Living in Saigon, I’m constantly adding new Vietnamese words to my vocabulary. It’s fascinating how some terms stick straightaway, while others, regardless of how many times I run into them, refuse to integrate into my lexicon. For instance, I can’t seem to remember the words for “menu” even though I ask to see one practically every day. However, just one tasty encounter with soft-shell crabs was all it took for the words cua lot to be forever seared into my mind. I guess the part of my brain that processes new information is directly connected to my taste buds.
I visited Quán 94, a restaurant specializing in crabs, a few weeks back with a travel journalist named Peter. I was so stoked about the place after my initial visit that I returned less than a week later with a posse of friends because great food begs to be shared.
A section of the restaurant’s entryway functions as a makeshift kitchen, and the soft-shells are prominently displayed front and center. There’s something strange and yet strangely appealing about seeing the crustaceans alive and kicking prior to consuming them.
The not-to-be-missed dishes are the soft-shell crabs with tamarind (cua lot xao me – 75,000 VND) and the traditional battered and deep-fried soft-shell crabs (cua lot chien bot – 75,000 VND). The tamarind variety was doused in a glossy sweet and sour sheen that managed to leave me speechless. The soft-shells’ texture was nothing short of perfect and absorbed the tamarind sauce unexpectedly well. The battered and deep-fried ones were served up golden and crispy with a condiment made from fish sauce, ginger and chilies that complemented the texture and flavors beautifully. I can’t believe soft-shell crabs are available in Saigon for $2.34 a piece! Criminal.
The glass noodles sautéed with crab (mien xao cua – 70,000 VND) and shrimp (mien xao tom – 70,000 VND) were also fantastic. Flavored with fish sauce and potent black pepper, the crab glass noodles contained generous hunks of meat and roe. Sure, there was the occasional shell, but I didn’t mind because these noodles were on par with Grandma’s. The consistency of the shrimp glass noodles was unbeatable and my dining companions were pleased that the shrimps were served peeled, a rarity in this country.
The crab-stuffed egg rolls (cha gio cua – 55,000 VND) were deep-fried to order and served with vermicelli rice noodles, fish sauce, herbs, and lettuce. At 11,000 VND a piece, these were the priciest cha gio I’ve ever encountered, but absolutely worth every dong because the kitchen didn’t mess around with fillers like taro, onions, and woodear mushrooms. The innards were one-hundred percent pure crab meat.
84 Dinh Tien Hoang Street
District 1, HCMC