Jan 2008

Phạm Nguyên Bakery – Ho Chi Minh City

At least once a week
Cuisine: Dessert, Bakery

20B Ky Dong Street
District 3, Ho Chi Minh City

Phone: 9351673
Website: None

Crossand Cheese (5,500 VND)

Banh Xop Jambom Hawai (4,000 VND)

Banh Ngot Dau Xanh (3,500 VND)

Bong Lan Muffim Tao (5,000 VND)

Banh Xop Pateso Bo (4,500 VND)

Banh Mi Crossand (3,000 VND)

Banh Mi Phap (3,500 VND)

Banh Mi Pho Mai Duong (4,000 VND)

Banh Oc Kem (3,500 VND)

Back in Philly, one of my favorite traditions was walking to Chinatown to visit K.C.’s Pastries, a bakery offering delicious 60¢ sweet or meat-filled buns. When I arrived in Vietnam, I was pleased to discover that the K.C.’s experience was authentic—Asia really does feature numerous bakeries featuring pastries made of the same light, mildly sweet dough. Several large chains dominate the scene in Saigon: the biggest, Kinh Do Bakery, offers a decent selection and flashy advertising, but charges several thousand dong more than its competitors for a nearly identical product. The other two major players in the market, Pham Nguyen Bakery and A Chau Bakery (ABC), have become consistent standbys in my diet.

When I go out to dinner in HCMC, I almost always find that a standard Vietnamese rice or noodle portion is simply not enough food for a growing American boy. Occasionally I order a whole new entrée, drawing bewildered stares from the restaurant owners, but most of the time I head on my way and hope that I’ll find a little something extra on the road home. In these situations, I’m particularly thankful for Pham Nguyen and ABC. Whether I’m in the mood for something sweet or savory, I can always find a snack that will hit the spot for around 4,000 dong (25¢).

Among my favorite offerings are the flaky pastries filled with a thin layer of meat or pate: the exact names vary, but good ones have included banh pateso, banh xop thit, and Banh Xop Jambom Hawai. The dessert selections generally fall into two categories: big and fluffy and not as sweet as they look, or stuffed with mung bean paste or cream. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I haven’t quite bought into the whole beans for desert thing, but I must admit that the mung bean pastries can be pretty delicious. The big sweet ones are also satisfying, but generally all taste the same despite their widely diverse shapes.

One of the greatest disappointments from my numerous visits to Pham Nguyen has been the bong lan muffim tao (apple muffin), which looked quite appealing but tasted nothing like a muffin should. It had a light, springy texture (strangely resembling the rather uncomfortable pillows in our new apartment) and no fruit chunks or discernible apple flavor. This attempt at a muffin provides further evidence for The Gastronomer’s theory that the Vietnamese often emulate Western foods by copying their appearance, without having the slightest idea of how the final product should taste (see hamburgers and ice cream).

Another interesting interpretation of a Western pastry was the banh pho mat (cheese). I expected a melted, creamy filling, but instead found nothing for several bites and then finally a small chunk of mild cheddar resembling a half stick of string cheese.

One day when I was feeling particularly bold, I bought a banh oc, a huge snail-shaped sweet pastry filled with an enormous quantity of cream. As one might expect, it was tasty to start out with, but by the time I finished I wanted to vomit.

There are even stranger offerings with names like banh pizza and banh mi hot dog, with only a vague resemblance to what you might imagine, but so far my desire for a satisfying snack has outweighed my sense of adventure, and I’ve stayed away. The bakeries also offer a selection of fancier cakes topped with elaborate icing and funny-looking animals made of sugar. A review of these will have to wait until The Gastronomer’s birthday in February.

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9 thoughts on “Phạm Nguyên Bakery – Ho Chi Minh City

  1. haha the part about imitating Western food and the Vietnamese “interpretation” made me lol bc it’s sooo true. You’re also right about the food portion in VN…def not enough for ANYONE let alone a full-grown man. I got weird looks whenever I ordered seconds on my last trip too 😛

  2. the food portion in VN is for Vietnamese people. It provides enough calories for one person for the time between one meal to another. the food portion you get in US is sure bigger , hence excess calories, that’s why a lot of US people get so fat . about the Vietnamese way of interpretion of western food, we copy the look but not the taste because Vietnamese taste is different than westerner taste. THat’s is how we got Pho*? instead of Chinese noodle or French Beef stew. That’s is how we are Vietnamese, not Chinese or French .
    Sadly, a lot of Viet Kieu came back to Viet Nam and denmanded that some dishes has to be big portion or cooked in a certian way to suit their Americanize tastes, which changes a lot of things in Vietnamese cuisine. That’s why everytime i went back to Viet Nam, i ate street foods, because those are authentic Vietnamese cuisines.

  3. My tastes buds have been molded to enjoy those semi-sweet pastries, but it’s such a disappointment because all of the ‘American’ bakeries over here make everything so sweet! There are so many vietnamese pastries I miss from California, like Pâté sol(?), which was phyllo(?) dough wrapped around a circular piece of meat. Bánh Oc was my mom’s favorite (I talk about my mom a lot huh? lol) when she was a kid, but over here, they make it with puff pastry and use more of a cream rather than a custard/creme/glaze.

    I’d love to see any picture you took of the pretty decorated cakes (:

  4. Nhu,
    My two male American friends lost about 20 pounds each during their first couple of months in Vietnam. I dropped a few as well, but finally we all figured it out and started ordering more aggressively. When I have time, I find that the best solution is to order entrees at two different places. The variety makes things more fun, and no one cook is left with the impression that I’m a glutton. And of course, topping off the meal with a baked good is also an excellent choice.

  5. Duy,
    On the subject of portion sizes, I don’t mean to suggest that I think Vietnam should change. Huge portions at restaurants definitely deserve some blame for the American obesity epidemic. If I tried to eat out every meal in the U.S., I would feel sick and overindulged. In Vietnam that never happens, which is awesome. The fact of the matter is that I have to order a little something extra every meal to get by, but I’m not complaining–it means I get to try more dishes!

    As far as Vietnamese interpretations of Western foods, I think that historically you’re right–I’m glad that pho, etc. are unique and don’t taste like Chinese or European dishes. The variety of banh mi sandwiches are an example of an interpretation that works wonderfully–whoever thought of putting pickled vegetables on a sandwich is a genius. However, in recent years attempts have been made to capitalize on the popularity of American culture by copying foods such as hamburgers and muffins, and the results just aren’t very good. I seriously doubt that a Vietnamese person would prefer a muffin from Pham Nguyen or a hamburger from Lotteria to a real American one if they got to try both.

    So I think the moral for me is that the Vietnamese do traditional Vietnamese food best (that includes dishes that were influenced by other cultures many years back) and should hold off on attempting popular Western dishes until they know what they are doing. Some in Saigon certainly already do–I’ll have to blog about Tous Les Jours bakery sometime. I too hate it when Vietnamese dishes are watered-down or modified in attempts to increase their appeal to tourists. Street food is the way to go.

  6. Raine,
    Yeah, semi-sweet pastries are pretty great, especially when you are actually hungry. Many American pastries (cupcakes come to mind) are so sweet that their primary purpose in a meal is to convince people to eat a bit more even though they’re already full, just because they can’t resist.

    No pictures of the fancy cakes yet, but we’ll put some eventually for sure…

  7. Thanks for the tip, but rest assured we do know how to spell “Muffin”. The products were named by the bakery, so who are we to alter their spellings… Perhaps we should have added [sic] to spellings we knew were iffy.

  8. Some of your mispells are patechaud (meaning hot paste), or croissant (means crescent or banh sung trau in vietnamese), Jambon Hawaii (means thit nguoi in Vietnamese), and Muffin.

    I don’t mean to be critical on your spellings, and I’m sure the pastry shop in VN spelled them the way you do. I don’t blame you.

  9. I think it’s just a matter of what you’re used to. I haven’t tried the Vietnamese version of muffin so I can’t comment which one is better. But deep fried chicken like that of KFC, despite 6 years in the States, I still prefer Lotteria’s because it’s has less coating and better seasoning (for an Asian like me).

    Have you tried pastries at Brodard near Sheraton hotel? I would highly recommend it

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