Vietnamese comfort food that makes you feel at home

It was evening and we meandered down an alleyway where we came upon Secret House by Secret Garden Vietnamese Restaurant & Café (55/1 Le Thi Hong Gam, D1), a new establishment by Huy, who has already made a name for himself with popular restaurants Secret Garden and Mountain Retreat. Born in the north of Vietnam, and armed with over six years experience in the food and beverage industry, Secret House is by all intents and purposes a natural full circle for him. As he explained the concept behind the modest and humble designs reflects his Buddhist beliefs of harmony and peace, I couldn’t help but also be lulled into a sense of calm. It helped that we were seated around an open garden where green crops of lemongrass, jasmine and corn stretched languidly out towards a clear sky. Soft lighting and wood surrounded us and Huy also pointed out a wall that was made from mud and rice, all to give the sense of countryside Vietnam. For him the busy city life surrounded by the urban jungle really needed a place for both expats and locals to relive the comfort of home as well as taste it.

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And taste it we did. For those with richer palettes this is not the place for you. Huy explained that the menu concept was deliberately kept simple, in fact one could say this place’s main theme was entirely around Vietnamese comfort food. It’s the kind of food you remembered as a kid or staying with your grandparents in their hometown. Additionally, he wanted to also educate foreigners on local eating habits. So don’t expect to order pho at night. They create separate menus for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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Com Chay Cham Kho Quet

To start we had Clams with basil (VND65,000). Different from the traditional French style, there wasn’t heavy butter in this—the natural juices from the cooked clams were perfect. The entire platter of clams was gone instantly so for bigger groups I highly recommend getting two portions. Next we had Com Chay Cham ho Quet (VND75,000), which was crispy rice served with a kind of sambal—a mix of a fish sauce reduction with bits of pork and dried shrimp. This was not like dipping your nachos into a bowl of salsa. Be careful and use it sparingly or else you’ll get a heavy strong dose of fishy shrimp flavor. I learned the hard way so take my advice on that.

A familiar sight for those who’ve lived in Vietnam a bit was seeing the Banh Khot (VND75,000), mini savory pancakes with a single shrimp or calamari on top. Served with a light fish sauce, these were soft and delicious, the pancake itself slightly doughy and perfect for dipping.

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Banh Khot

The main course was a massive Lau Rieu Cua Dong Bap Bo (VND395,000, enough for four people)—ground crab meatballs filled hot-pot served with thin slices of beef. The veggies sourced from the gardens as well as the meat were as fresh as if just plucked in the morning. For me the best part was actually the grounded crab meatballs swimming in the broth. The ground crab mixed with a light egg binder melted in the mouth like a soft piece of tofu yet wasn’t overly rich or heavy or fishy. The broth itself was delicious and unlike other hotpots there’s no MSG or overly salty broth. This was smooth, and had rich deep flavors accented by the fat from the beef and the ground crab meatballs. I found myself deliriously spooning in mouthfuls of the broth despite being already quite full.

Lastly, Tra xa chanh (VND30,000),  lemongrass tea with lime, was packed with lemongrass, literally picked from the ground to the side of where I was sitting, tasted cool and fresh, and had none of the artificial flavors found in other teas. An interesting Vietnamese take on bulletproof coffee, Ca phe Trung nong (VND50,000), consisted of a slow drip black coffee mixed with egg.

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Ca phe Trung nong

Huy has created a Vietnamese comfort food restaurant with a unique open garden theme and a calm vibe. It will be interesting to see how the menu grows and expands to include other perhaps lesser known Vietnamese comfort food. What is comforting is that successful entrepreneurs like Huy continue to develop and evolve the food scene here in Ho Chi Minh City. I don’t think this Secret House will remain much of a secret for long.

Images by Ngoc Tran

Featured article image – Lau Rieu Cua Dong Bap Bo