Share in traditional Vietnamese cuisine at Ngoc Chau Garden

Serving up fresh and traditional Vietnamese fare since September 2015, Ngoc Chau Garden (116 Ho Tung Mau, D1) is a centrally located gem in District 1, just a stone’s throw from Nguyen Hue. The extensive menu is loaded with local favorites, ranging from frog legs to snakehead fish and braised cow tendon with ginger, that draws a healthy mix of locals and foreigners who seek a relaxing environment.

Fortunately, the menu, which is in Vietnamese, English and Japanese, also includes pictures of each dish, making it easy to navigate their unique specialties and avoid any surprises when your plate arrives. With an attentive staff and casual atmosphere, our visit made for a palate-pleasing Sunday evening, capped off with a stroll down Nguyen Hue.

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Starting things out, the beverages available include all of the usual beers and sodas, as well as fresh fruit juices, smoothies, tea, wine and homemade ruou, or Vietnamese wine. Once our waitress informed us that the restaurant owner has been making the ruou for over ten years, it was impossible to pass up on. Flavors include mulberry, persimmon and dried banana, though we ultimately went with the highly recommended passionfruit wine (VND75,000) and it did not disappoint. Not typically one to enjoy sweet alcoholic drinks, this had all the alluring flavors of the passionfruit without tasting too sugary. Be warned, though: it’s deceptively strong. We also had lemongrass iced tea (VND30,000), which was simple, crisp and refreshing, as it should be.

The appetizers arrived impressively quickly and we were soon indulging in a Gourami fish and mango salad (VND80,000)

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and an order of Fried shrimp with sake (VND90,000). It’s worth noting that the “sake” here is not the Japanese rice wine, as some might expect, but rather the Vietnamese breadfruit grown in the Mekong Delta that has a starchy texture. Served with a spicy mayonnaise sauce, the shrimp is fried with a piece of pork, making a tasty little fritter on top of a slice of baked sake.

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The fish and mango salad was a generous portion with a delicate balance of sweet and salty, garnished with peanuts carrots, and an assortment of herbs. A somewhat surprising combination, the dried fish and fresh mango paired together nicely to create a light and healthy dish packed with exotic flavors.

Moving on to the entrees, we decided on the braised cow tendon with ginger (VND85,000) and sour carambola soup cooked with shrimp (VND 75,000).

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The braised tendon, which comes in a clay pot with red chilies, is a Vietnamese favorite, though not always the easiest dish to come across. Succulent and just a tad spicy, these little pieces of meat came out sizzling and disappeared quickly. Of course, cow’s tendon is a bit gelatinous, so bear that in mind should you go with this specialty.

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Popular in central Vietnam, the sour carambola soup was loaded with plump shrimp, pineapple, tomatoes, and, naturally, carambola, also known as starfruit. While piping hot soup isn’t everyone’s favorite when the weather heats up, this fruity, tangy broth makes for a tropical soup that’s fitting for Saigon’s steamy climate. We poured it over bowls of steamed rice and slurped it right down.

At this point, we were feeling comfortably full, but there’s always room for dessert. Various sweet soups, or che, are on offer, though we opted for the coffee flan (VND30,000), a delicious, modern take on the age-old custard. Presented in a saucer with coffee and ice, this caramel and egg-based dessert satisfied our craving for something sweet and left us with a bit of energy to walk off our meal.

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IMAGES BY NGOC TRAN