodbye and a thank you,” and his visit to the restaurant was more than a review or a discovery. It was the return of a son to his home.
You will feel the vibe of traditional Vietnam as soon as you step inside the restaurant. From the decoration you see, the chairs you sit on, to the foods and the drinks you enjoy, all of these details showcase the authentic Vietnamese culture. The food here is equally delicious, but the most outstanding and impressive dish goes to com dap (charcoal grilled rice in clay pot).
This is not just a dish, but a performance worthy of a circus. You will first notice two people standing fairly far from each other. The first one breaks the pot and throws the grilled rice. As you question whether the second person will really catch the rice, in a matter of seconds the rice is safe on a plate topped with some fish sauce, oiled green scallions, and sesame. It’s so funny and entertaining to watch. And when you feel happy, you definitely savor and appreciate your meal more.
The children who took over “mom Ngoc’s” legacy do not disappoint her. Until now, Com Nieu Saigon is proudly one of the best Vietnamese traditional food chains. “Mr. Anthony had a huge impact on our restaurant.” said Madam Ngoc’s daughter. Since his visit, they have opened two more restaurants, now with two in District 3, and another in District 2.
Location & Opening Hours:
27 Tu Xuong, Ward 7, District 3 6 AM – 10 PM
59 Ho Xuan Huong, Ward 6, District 3 | 6 AM – 11 PM
75 Xuan Thuy, Thao Dien Ward, District 2 | 6 AM – 11 PM
Price range: about 250,000 VND for one person
Oc A Soi
English translation: Oc : snails (sea snails, to be more specific)
Welcome to the nightlife of Saigon. Snails and beer – that’s what the locals do. Although Saigon is not a coastal city, if you mention snails, it will remind people of this town immediately. Snail is a favorite snack of not only students and officers but also businessmen and women. Among thousands of snail stores in Saigon, Oc A Soi has found a stable stand in the heart of the local people.
Time flies, and things have changed for Oc A Soi. There is no ringing bell – which was once used to announce when the food was ready, or the owner calculating money, but I believe the flavors are still the same. According to the owner, Anthony was a simple and modest man. Yes, you can definitely affirm that by what he said: “This is the way so many great meals in my life have been enjoyed: sitting on the street, eating something out of a bowl that I’m not exactly sure what it is, scooters going by. It’s so delicious, I feel like an animal.”
For first-timers, the dozens of kinds of snails with different cooking styles, such as steamed, boiled, stir fried with tamarind, stir fried with coconut, and roasted with chili salt might leave you breathless. Different kinds of snails will bring you different kinds of tastes. For example, butter snails stir fried with tamarind has a touch of sour and sweet flavor, while steamed obtuse horn shell in coconut juice is pleasantly fragrant and fatty.
One of the dishes that customers really enjoy here is grilled chicken feet with chili salt. This may be unfamiliar to you but don’t worry, you’ll get used to it after the first bite. I guarantee it! Joining me for this meal are my three friends, two of which have never tried this dish before. But after the first bite, all their worries about the dish fell away, and our talk subsided to make room for the sound of chewing!
There is a lex non scripta in Saigon: you can eat pho, banh mi, bun cha, spring rolls, or other millions of foods alone, but don’t eat alone when you eat snails. Eating snails is best with groups of friends, lovers, or families. It’s the time for you and your beloved ones to share your stories together while munching some snails and drinking cold beer. And did you know that A Soi had just opened a year before Anthony Bourdain visited? Look at where they are now. In some ways, Anthony is the guardian angel that brought travelers from around the world to this store!
Location: 237 – 239 Nguyen Thuong Hien street
Opening Hours: 4 PM – 10 PM
Price range: 20,000 VND – 110,000 VND (8.8 USD – 4.84 USD)
The Lunch Lady
“This woman – Madam Thanh, goes to the market. All the vendors know her well. They save her the best cuts of meat, the noodles she wants, the best produce. All the ingredients ticked off like the periodic table, then she comes back here, to this corner, then it begins. She is known as the Lunch Lady. She is a legend.” This is just a short introduction from Anthony Bourdain but it shows both his affinity for the Lunch Lady and her simple yet quality-driven process.
The Lunch Lady is just a nickname, she wears it because of her food. This woman is famous for her “rotating menu” – she serves a different dish each day of the week. It’s unbelievable to know that since the first time Anthony visited – which was ten years ago, the Lunch Lady’s daily menu hasn’t changed a bit. Anthony came here on a Friday, so he was served a steaming bowl of bun bo hue – the dish that made him utter “the best soup in the world.” It’s funny and emotional to know how much love he gave this dish. Something so simple that is available literally on every corner in Saigon had Anthony’s full attention.
A perfect bowl of bun bo Hue includes rice noodles, juicy pig shank, lean beef, crab cake, and of course, the outstanding broth which makes this dish famous. The real broth of bun bo Hue has a naturally sweet, salty, and spicy flavor of lemongrass combined with shrimp paste, chili, and ginger. And the Lunch Lady makes her bun bo Hue in the same way. She knows how to play with the flavors so well.
When we asked the Lunch Lady about Anthony, she said: “His passing is a big loss to me. He is not only a guardian angel that helped me a lot with my business but also a friend to me. Because when he came to Vietnam, although there are times that he couldn’t visit me, he sent his greetings to me indirectly. But when he passed away, I couldn’t visit him to share the sorrow with his family. I feel sad about that.” Along with her opinion are her tears. The tears of love, guilt, regret, and tears of utmost gratitude.
The Lunch Lady also acclaimed that even when Anthony stopped by, she already had a number of customers and followers. But of course, his visit put her stall on the map of number one destinations in Vietnam among international travelers. To him, she was a legend. But I believe that to her, he was not only a food expert but also a life saver.
Google Maps Location
Opening hours: 11 AM – 3:30 PM
Price range: 30,000 VND – 40,000 VND (1.32 USD – 1.76 USD)
“So much is changing in Vietnam so fast. Everybody has a nicer scooter, the kids are a little bit bigger, the clothes are nicer, the buildings are going up everywhere. Is that all good?”
Anthony surprised us with his thoughtfulness. He originally traveled here to understand our food culture but along the way he asked questions about life and social issues. He helped us realize how precious and alluring our country is, reminding us to maintain our good traditions. We believe that as time passes, with our united hands, we can keep alive the spirit of our country: “Everything changes and yet maybe everything does stay the same. The Vietnam I fell in love with is still here.” And as long as we maintain our beloved traditions and country, Anthony’s memory will remain intact and just as influential as ever.
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like some more fun info about what to see, do and eat (and a bunch of interesting cafes!) in Vietnam, follow us at the Christina’s blog!