First published December 2020 | Words and photos by Vietnam Coracle
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A diminutive eatery occupying the ground floor of a small, old-style shophouse at the end of a narrow alleyway in Saigon’s Tan Dinh Ward, District 1, Ngõ Ngách is a simple, charming place to dine on fresh, light Hanoi snacks. In a central (but very much hidden) location, Ngõ Ngách offers a casual but attractive dining ambience, and a short but tasty menu of classic Hanoi-style dishes bursting with colour. Presentation is beautiful, atmosphere is relaxed, prices are reasonable, and portions are just right. This is a lovely spot to take a friend, family member, or date.
NGÕ NGÁCH: ALLEY SNACKS
Ngõ Ngách isn’t easy to find: tucked away at the end of a typical Saigon-style alleyway in one of those enchanted little neighbourhoods that this city does so well – foliage dripping from balconies, laundry hanging out to dry, cats running along railings, dogs prowling quiet courtyards in a ‘hood peppered with family homes, aging apartment complexes, brand new studios, fashion boutiques and narrow townhouses. Cramped in at the end of the alley with a narrow frontage decorated like an old-fashioned candy store with a small tea set outside, you just know this place is going to be good before you even step foot in it. As I understand it, ngõ ngách means something like ‘nook’, ‘niche’ or ‘hidden alleyway’, which is appropriate given its location. But the name is a reference to the capital, Hanoi, a city famous for its tangled alleyways and the life and food which fill them. Thus, Ngõ Ngách specializes in dishes that you might expect to find in the passageways of the capital: a taste of Hanoi in the southern metropolis.
Ngõ Ngách: 214/19/11c Nguyen Van Nguyen Street, Tan Dinh Ward, District 1, Saigon
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Open daily from 10.30am to 9.00pm, Ngõ Ngách is good for a light lunch, mid-afternoon snack or dinner. The building, sandwiched between a family home and a fashion boutique, is reminiscent of one the traditional ‘tube’ houses that Hanoi is famous for: a narrow frontage extending far back to a small open-air courtyard. The decor, too, is a nostalgic take on shops and noodle houses of an older generation. The floors are laid with geometric-patterned tiles, the walls are plastered and left bare save for a couple of bookshelves hosting several musty old volumes; furniture is limited to simple wooden tables, chairs and benches lit from above by metal lamps suspended from the ceiling; fans circulate the humid Saigon air and classic Vietnamese ballads play softly in the background. There’s no smoking and no wifi at Ngõ Ngách: the latter suggesting that management don’t want diners sitting here all day posting on social media or digital-nomading.
The menu is short, simple and exciting, featuring only a dozen or so dishes, all hailing from Hanoi or the northern provinces. (There are no English translations, but staff will help you decipher the Vietnamese if you’re having trouble – or see below for some of my favourite dishes). The menu is divided into five easy sections: món ăn kèm (side dishes), món ăn chơi (literally ‘play dishes’: essentially small, fun snacks), món ăn no (literally ‘filling dishes’, in other words: main courses), tráng miệng (desserts), and đồ uống (drinks). In addition there are sometimes seasonal specials. Food at Ngõ Ngách is best enjoyed family-style: several dishes in the middle, shared by everyone at the table. If there’s two or more diners and you’re hungry, you could easily order six to eight different items off the menu and be pleasantly sated. Prices are very reasonable, indeed: 40-50,0000VNĐ ($2) per dish, which means you can afford to experiment.
When the food arrives on your table, the presentation is beautiful: a riot of colours, textures and shapes. It’s impossible not to get excited by the collection of dishes in front of you. This is one of the many appeals of Vietnamese cuisine: it always looks so good. Some of my favourite dishes at Ngõ Ngách include: ốc nhồi thịt (large freshwater snails stuffed with lemongrass, ground pork and wood ear mushrooms), phở cuốn (cold, soft rice paper rolls with beef and herbs), bún ốc (rice noodles with small snails in a hot tomato broth), and cháo ngao (hot rice porridge with clams and Chinese-style quẩy dough). Adding yet more flavour and colour to your spread are the multitude of dipping sauces that accompany each dish. The food and ingredients are crisp, fresh, crunchy, bursting with flavour, and – another common characteristic of Vietnamese food – fun to eat.
The dessert menu includes more Hanoi classics, such as sữa chua nếp cẩm (black rice with yogurt and coconut milk) and chè khúc bạch (melt-in-your-mouth cubes of almond milk jelly, served chilled). Drinks (there’s no alcohol) include Hanoi favourites nước sấu (a sweet and sour drink made with sấu fruit) and trà chanh (refreshing iced lemon tea). It’s worth noting that, although the food here is healthy and light, Ngõ Ngách isn’t great for vegetarians, who aren’t really catered for at all. However, for those of us who don’t have dietary needs or preferences, the whole experience of dining at Ngõ Ngách is pleasurable: the food, the presentation, the ambience, the price, and the neighbourhood. As so often in Vietnam, places like this make a mockery of ‘fine’ or expensive dining.
*If you fancy a wander around the neighbourhood post-meal, check out the tiny whiskey and coffee bar down the alleyway, a minute from Ngõ Ngách on foot: take a left immediately after leaving Ngõ Ngách and the bar is on your right.
Disclosure: I never receive payment for anything I write my content is always free & independent. I’ve written this guide because I want to: I like this little restaurant & I want my readers to know about it. For more details, see my Disclosure & Disclaimer statements here