About one year ago, two things that are loosely related took place. First, my pants stopped fitting. And second, The Astronomer and I discovered Hương Viên (101 Vuon Chuoi Street, District 3, Phone: 8327115), a local spot serving vegetarian Vietnamese food. Do you see where this story’s headed?
It turned out that my first month of living in Saigon was a little too decadent and as a result, those sky blue pants that I liked so much were a bit tight around the waist. To get things back to right, The Astronomer and I spent many lunches the following months dining next to Buddhist monks and nuns downing meatless fare.
Even after the pants ordeal passed, The Astronomer and I continued to dine at Hương Viên because aside from being healthy, their food is genuinely good. Hương Viên, like a lot of veggie restaurants in town, has a pretty hefty menu. So even though we ate here a lot, we barely made a dent in the offerings. Here are Hương Viên’s greatest hits, and a couple of misses too.
Xoi Ga (4,000 VND) – One of my all-time favorite dishes at Hương Viên was their savory sticky rice. The portion size was just right and the “pate” and “pork floss” tasted like the real deal. Coulda fooled me!
Com Thap Cam (10,000 VND) – The Astronomer and I also really liked the rice platter topped with four different tofu and mock meat dishes. The composition changed every day depending on what dishes were on hand. This platter cost a measly 7,000 VND when we first started dining at Hương Viên but crept up to 10,000 VND by the end of our stay. Inflation is something we definitely don’t miss about Vietnam.
Com Thit Xa Xieu (8,000 VND) - Of all the mock meat and tofu dishes, the “barbecued meat” was one of the best.
Vegetables – Nothing complements a hearty plate of rice like stir-fried vegetables. The vegetable selection changed daily, and it was difficult to make a bad choice. The chayote (Xu Xao – 4,000 VND), okra (Dau Bap - 3,000 VND) and green beans (Dau Cu Ve - 6,000 VND) were all great.
Goi Ngo Sen (6,000 VND) – The lotus root salad was another excellent side, but The Astronomer and I had to keep our eyeballs peeled for camouflaged chilies. Orange colored chilies are the trickiest, especially with carrots in the dish.
Although their rice plates were stellar, Hương Viên had more difficulty transforming classic Vietnamese noodle soups into tasty vegetarian fare. The Hu Tieu Bo Kho (top left – 12,000 VND) and Mi Sa Te (top right – 10,000 VND) were bland, a little watery and tasted nothing like their meaty renditions. The one noodle soup that Hương Viên nailed was Bun Ca Ri Ga (bottom – 15,000 VND).
Hương Viên’s pho (left – 12,000 VND) was also a massive failure. The best vegetarian pho that we encountered in Saigon was at Pho Chay Nhu. The Banh Xeo (10,000 VND), on the other hand, was awesome! Lots of bean sprouts and pieces of mock meat. Didn’t miss the pork and shrimp one bit.
Bun Thit Xao – vermicelli rice noodles with stir-fried beef (12,000 VND) and banh hoi thit nuong - steamed rice noodle cakes with grilled meat (not pictured) were solid efforts. Hương Viên’s nuoc mam sauce is pretty darn similar to the ones that use actual fish sauce.
Hoanh Thanh (12,000 VND) – The wonton soup is another notable broth dish. The “meat” filling inside the wrappers taste nothing like pork and shrimp, but I kinda liked them nevertheless.
Hương Viên‘s Canh Chua - (sour soup – 4,000 VND) was good, but not as tempting as the one served a few stores down at Giac Duc. Both varieties of buns, steamed (Banh Bao - 6,000 VND) and baked (Banh Bao Nuong – 4,000 VND), were lovely little bites, but not so amazing that we felt compelled to order them on every visit like the sticky rice and rice platters.