Sunday, October 11, 2015

HCMC Foodie Trip - The One at Cuc Gach Quan

Lunch at Cuc Gach Quan is only one of the few meals I had at a proper sit-down restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Many people have recommended this cozy, "countryside" restaurant on the fringe of District 1 serving traditional Vietnamese cuisine, so I came here for lunch one afternoon.

I managed to get to the restaurant just before the morning drizzles turned into a downpour slightly after noon time. The restaurant is actually located in two inter-connecting townhouses in a quiet neighborhood. I was led to the dining area on the upper level through the narrow staircase. The owner of the place is an architect by training and that showed in the tastefully done interior design with a retro theme with vintage furniture and rustic tableware. Even came with the oldies background music to add on the back-in-time feel. I almost felt like sitting in a classic movie set as I settled down at my table in the cozy dining room at the back side.

Reading the menu could be a daunting task at this restaurant - and I am not talking about the language issue. A separate English menu is available but it's a huge "book" with like almost 100 different dishes listed. Like many typical Asian restaurants, they basically have everything in every way you want it, plus there were special, seasonal dishes too depending on the time of year. That's in addition to the problem of having too many things I wanted to order and try

Well after a good 15 minutes studying the menu while sipping on the freshly-made juice I ordered - a must-have, by the way, as it's fresh and delicious - I gave up and asked the staff for recommendations. They were friendly and spoke perfect English so at the end I ordered a few dishes based on their suggestion.

All the dishes came at almost the same time along with a bowl of rice. The Tofu with Lemongrass and Chili is the signature dish here and it's insanely good. The tofu was cut into big chunks and deep-fried. Outside was crispy and topped with toasted lemongrass flakes and chili powder and inside was soft, delicate and silky. The seasoning was mild so I could actually taste the soy flavors from the tofu, and the slight spiciness brought up a kick of after-taste.

There were about numerous vegetable dishes available - even divided into sections like flowers or tubers or starchy vegetables - and the waiter recommended the Bong Thien Ly, listed as Zucchini Flower, to be sauteed with garlic. I was expecting the blossom flower like the ones used in Italian cuisine, but turned out it's more like the "night fragrant flower (夜香花)" we sometimes use in Cantonese cuisine, especially in soup. It's probably a case of loss in translation. It's sweet and crunchy with a mildly bitter after-taste. The garlic was put in only in gentle amount so it's not overpowering.

I decided to go for a seafood dish as the main course so I ordered the sauteed shrimp - it's cooked with onions and chilis and served in a sizzling claypot. It has a sweet, caramelized flavors and great bouncy texture.

I finished with a cup of Vietnamese milk coffee and the dessert of banana fritter. It's sweet almost like a donut except there's no sugar coating outside - I think the sweetness just came from the banana filling alone, and it's delicious.

It's a pity that I couldn't get to try more dishes - one of the downside of dining alone. Just like most Asian restaurants, it's best to come as a group so everyone can get to have a taste of the many food on offer. Overall it's a bit expensive in HCMC standard but I enjoyed my lunch here. With the classy yet cozy atmosphere, friendly service and decent food, even though it's bit out of the way, it's worth a detour.

Where? Cuc Gach Quan, 9-10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Menu Highlights? Tofu with Lemongrass and Chili

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