Ca Com Minh Duc. Photo by Charles Von Presley 

In a city where design and concept have taken over the restaurant scene, sometimes it’s nice to go back to basics. Vi Pham visits one of Saigon’s best-known and most often criticised rice restaurants. Photos by Charles Von Presley

 

Rice restaurants are everywhere in this city, and one place that seems to attract a good deal of foreigners is Ca Com Minh Duc. Serving up typical Vietnamese fare, the kind that every family will eat at home for lunch or dinner, before paying Minh Duc a visit, I did some research. My first impression wasn’t promising.

 

Some commenters online thought the place was overpriced. Others stated they would love to go back. But there was one noticeable thing: while foreign diners adore Minh Duc, many native Vietnamese think it does not deserve the fame. So I decided to be the cat and let curiosity kill my money. It turned out to be one of those cases where you need to make up your own mind — don’t trust what people say online.

 

The Taste of Home

 

Opened in 1992, Ca Com Minh Duc has achieved a certain level of fame among Saigonese. While restaurants specialising in Hanoi or Hue dishes keep popping up around town, Minh Duc keeps to its roots, serving up typical yet tasty Saigonese fare. It is this very ordinariness that helps them stand out from the crowd.

 

Displayed through glass containers, the cuisine here includes anything from canh chua (sweet and sour broth) through to fried tuna dressed with tomato sauce. Their ca kho mang — claypot fish cooked with bamboo sprouts — was a treat to my taste buds. The well-seasoned sauce, the tender fish and the crunchy bamboo made it worth every bite. It reminded me of the kind of stuff my grandma cooks. She has always been a great family chef.

Canh chua. Photo by Charles Von Presley

Ca kho mang. Photo by Charles Von Presley 

But what makes Minh Duc special does not lie just in the food, but also in the atmosphere.

 

The dining hall is plain, yet this must be the reason why most tables are filled with groups of families and friends. No expensive furniture or luxurious utensils are needed here, yet the place oozes comfort. There is no need to wear formal clothes, no need to put on airs and graces. Most diners, in particular Viet Kieu, say this place reminds them of being surrounded by familiar faces and moments of laughter. It feels like eating at home. On my visit, together with dining partner we had a good time discussing irrelevant topics: from Game of Thrones to local ghost stories. We laughed and chatted without worrying about the people sitting next to us feeling irritated.

 

Minh Duc’s signature dish is ca com kho — dried seasoned anchovies. With a crusty layer wrapped around every flavoured anchovy, the only trouble ca com kho may cause you is it might be hard to hear anyone talking over the crunch of the food as you chew the dried fish. Otherwise, this makes a great snack at any get-together. Minh Duc’s own-made ca com kho is exported overseas and is an important business line of the brand.

Ca com kho. Photo by Charles Von Presley 

Cpm Minh Duc. Photo by Charles Von Presley

Tien Nao Cua Nay

 

On my visit we spent VND234,000 on seven dishes with a big bowl of rice and a free refill of tra da (iced tea). It was not cheap since the serving size could fit in my hand, but the price range was nowhere near expensive.

 

But the quality of the food, the staff and their attitude made it worth eating here, despite the portion sizes. Their hospitable service and their ability to find me a seat deserved a fat tip. It was a crowded lunchtime, but they managed to keep the dining space clean tidy, from table to floor.

 

“Hi, have you placed your order?” asked a member of staff as he was cleaning the table and rearranging the chopsticks.

 

“I’ll order when my friend arrives. But thanks.”

 

He nodded his head, flashing off somewhere before returning with a glass of tra da and a cold towel.

 

While waiting for my friend, Charles and his oversized camera, I had time to observe the place. Crowded and busy, but always ordered, waiters and waitresses were standing at the entrance to take customers’ orders, leading them to tables and bringing them drinks. Unlike many other restaurants where the service is tired, this staff was calm and helpful even though group after group of customers kept entering. All the diners around me looked satisfied.

 

If you want to eat what a typical Saigonese family has for their lunch and dinner, it is time to pay this place a visit. Just don’t forget to bring your gang with you.

 

Ca Com Minh Duc is at 100 Ton That Tung, Q1, HCMC

Com Minh Duc. Photo by Charles Von Presley

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