First published August 2015 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
Some of my happiest moments in Saigon have been sitting down with a good plate of cơm tấm and watching the city go by. Cơm tấm is pure gastronomic pleasure: barbecued pork on broken rice, topped with a fried egg and other accoutrements. Saigon and cơm tấm are inseparable: the two most distinctive smells in this city are exhaust fumes and grilled pork. This dish is as much an icon of Saigon as motorbikes or the Bitexco Tower are. There’s a cơm tấm eatery on practically every street in the city, and Saigon does it better than anywhere else. Cơm tấm is one of the most accessible and delicious dishes in Vietnamese cuisine. Everyone loves it: Vietnamese, foreigners; kids, adults; rich, poor. But it doesn’t just taste great: there’s an atmosphere surrounding the cooking and consumption of this dish which is intoxicating and compelling. For me, cơm tấm is the quintessential Saigon experience. Below are 7 of my favourite places to eat cơm tấm. (For more about what cơm tấm is and how to order it, see this previous article.)
CƠM TẤM: 7 OF THE BEST IN SAIGON
Click on any name from the list below to read more about it. There are hundreds of cơm tấm eateries in Sagion: Of course I haven’t eaten at them all, but these are my personal favourites. Note that, for me, a good cơm tấm is about food and ambience: by which I mean a flaming roadside grill, jostling diners, and filthy floors – I love all of the above. Prices quoted are for a ‘full’ cơm tấm (for more about how and what to order see this previous article.)
[View my cơm tấm map of Saigon HERE]
- CƠM TẤM 352: 352 Chu Văn An, Bình Thạnh District
- CƠM TẤM AN DƯƠNG VƯƠNG: 500-502 An Dương Vương, District 5
- CƠM TẤM 236: 236 Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh, Bình Thanh District
- CƠM TẤM BA GHIỀN: 84 Đặng Văn Ngữ, Phú Nhuận District
- CƠM TẤM THÀNH RÂU: 119 Phùng Văn Cung, Phú Nhuận District
- CƠM TẤM TỨ QUÝ: Tân Định Market, District 1
- CƠM TẤM THANH NIÊN: 570 Trường Sa, Phú Nhuận District
1. CƠM TẤM 352:
Address: 352 Chu Văn An Street, Bình Thạnh District [MAP] | Opening hours: 5am-6pm | Price: 25,000vnđ ($1) | In business for: 20 years
A haphazard amalgamation of red-brick walls, chicken wire meshing, corrugated iron sheets, concrete floors, and metallic poles, this sun-soaked, smoke-stained house-kitchen-eatery is everything a Saigon cơm tấm establishment should be. It might look temporary and fragile – like a Jenga puzzle that will tumble with the extraction of one small piece – but Cơm Tấm 352 has been operating for around 20 years. Friendly, informal, local, bright, fresh, crisp, colourful, cheap and delicious; the food and people here make me very happy indeed. Known as bình dân, this kind of dining atmosphere is one of the greatest joys of living and eating in Vietnam.
2. CƠM TẤM AN DƯƠNG VƯƠNG:
Address: 500-502 An Dương Vương Street, District 5 [MAP] | Opening hours: 6.30am-9pm | Price: 60,000vnđ ($3) | In business for: 15 years
On the cusp of Saigon’s Chinatown, this place has an irrepressible energy and vigour, which drew me in when I worked nearby. Back then, I had only recently moved to Vietnam, and the bustle, chaos, and commotion coming from this large, two-storey corner kitchen, both intrigued and intimidated me. There seemed to be something compulsive about the diners: they sat down, shouted orders, ate quickly, smacked their lips, paid and left. I wanted to be a part of that; had to get involved in it. So I did. So much so that, when Tet New Year comes around, the management gives me a gift of a clock with their name on it. Cơm Tấm An Dương Vương has been operating for 15 years; I’ve been eating there for nine. The cơm tấm is excellent and there are dozens of other delicious, classic Vietnamese dishes to choose from. In a way, this is where I learned to love Vietnamese food and the atmosphere surrounding it. Yes, prices go up while portions go down, and yes, there are irritating hidden expenses for things that should be free – wet tissues, iced tea, insignificant side dishes – but I couldn’t care less about that: food and atmosphere is what it’s all about, and this place has it in spades.
3. CƠM TẤM 236:
Address: 236 Xô Viết Nghệ Tĩnh Street, Bình Thanh District [MAP] | Opening hours: 10am-9pm | Price: 60,000vnđ ($3) | In business for: 17 years
This place may be on one of the Saigon’s busiest roads, but the sight and aroma of pork ribs rotating on spits over a coal-fired grill, literally stops traffic. Get here between 11am and 12.30pm and witness rack after rack of ribs turn slowly over the flame: smoking, hissing, flaring; fat searing, bones charring, juices dripping; meat cooking. The aroma is to passers-by what the Sirens’ song was to Odysseus and his crew: enchanting, maddening; irresistible. Order sườn non (ribs) and abandon yourself on this island of pork. It’s a beautiful thing.
4. CƠM TẤM BA GHIỀN:
Address: 84 Đặng Văn Ngữ Street, Phú Nhuận District [MAP] | Opening hours: 8am-9.30pm | Price: 70,000vnđ ($3) | In business for: 20 years
No list of cơm tấm eateries in Saigon would be complete without singing the praises of Ba Ghiền, perhaps the most famous of them all. To its credit, despite the level of fame and the burgeoning turnover of customers, Ba Ghiền has resisted the urge to revamp the decor. From the outside, it looks like a remote antarctic whaling station: a dilapidated jumble of metal grilles, corrugated iron sheets, and tarpaulins, with two large chimneys churning smoke into the sky from a giant metallic grill. Inside, the light is diffused by smoke; the walls stained black; the plaster peeling off like wet paper; the floor strewn with tissues and bones. And this is a good thing, because at Ba Ghiền it’s all about the food. Each day, hundreds of diners come here to enjoy the enormous slabs of marinated pork chop, served on a plate of heaped broken rice. This is more than a meal: it’s the quintessential Saigon experience.
5. CƠM TẤM THÀNH RÂU:
Address: 119 Phùng Văn Cung Street, Phú Nhuận District [MAP] | Opening hours: 10.30am–2pm & 4pm–12pm | Price: 45,000vnđ ($2) | In business for: 10 years
This place is a real grease house. The outside walls are stained from 10 years of pork smoke; a huge sack of coal stands in the road, next to the perpetually flaming barbecue grill on the sidewalk; even the paving stones are slick from years of oily smoke. But inside it’s bright and clean enough. Customers roar through here at all times of the day, but I like to visit in the early evenings, when the fluorescent strip-lights flicker on and the place glows like a forge in the night. The cơm tấm is good and greasy.
6. CƠM TẤM TỨ QUÝ:
Address: Tân Định Market, corner of Ha Ba Trưng & Nguyễn Hữu Cầu streets, District 1 [MAP] | Opening hours: 4pm–3am | Price: 50,000vnđ ($2) | In business for: 8 years
This place is what’s known as cơm tấm đêm, which means it serves into the early hours of dawn. In other words, it’s great ‘drunk junk food’ – think of it as Vietnam’s answer to the kebab, consumed at the end of a night out drinking. Surrounded by a string of other late night snack stalls, the cơm tấm here is crisp, fresh, and nicely presented. Perhaps the quality isn’t quite as good as others in this list, but trust me, at 2am after a night out in Saigon, this place really hits the spot. A great way to wind down with friends and soak up the booze.
7. CƠM TẤM THANH NIÊN:
Address: 570 Trường Sa Street, Phú Nhuận District [MAP] | Opening hours: 11am-3pm | Price: 45,000vnđ ($2) | In business for: 20 years
A small, impromptu place with a few tables and chairs on the banks of the newly regenerated Thị Nghè Channel, this cơm tấm eatery has been quietly serving customers for around 20 years. There’s an attractive amber glow to the light here – making the food look fantastic – and the meat has a tangy sweetness to it. Order the sườn non (ribs), which are slowly barbecued on a tiny coal stove on the sidewalk. It’s simple, unpretentious food, beautifully presented, in a leafy location. Get here early, while the ribs are still hot and the grill is still smoking.
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