Com Tam Suon

In Saigon, eating com tam is an obsession. The dish — bitty rice and barbecued pork with untold variations — can be found everywhere. Yet, this is a dish with such character that no place does it quite like the next.

 

So, time to leave the comfort zone and meet the many faces of this uniquely Saigonese stomach-filler.

 

Lovingly Local

 

Com Tam 40A

40A Quoc Huong, Q2

Price: VND20,000 for com tam suon

 

It’s messy, it’s in the front room of someone’s house, it’s in the heart of Thao Dien — and damn it’s tasty. For those of you living in District 2 who don’t know this com tam joint, you are seriously missing out. It’s one of the best local-style joints in town and it’s constantly crowded to boot. Positives: the rice is perfectly steamed, the ribs are meaty without being too thickly cut, the rice is served up with pickled cabbage, a nice touch, and the other dishes like thit heo quay and canh kho qua that go with the rice are rich without being overpowering. The negative? Only one. The fish sauce and the mashed chilli, ot xay, could be better. Not that this is a complaint — it’s a quibble. A gem of an eatery in the most unlikely of places.

 

Old ‘n Saucy

 

Com Tam 114

114 Vo Thi Sau, Q1

Price: VND30,000 with suon, VND60,000 with bo kho

 

I’ve never tasted the suon here, but why would I when the com tam bo kho option (bitty rice with beef casserole) is so good. The rice is fragrant and slightly sweet, the bo kho is thick and oily like an Indian curry, yet the stock is rich and complex. Here when they serve beef they mean it. You don’t just get a few chunks of meat for good measure, you get a healthy chunk of cow. Established in 1956, this skinny, unassuming joint has a rightful reputation for good com tam. They’ve certainly earned it.

Com Tam Ba Ghien

Big ‘n Brutal

 

Ba Ghien

84 Dang Van Ngu, Phu Nhuan

Price: VND33,000 for com tam suon

 

You want it big ‘n full on? You want the heat of the streets of Saigon? And you want it fan-cooled? You don’t mind the sound of women’s voices screeching over your head and you’re hungry, damn hungry. You want huge chicken drumsticks and heavy weight-sized slabs of pork rib. There is only one place to satisfy your lust for large-portioned, gluttonishly tasty com tam, and that is Ba Ghien. Big but tender, brutal but filling, naughty but infinitely nice. This place is an institution.

 

Forever Famous

 

Com Tam Thuan Kieu 9

114 Yersin, Q1

Price: VND36,000 for com tam suon, VND4,000 extra for each bowl of pickles

 

You want a place not just resting on its laurels? Only Thuan Kieu will do. The original location, just round the corner from Cho Ray Hospital — what better dish can you think of to uplift the spirits of injured bodies and souls — has become so ingrained in the com tam annals of the city that there are now nine (or is it 10?) branches around Saigon. The secret? The softest, sweetest tasting barbecued pork you’ll ever have the pleasure to put your teeth into, a range of super tasty pickles on the side (including Vietnamese kim chi), and prices that while not cheap avoid extortion. And don’t forget the bowl of canh, pork broth, on the side. A nice palate-cleansing touch. I went to branch number nine to see just how far down the food chain Thuan Kieu could extend their reach. Despite the in-your-face colour scheme — garish, it’s decorated in green and yellow — it was just as good as the first.

Com Tam Bo Kho - Vo Van Tan

Modern ‘n Industrial

 

Grillbar

122 Le Thanh Ton, Q1

Price: VND95,000 for Grillbar-style suon

 

For the aircon version, I was going to head to the chain, Com Tam Moc, but an online Vietnamese reviewer had already put the multi-store eatery in its place. “Expensive and you have to wait for ages,” she wrote. “Only suitable for foreigners.” Hmmm. So instead I headed to Grillbar, a little favourite of mine, a place that really does attract foreigners. In the com tam stakes this place is expensive — just under VND100,000 for the barbecued meat with rice. But then here you’re paying for quality — have you tried their Vietnamese bacon? — the Ben Thanh Market location and most importantly, setting. The setting is New York and London-industrial, rolled into one. There are nice little touches here, too. The com tam comes with salad — a departure from the typical tomato and cucumber — and hearing music over the sound system rather than being aurally bombarded with the rough and tumble of a typical Saigon eatery is a pleasant change.

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