June 19, 26 and 27, 2008
2 Nguyen Huy Tu Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Gia Hoi moved to a new location in Fall 2011:
26 Nguyen Huu Cau Street
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City
Imperial Cuisine – clockwise from top left – com hen, hen xao, banh uot thit nuong, bun bo Hue, banh it tran, banh beo, bun thit nuong, banh khoai, banh it ram (center)
Who loves Hue cuisine? We do!
The Astronomer and I ate at Gia Hội 2 for the first time three weeks ago and we’ve been back three times since then. You could say that we’re crushing hardcore on this place, and it’s not hard to see (and taste) why. The menu here is short, sweet and focused on the foods of the former imperial capital. Hen (baby clams) are heavily featured.
Last fall, The Astronomer and I visited Hue and tasted com hen for the very first time. Dare I say it was love at first bite. After my grandpa, I am convinced that com hen is the second best thing to come out of Hue. Prior to discovering Gia Hội 2, we only had mediocre versions of this dish in Saigon.
The com hen (12,000 VND) here is as close to the real deal as we’ve come across down south. All of the essential components of com hen are present and splendid—fresh herbs (Vietnamese coriander, basil), banana flower, crispy pork rinds, sesame seeds, peanuts, warm clam broth, fermented shrimp paste and of course, flavorful baby clams. Unlike your average Vietnamese, I’m not too good with chillies. Gia Hội 2 serves up a sweet and subtly spicy variety that I’m totally down with. Mmm, boy.
Another spectacular baby clam dish is hen xao (16,000 VND), which consists of clams stir-fried in lots of butter along with Vietnamese coriander and onions. The clam mixture is scooped up with toasted rice crackers. I like not bothering with utensils. The clams are packed with so much flavor that this simple preparation highlights all of its natural goodness. A squeeze of lime juice and a bit of shrimp paste add the finishing touches.
Another one of our favorites is the banh uot thit nuong (18,000 VND). Growing up, banh uot was served plain with nuoc mam, not stuffed with thit nuong (grilled meat). It’s hard to believe that the plain-ish dish I had as a kid is related to the one served here. Gia Hội 2’s banh uot thit nuong consists of a sheet of rice paper wrapped with pieces of barbecued pork and a single mint leaf. The banh uot is served with a special dipping sauce with little pieces of minced meat that’s thick and sweeter than you’d expect. The restaurant also serves a shrimp (banh uot tom) variety that we’ve yet to try.
The banh it ram (right – 17,000 VND) and banh it tran (15,000 VND) are two lovely appetizers or post-meal space fillers. The Astronomer isn’t a fan of dough-y chewy balls, but luckily our dining companions have been game to share them with me. The banh it ram are filled with a single caramelized shrimp (tom kho), while the banh it tran are filled with mung bean paste. Another difference between the two is the crispy rice cracker that the banh it ram sits upon. I like both equally.
Banh beo (20,000 VND), steamed rice cakes, is served two ways here—in individual dishes and stacked on plates. When Nina dined with us, she requested that we order the individual ones. Each banh beo was sprinkled with minced shrimp, scallion oil and crispy pork rinds. Banh beo‘s signature sweet nuoc mam was served on the side.
There are a lot of winners on Gia Hội 2’s menu and no all-out losers, but the bun bon Hue (15,000) VND and banh khoai (20,000 VND) didn’t quite move us.
If a trip to Hue isn’t in the cards, Gia Hội 2 is a great place to go for a taste of the emperor’s cuisine.
Click here for a New York Times article about Hue cuisine: “Vietnamese Cuisine: Echo’s of Empire.”