As an accomplished eater and failed cook, I spend a lot of time scouting street food venues.
But when I consider becoming a regular at any given roadside stall, there are a couple questions I must first ask: is the place affordable? Do they deliver? Will I be able to find this random, back-alley location again on my own? But, most importantly, would I break an appointment for this soup/fried chicken/barbecued meat dish?
If we're talking about chị Hien's cơm tấm, the answer is a resounding yes. Always. Rain or shine. Morning, noon and night. I would break all of my appointments for this dish. I would lose my job for barbecue and a good plate of rice.
There are a combination of things which make this particular plate of cơm tấm a magical experience. The rice is just right, neither too sticky nor too dry, and comes in a nice proportion to the rest of the ingredients. You'll want to go for the cơm sườn, or barbecued pork and rice, on its own; in my opinion, this is the best chị Hien's street cart has to offer. All those extras – eggs, meatloaf, chicken – don't bother. The pork is where it's at. Once you've selected your meat, the girl in charge of food prep will throw on a few veggies, grab a small chén of sauce and send it all over to your red plastic table.
And now, a brief word on the fish sauce: it's f#$%ing incredible. Awe-inspiring. Life-giving. I don't know what she does or how she does it – these are questions I prefer not to ask – but it is the single greatest sauce I have ever tasted in Vietnam, and this is not a statement I make lightly. Dark orange and thicker than your usual nước mắm, chị Hien's fish sauce should not be used sparingly; it should drench the plate and everything on it. If you can get seconds, do.
Besides making a killer plate of broken rice, chị Hien's spot also comes with a story, which she told me one day after months of dining at her stall. This spot is staffed by the kind of street food employees who require a bit of warming up over time, so I take pride in my regular status.
Chị Hien, now a grandmother, used to live in the alley where the stall is located. In the evenings, she and her mother would sit at the top of the alley to chat and watch the world go by, but when her mother passed away, the alley sat unoccupied. Chị Hien could see the absence of her mother, and so to revive the alley and honor their evening chats, she opened the cơm tấm stall, which is now a popular fixture among local diners.
Though chị Hien, the cart's owner, has since moved to the United States, her brother still runs the business, along with a team of cơm tấm experts who, together, make a well-oiled, barbecue-producing machine. Even when the alley is packed, everyone from the parking attendant – that's right, this street cart has a parking attendant – to the barbecue cooks to the waitress is on their A-game.
To sum up
Location : 5/5
Friendliness : 3/5
Atmosphere : 5/5
Taste : 6/5 – This is not exaggeration, merely fact.
Price : 5/5 – A standard plate of cơm sườn starts at VND25,000.
Dana is 70% caffeine, 50% fish sauce and hasn't taken a math class since 2004.
Written by Dana Filek-Gibson. Photos by Brian Letwin.