This is not the Nam Giao that celebrity chef David Chang went to in Ugly Delicious. But the food is similar.
Nestled in the back alley of shophouses directly behind the famous Benh Thanh market is this little restaurant away from the main street. Do not be afraid, walk into the alley. As you walk into the alley, you’ll see nail salons on both sides and two brightly-lit signages at the end of the alley.
Walk past the signages and it opens up into an empty space with a few restaurants and on the left is where you will find Nam Giao. The place has only a few tables and if you can get one, you will be treated to some very delicious Hue cuisine.
Hue and Hue Cuisine
I came to Nam Giao as I would like to experience on Huệ food. Nam Giao is named after an esplanade in Hue where the king would hold offering ceremonies for the gods. So what exactly is Hue cuisine?
Huê in central Vietnam, was the imperial capital of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1884) who ruled Vietnam for over a century before French colonisation took over in 1883. The emperor became largely ceremonial, which continued during the Japanese occupation and finally when Japan surrendered at the end of WWII, the last emperor Bảo Đại abdicated in 1945.
Hue cuisine has both luxurious and popular rustic dishes. With such a rich history, Hue’s royal cuisine combines both taste and aesthetics. It consists of several distinctive dishes from small and delicate creations, originally made to please the appetites of Nguyen feudal lords, emperors, and their hundreds of concubines and wives.
Chả Huế | Huế rolls
These were placed on the table even before we were seated and ordered from the menu, so I can only assume they are snacks that you eat if you want. My local host then told me these were called Chả Huế or Hue sausages, and they are all kinds of steamed pastes and pate.
I opened one to try, and it was like a stick of fish cake, quite bland and a bit sour, not an exciting eat. But there were others, but I didn’t try them.
Hến Xào Xúc Bánh Tráng | Sauteed baby clams over baked rice paper
It began life as a peasant’s dish, made to use up leftover rice, but became well known for its intricate flavours and is now a popular Hue food. Baby mussels, clams, and clam broth are combined with fried pork fat, roasted peanuts, aromatics and shrimp sauce.
One popular way to eat this besides topping it over rice was with this special baked rice paper which is basically bánh tráng topped with black sesame seeds and than baked in the over until it is crispy. I was told you can buy them in this form in Vietnamese supermarkets as well.
These sautéed baby clams are delicious. They reminded me of the trip to Shantou where I ate similar baby mussels sautéed in basil.
Bánh Bột Lọc | Shrimp, pork & tapioca starch flour wrapped in banana leaves
It looked like banana leaf wrapped chicken. But this Vietnamese appetiser is not. Bánh bột lọc is a small, clear-looking, chewy tapioca dumplings.
It was a very satisfying dumpling with shrimps and a slice of pork that resembled charsiu. I would compare this to the Teochew crystal dumpling or chwee jia bao in terms of look, but the taste was distinctly Vietnamese.
Bánh Nậm | Ground shrimp, pork steamed w/rice wrapped in banana leaves
I would not blame you if you mistook the Bánh Nậm with the Bánh Bột Lọc. They are both wrapped in banana leaves and they are both steamed. But Bánh Nậm uses rice flour, while Bánh Bột Lọc uses tapioca flour that gives it a transparent look.
When you open one of these bundles, you will see something that resembled an open face Cantonese-style chee cheong fun. The texture is firmer than Bánh Bột Lọc or Bánh Bèo.
Bánh Bèo Tôm Tươi | Steamed rice flour cake w/ground shrimp
One would thought that these were like Teochew chwee kueh but no, Vietnamese steamed rice cakes (bánh bèo) is totally different thing all together. Unlike chwee kueh, banh beo is very thin. Delicate and bite-sized, these rice cakes were meant to be eaten by royals.
The banh beo were gooey, with the crisp from the pork skin and all the flavours from the grounded dried shrimp. I had to add more prawn paste to give it more flavours.
Nem lụi | Fried Meat on a Stick
Nem lụi or lemongrass skewers is made from flavoured ground pork, which is made into a sausage-like shape onto stalks of lemongrass and grilled. The proper way to eat this is to take out the meat from the stick by pulling it off with a rice paper like how you would a kebab with pita. And then you put the sliced vegetables, rice vermicelli and herbs, rolled the whole thing like a spring roll, dunk in sauce and eat it. The meat tasted like ngoh hiang but with a distinct lemongrass taste. The variation that you would get in Singapore would be using prawn paste instead.
Bánh Ướt Tôm Chấy | Rice rolls with roasted shrimp
It was like chee cheong fun with hae bee. The only thing missing was the soy sauce. But you can dip these Bánh Ướt into the satisfying peanut sauce or the fish sauce or the prawn paste that I had been smearing on everything this evening.
Bún Hến | Spcial clam w/rice noodles
This is not as common as the typical rice noodles with grilled meat but the taste was awesome especially when you squeeze fresh lime over the noodle and mix well. The sweetness and umami from the tiny clams was unsurpassed. The peanuts in the noodle added crunch and texture to the dish while the toasted sesame provided the fragrance in every mouthful. It was served with a small bowl of clam broth which was full of umami.
Bún Chả Cua | Crab paste noodle soup
I thought crab paste was crab miso, but instead was given crab meatball. It’s a small portion but delicious. The noodles was different, thick cut and almost having like a jelly texture to it. The broth was peppery and just heartwarming, perfect with the dry Bún Hến.
We ordered one of everything to try, including the durian ice, mung bean with coconut cream, and coconut jelly. But it turned out that the water chestnut jelly was the best.
The reason I loved Hue cuisine is because of its cultural roots to Southern China where my ancestry came from. Much of Vietnamese history was tightly intertwined with history of Guangzhou and Chaozhou. These places were traditionally called 南越 Yue County in 3rd century BC.
Surprisingly quick service and the menu is in both Vietnamese and remarkably honest English. However the pictures nor the descriptions do justice to the food. For Hue food, it’s very good. I know people have different expectations and senses, but overall food was great. Service was good even though staff spoke no English, but they were friendly and tried their best to accommodate. Will come back when I return to HCM.
Nam Giao Restaurant | Quán Nam Giao
136/15 Le Thanh Ton, P. Ben Thanh Q.1 TP HCM
Tel : +84 (08) 38250261
Visited in Jul 2022