91 Cach Mang Thang 8 Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Fried Finger Foods – cha gio (6,000 VND), banh xep (7,000 VND), xui mai (1,000 VND), banh tom thit (7,000 VND), banh bao chien (8,000 VND)
I hate to typecast myself, but the fact of the matter is that I have become a bit of a Deep-Fried Guru for gas•tron•o•my. The Gastronomer doesn’t allow just any old lipid to roam those squeaky-clean arteries of hers, so if a grease-laden meal doesn’t look ultra delicious (see Jollybee), she just might choose not to partake. Nevertheless, someone has to report on the less healthy offerings in Saigon, so I sacrifice myself for the sake of our readers. Don’t worry, I’m not suffering too much. Although I could pass on Western-style fast food, I find cha gio, street donuts, and other local deep-fried delicacies totally irresistible.
It’s not surprising, then, that I am a frequent visitor of a take out eatery called Banh Xep Chien Don on CMT8. The goods are always displayed on a table out front to attract passing motorists, and they’re usually fresh out of the frying oil. Prices are a bit higher than you might expect, but it’s totally worth it—these are some tasty treats.
My personal favorite is the cha gio—definitely a contender for the title of “best in Saigon.” As always, these pork-filled wonders are best piping hot, but even when they’ve been sitting out awhile they’re still excellent. Never soggy or burnt tasting, the cha gio have a perfect meaty, greasy flavor [note: The Gastronomer wanted me to edit this sentence on the grounds that it "doesn't sound appealing." Well, trust me, they're greasy in a good way]. What really sets them apart is the dipping sauce. It looks like chili sauce, but it’s actually sweet and sour, which is much, much better in my opinion. I haven’t tasted a sauce like this anywhere else in Vietnam. While I enjoy dipping my cha gio in nuoc mam, I find this flavor combination to be even more delicious.
The same sauce is served with each of the shack’s other offerings. I frequently order banh xep, a solid, crunchy snack that is a better deal than the cha gio from a size perspective but tastes a bit more ordinary. These are quite similar to the banh goi I ate in Hanoi, but I find them superior due to the lack of mushrooms.
The banh tom thit are another hearty treat for meat-lovers. They’re basically breaded deep-fried ground pork logs, but the “chefs” insert a single shrimp with its tail sticking out the end to spice things up. Even more intriguing are the banh bao chien, which are essentially the standard soft white buns (albeit the version with no egg) submerged in hot oil until they’re golden brown. Wolfing down a couple of these will fill you up in a hurry.
The only real letdown are the xui mai—I had high hopes for these little fried dumplings but found them bland and totally uninspiring. The one time I tried them they were cold, so I know I should give them another shot, but with four other tempting choices, why risk disappointment?