Street-free streetfood stunna
Quan An Ngon at 138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street in District 1 brings streetstalls in off the streets, dresses them up fancy, doubles the street price and hauls in punters by the hundredweight. The result is an illustration of the overwhelming appeal of street nosh. This place has around 400 seats and you'll be lucky to find one free at lunchtime or dinner. The owner, purportedly a savvy Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), had a superb idea - Scour the streets, find the best dishes out there, the best street chefs cooking those dishes, offer them a gig at a new restaurant and a regular, reliable wage. Bingo, Quan An Ngon was born in 2001. The owner recruited 20 or more cooks this way and each serves their own speciality inside Quan An Ngon.
I have a feeling the real draw is the fact that diners can peruse the stalls that line the perimeter of this indoor/outdoor restaurant - which is a bit of a courtyard-come-temple if you know what I mean - and get a sanitized sense of street eats without having to actually step foot in the gutter themselves - God forbid. I am a big fan, it must be said. I've never had anything I would call total crap here, but there are some dishes that are noticeably better than others. And I had two pipin' hot hits on this visit.
First up is Chao luon (Rice porridge with eel) costs 17,000VD. Chao comes in several varieties, (Ga) chicken, (Muc) squid, (Vit) duck, (Tom) shrimp, (Ca) fish and (Long) offal. Chao luon is probably not the first choice of many in 31 degrees of sticky Saigon pre-rainy season heat, in an outdoor restaurant, with a limited number of fans, sitting under parasols and banana trees... but... I have a heavy Chao Luon habit to feed and, to my mind, this joint serves up porridge perfection.
There are two types of Chao Luon. One is the freshly exterminated eel cooked in with the porridge variety - this one can be a touch fiddly in the bone department. The other is the luon chien (fried) variety - the eel is deep-fried in a very light batter and thrown into the hot porridge just before serving. That's the way I prefer it and that's the way Quan An Ngon dish it up. It's the porridge that takes the time, 3 to 8 hours simmering or until the rice is mushy and it... err... looks like porridge. Season, throw in the eels, splash of deep fried shallots, herbage, a side of quai (fried bread stick), half a lemon, chili sauce and you're ready. It's the slightly crispy texture of the fried eels combined with the smooth warmth of the porridge and a biting combo of pepper and chili that keeps me craving more. It's simply yum.
Next up is a northern dish Banh Tom Ho Tay (Fried shrimp cakes) costs 14,000VD. Ho Tay is West Lake in Hanoi (that's the big lake to the north end of Hanoi) and there's one restaurant on Ho Tay called, imaginatively enough, Banh Tom Ho Tay and it's supposedly THE restaurant for this dish. I've been there several times, it's a tatty spot serving naff food. Quan An Ngon does the dish better. Plus, there are no rats, no crappy chairs, no knackered tables, no hordes of roaring drunks or floors littered with dinner debris. Quan An Ngon is civilised.
The shrimps are deep-fried in a light batter with slices of sweet potato served on a bed of lettuce and herbs with a nuoc mam (fish sauce) dip with sliced carrots, chilis and su su. It's crunchtatsic fun, I am a repeat offender - doesn't matter what I order at Quan An Ngon, I always seem to have room to squeeze in some Banh Tom at the end. Naughty.