I followed my friend C's recommendation to have lunch at Huong Lai, located just a couple blocks away from the Independence Palace and the Notre Dame Cathedral. The place is located on a main street not far away from the major tourist spots but the entrance could be a bit obscure and easy to miss, with just a small sign and a narrow door on the street level with stairs leading up to the dining area on the second floor.
I opted for an early lunch but a few tables were already taken up when I arrived, with more people coming in later on. Curiously there were a few group of Japanese customers, then I understood why when I read the front page of the menu about the history of this place. Huong Lai is owned by a Japanese expat who opened this restaurant about 15 years ago serving homestyle Vietnamese cuisine - hence the Japanese connection. The Japanese influence was evident in the decor too, with the minimalist interior, pleasant view outside and beautiful ceramics and tableware used.
And another interesting fact - the place is actually operating as a social enterprise. Many of the staff came from troubled families or from the street so the place is like a training ground to teach them necessary vocational and language skills in order to pull them out of poverty and provide them with career options even when they leave.
I must say, for whatever training they received at the restaurant, it worked! The service was impeccable - the waitstaff was friendly and efficient and made me feel welcomed all the time. The menu came with English, Vietnamese and Japanese and all of them spoke perfect English so I could communicate with them without any problem.
As for the food, I ordered one from their set lunch menu and it's simple but tasty. The presentation reminded me of a typical Japanese Teishoku with vegetables and main dish served on a small plate, along with soup and rice in separate bowls. The main dish of deep-fried spare ribs with lemongrass was tender yet full of flavors infused into the meat, and the purple yam soup was quite a revelation. It has an appealing color and certainly refreshing - served lukewarm with rich flavors and a hint of sweetness, and not as starchy and heavy as I would have expected. The water spinach sauteed with garlic may be a simple dish that we often have, but I think it's rare to taste the vegetables so fresh back at home.
The lunch set didn't include a dessert but I ordered one separately, as I was curious how their homemade flan tasted. It was delicious - again, a simple dish yet very well presented. I reckon this is a great place for a simple meal, not only because of the excellent cooking, but the comfortable ambiance and convenient location.
Where? Huong Lai, 2nd Floor, 38 Ly Tu Trong, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam