Archive for the 'Mam Chung' Category

Cơm Tấm – Broken Rice

September and October 2007
Cuisine: Vietnamese

Corner of Dien Bien Phu Street and CMT8 * CLOSED *
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: unknown
Website: none

Com Tam Bi Cha Trung Opla – broken rice with shredded pork, pork loaf and sunnyside up egg

Muc Nhoi Thit – squid stuffed with ground meat

Com Tam Thit Nuong – broken rice with BBQ pork

Com Tam Bi Thit Nuong – broken rice with shredded pork and BBQ pork

Canh Chua, Mam Chung, Com Tam, Ca Kho – sweet and sour soup, fish loaf, broken rice, braised fish

By my estimates, The Gastronomer and I have now eaten over 100 restaurant meals in Vietnam, and rarely have we regretted our choice of venue. Truly, the consistent quality of the offerings in Saigon is amazing. Of the few disappointments we’ve experienced, most fell under the category of com binh dan. Literally meaning “worker’s lunch,” this genre is the most popular midday meal among the laborers of Saigon. It consists of a relatively basic plate of rice, complemented by a few small pieces of meat (selected from a display cart at the front of the restaurant) and perhaps a vegetable. If the meat or fish is good, it can be a treat, but too often the protein source is mediocre, the greens are bitter, and the place is a bit too dirty for even our taste.

To put it another way, com binh dan eateries seem to have a difficult time matching the quality of meals at our favorite neighborhood vegetarian spots, even though they have the unfair advantage of being allowed to use meat. However, we have found one exception in District 3—Com Tam. From the first time I walked by, I knew this place was special. The tables are a little higher, the clientèle’s tastes a bit more discerning, and the food up front just looks more delicious than the typical com binh dan. Normally I’ll only see one or two meat dishes that pique my interest, but at Com Tam it was hard to decide. Thankfully, I returned several times and got to try multiple treats.

The culinary appeal of Com Tam starts with the rice. I really love com tam. While I recently learned that it is cheaper and perhaps considered less desirable by the Vietnamese than other varieties of rice, I find it to be far superior in most cases. Its short, broken grains lead to a drier texture than that of standard long-grain rice, and it complements certain entrees, such as the Gastronomer’s dau hu xa, extremely well.

The soup was also a nice bonus; in contrast to the watered-down bowl of foul-tasting vegetable matter that accompanies a typical com binh dan meal, diners at Com Tam are treated to a small, but satisfying bowl of canh chua (featuring okra, upright elephant ears, and perhaps some tomatoes in a delicious mild broth). However, it was the meat offerings that drew me into the restaurant, and they didn’t disappoint.

Among my favorite entrees were the thit nuong (chargrilled pork slabs) and bi cha (thin strands of pork served with a yellowish, pork-based meat loaf). Most often served with bun (rice noodles), thit nuong is one of my all-time favorite Vietnamese preparations. The barbecued surfaces of the meat have a truly wonderful flavor, which is further enhanced by a few spoonfuls of nuoc mam. The thit nuong at Com Tam came in bigger slabs than I’m used to—there were even a few bones involved—but the taste and texture were amazing as always.

Several years ago, long before we arrived in Vietnam, The Gastronomer informed me that com tam bi cha was her favorite Vietnamese dish. While this may have changed (based on her current ordering habits, I would be inclined to nominate xoi ga chay), it certainly has a special appeal for both of us. Bi is one of the simplest pork preparations—on its own I would go so far as to say that it’s a bit boring—but it turns out to be the perfect vehicle for nuoc mam. Once fish sauce has been applied, there are few things better. I’m not the biggest fan of cha, but it’s fairly tasty and serves as a nice textural diversion from the bi. Both the bi and cha at Com Tam were among the best I’ve tried.

During our repeat visits to the restaurant, The Gastronomer and I sampled a number of other entrees, including braised fish, sunny-side up eggs, and stuffed squid. Crammed to gills with meat, the squid seemed like quite a luxury for only 10,000 VND, but in hindsight the combination of flavors was not terribly memorable.

Sadly, in the past week the restaurant seems to have disappeared. Quite strange, but totally typical here. It used to be housed along with a bun bo hue cart in a gated area in front of a dermatologist’s office, and then one day everything was gone—the food carts, the people, the tables, the chairs. Maybe the family just went on vacation, or maybe they’re never coming back. There are so many eating options to choose from, I could never miss any one place too much, but still, it’d be a shame…

Cơm Bình Dân – Workers' Lunch


With the help of Rad and his wife, The Astronomer and I scored a spacious three-bedroom/two-bathroom apartment on the 9th floor of a high-rise building in District 4 soon after we arrived in Saigon. Although its a bit far from the touristy-action of District 1, we’re settling in nicely and discovering lots to like about the place everyday.

We moved into our new space on our third day in Saigon. After spending the morning unpacking, we headed out to explore our ‘hood and to find some grub in the afternoon. Clueless about our new surroundings, we stumbled into a small, residential neighborhood with narrow streets. With the assistance of a woman selling che (a genre of Vietnamese desserts) on the street, we found a home selling Com Binh Dan—cheap eats for laborers/workers. The woman running the joint had a kind face and her food looked pretty darn good, so The Astronomer and I decided go for it.


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Com Binh Dan almost always consists of big plate of rice, some sort of boiled or pickled vegetable, canh (soup), and a selection of meat dishes. From the extensive choices available, I chose the thit kho (braised pork with eggs), dau hu kho (braised tofu), and mam (fermented fish and pork). I opted not to have any canh. The rice was a little dry, but all the dishes tasted just like grandma’s cooking. Mmm!


The Astronomer chose a piece of curry chicken, fried chicken, and dau hu kho. He didn’t like the pickled mustard greens and bean sprouts that came with his plate, so he passed them on to me. The curry chicken was his favorite, while the fried chicken was only so-so.


The Astronomer and I ate our lunches at the woman’s house on low plastic chairs and a slightly taller table. We shelled out 17,000 VND ($1.06) for our meal. We returned a few days later for lunch, but this time we took our meal to go, which was a much better choice.

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After such a pleasant experience with Com Binh Dan in our neighborhood, we decided to try a place near our office located off of Ba Tháng Hai street in District 10. I once again had thit kho, while The Astronomer had dau hu xa (tofu with lemongrass). We both had small bowls of canh. The food here was not nearly as flavorful as in our neighborhood and the ratio of rice to meat was fit for a famine. What really icked me out was the skinny cat sitting underneath our table; this was easily the worst meal we’ve had since our arrival. The cost of this meal was 16,000 VND ($1).

The workers are hungry, not desperate.

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