The Astronomer and I have taken a good number of friends and gas•tron•o•my readers on food tours of District 4, but never took ourselves on one until last Saturday.
While we usually stick to Ton That Thuyet Street, also known as the “corridor of temptation,” we decided to venture into unchartered waters on this trip. I started off the tour with a cool hunk of Vietnamese JELLO from my regular dealer, while the Astronomer dug into a bowl of bun thit xao (10,000 VND). The Astronomer has eaten countless bowls of bun thit nuong, but this was his first bowl of its sister dish.
What sets bun thit xao apart from its well-known sibling is how the meat is prepared. Rather than grilled, these slices of lemongrass marinated pork are pan-fried with tomatoes and onions. The Astronomer liked this dish just as much as his old standby.
As The Astronomer finished up his noodles, a vendor selling pickled fruits and green mangoes rolled our way. During a conversation with my mom a few months back, she mentioned that green mangoes dipped in fish sauce were a divine treat that I needed to try. I ordered half a mango (2,000 VND), which the vendor sliced up and served with a cup of sugary fish sauce with chilies.
While I can’t say I prefer this combination over ripe and juicy mangoes eaten straight up, the intermingling of tart, sweet, spicy and salty flavors were very good.
The fish sauce dip was syrupy thick, spicy and contained a heap of undissolved sugar to mellow out the sour mango.
Next, I went for a super-tall cup of sương sa hột lựu (3,000 VND), which is a variety of che that contains black beans, green tapioca strands, pomegranate seeds, agar agar, coconut milk and crushed ice. Although seemingly harmless, the hefty cup of che filled me up quite a bit.
In between bites, we saw a statue of an angel viciously stabbing something or another. Yikes. I thought angels were peaceful beings…
The Astronomer ducked into an awning-covered stall selling bun dishes and cha gio for his second and third course. The cha gio (2,000 VND each) were surprisingly crisp for having sat around for awhile. The rice paper wrapping was golden and blistered, while the innards were porky and well-seasoned. I detected some taro root in the mush of innards as well. Mmm, just like Bà Sáu‘s.
He followed up the two cha gio with another bowl of bun. This time around, it was bun thit bo la lot (14,000 VND). Bo la lot are savory morsels of grilled meat wrapped in betel leaves. Each bite is slightly sweet and very fragrant.
Who has two thumbs and loves noodles and grilled animal protein drenched in nuoc mam? The Astronomer!
While exploring the hidden alleyways in District 4, we found a giant “rock cave,” also known as a nativity scene. It was connected to a rather impressive Catholic church complex undergoing renovations.
While my heart doesn’t skip a beat for doughnuts the way The Astronomer’s does, banh cam (1,000 VND) still has a very special place in it. We bought two and happily scarfed them down while zigzagging through our ‘hood.
This little doggy is chillin’ in a pile of brand new hangers.
Even though we were both quite stuffed at this point on the tour, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sample bánh ít trần (5,000 VND). This dish is a savory version of one of my all-time favorite desserts, che troi nuoc. Bánh ít trần are medium-sized tapioca balls stuffed with mung bean paste, topped with scallion oil and pickled carrots and daikon, and served in a sweet fish sauce with coconut milk.
All of the usual Vietnamese food suspects are present and accounted for—sweet, sour, salty, sticky, chewy and awesome.
As we neared home, I spotted a vendor selling goi cuon (fresh spring rolls) for 1,000 VND a piece, which is ridiculously cheap even by Vietnam standards. The Astronomer ordered two to see if they were any good. Although they were missing the quintessential boiled shrimps, these spring rolls were not the least bit shabby.
For my final course, I ate some xoi gac (gac fruit sticky rice – 2,000 VND) that I procured earlier. Although I’m not one-hundred percent certain, I’m pretty sure the vendor uses actual gac fruit rather than coloring because I sometimes find gac seeds in my xoi. However, the color does strike me as a bit artificial. The crushed peanuts atop the xoi are a tasty touch.
Even though The Astronomer and I have lived in Vietnam for quite some time, we’re still floored by how inexpensive delicious food is. Our afternoon food tour of District 4 set us back $3. That’s crazy business.