Northern Exposure

Delicious Hanoian cuisine that offers more than just bun cha

Quick. Think of a Hanoian restaurant that’s not streetside bun cha or Hanoi-style pho. Narrow it down to posh surrounds and an already tiny number just became non-existent. It seems Hanoian cuisine in Ho Chi Minh City has suffered the fate of Vietnamese cuisine worldwide, an entire range of unique and flavorsome dishes being represented by a paltry few which fall woefully short of presenting a true picture of what Hanoian food is all about. While many rave about bun cha, the part soup part noodle grilled pork dish, others find pho Hanoi a bland, veggie-less poor cousin to its more full-bodied southern counterpart.

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Thankfully, the stylish brother/sister team of Tuan and Tu are trying to change the face of Hanoian cuisine in Saigon with their newly relocated eponymous restaurant (Tuan and Tu’s at 112 Pasteur, D1). originally opened nine years ago with only two tables, Tuan and Tu’s was more of a hobby than a commercial endeavor. With Tuan’s regular job in public relations and Tu’s work managing the family businesses including a spa and another restaurant, the living room and sofa space was simply an extension of their home kitchen, affording them the opportunity to re-create some of their grandmother’s dishes. Word quickly spread of the affordably chic but impossible to reserve restaurant serving up something different, and Tuan and Tu’s became the place for Saigon’s glitterati to lunch. Over the years, the restaurant expanded, first from two to eight tables, and then a failed attempt at a larger space (Mam Son, opened briefly in 2012) to a just-opened space with 65 seats spread over three floors. The family duo have kept what works ― a welcoming interior that has more the feel of a classy, early 20th century Indochinese residence than a restaurant. Dining areas in the already narrow quarters are sectioned off creating intimate spaces while potted plants and pebbled walkways bring an element of the outside in.

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Skipping the busy lunch period, we arrive on a quiet Saturday evening, less than two weeks after the restaurant re-opened. While the substantial menu does double duty for lunch and dinner service, there are specials available at dinner. For starters, we order the oc nhoi thit (VND105,000), fresh water snails stuffed with minced pork, tree ear fungus and the meaty snail meat, then steamed. The texture of the minced snail is rubbery but not in a bad way, a nice contrast with the more tender minced pork, aided by citrus notes coming from ginger leaves (and not the more ubiquitous lemongrass leaves used elsewhere).

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An equally intriguing starter is the smoked goose breast with lemongrass (VND175,000), a take on the smoked buffalo meat made by the hill minority tribes in the northwest of the country. It’s serendipitous for Hanoians to have thit gac bep (literally “smoked meat made in the kitchen”) as the supply is limited and haphazard, and is equally a find here, surprisingly tender and more akin to a sausage in casing than what you would expect of Vietnamese smoked meat. Slightly on the salty side, it’s best washed down with a glass of Chilean or south Australian red wine.

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But the appetizer to end all appetizers was the cha ruoi (VND95,000), a delicious, lightly fried ‘meat’ patty made from seasonal sand worms. Because the worms only surface for two weeks of the year (late September to middle October) in the brackish mangroves and wetlands along the coast, they are considered a delicacy, their brief appearance likened to the fleeting beauty of women. Catch it before it’s gone. Tuan and Tu re-create the traditional recipe, grinding the worms into a mash with spices and the flavors of dill and mandarin zest to temper the stronger flavors of the worms. Mixed with pork, the dish has almost a slightly gritty seafood taste, certainly different from regular cha but one an uninformed diner would be hard placed to identify.

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While the starters are adventurous, the mains are more comfortable, featuring homemade goodness like Crispy fried pomfret fish with a side of tangy mango salad (VND115,000), Squash stems sautéed with beef (VND85,000) and rice field crab soup with melon (VND85,000).

If you’re not lucky enough to make regular trips to Hanoi, Tuan and Tu’s is a fine alternative, a restaurant that has found its niche, a lone but worthy guardian of Hanoian cuisine in Saigon.

Images by Adam Robert Young

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