Last updated 12 June 2020
Where to dine in Saigon
If it’s good enough for Brangelina it’s good enough for me!
(Post updated June 2020 during the quiet non-travel times of Covid-19.)
In November 2011, four years after adopting their second child Pax Thien, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie returned to Vietnam. They were spotted eating at Cuc Gach Quan – a restaurant in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City.) I also dined at Cuc Gach Quan but it wasn’t because of the Brangelina connection (which I discovered after my visit.) That’s just a piece of celebrity trivia I threw in, even though Brad and Ange are no longer together.
Why I chose Cuc Gach Quan
I was leaving Saigon at the tail end of a ten-day tour of Vietnam with G Adventures. Traveling solo to the Mekong Delta area, at the Nguyen Shack I met another Australian, Sally who was cycling solo around the Mekong region. For the last four years, Sally’s been living and working in Saigon teaching English.
Sally was from Queensland. She grew up in the small regional town of Lake Eacham, in the Atherton Tablelands. A beautiful irony about travel – you leave your country and in one of the most remote places, you randomly meet someone from your home state!
Chatting about my return to Saigon before flying home, we discussed the challenges of making dining decisions in such a big city. Saigon is jam-packed with eating establishments. When Sally recommended a few places I jotted them down in my notebook, trusting her judgment as she was local enough in my eyes.
Fast forward to my last night in Vietnam. I was after a memorable dining experience. I chose Cuc Gach Quan.
“You must go there if you have the chance,” Sally said.
This was my chance.
Always an adventure
I showed the hotel doorman Cuc Gach Quan’s address. He translated the details to my taxi driver. As the doorman closed the taxi door, I braced myself for the crazy streets of Saigon. In Hanoi and Saigon, whether it was walking, on a tuk-tuk, or in a taxi there were many anxious moments. The exception was the UNESCO World Heritage city of Hoi An their streets were (thankfully) less chaotic.
In Saigon, with 8.4 million people venturing out during the day or night and what seemed to be minimal road rules, my road trips in that city were exhilarating. (Terrifying might be a better word!) This taxi trip to District 1 was another of those, ‘best not look out the window’ rides.
Thankfully it was only 15 minutes to Dang Tat Street.
Am I in the right place?
From the website picture I’d viewed earlier, the restaurant was on the ground floor of an old restored French Colonial house. It was 7.30 pm, when the taxi pulled into a quiet back street. The dark evening made it difficult to see the facade (or any familiar characteristics.) I wondered if I should ask the driver to wait. But before I could suggest this, my taxi door is flung open. A young Thai fellow formally dressed in a jacket and trousers, bows his head, greeting me with a welcoming smile.
“Cuc Gach Quan?” I ask.
The fellow, who points to a badge on his lapel is the restaurant’s official ‘doorman.’ He nods and with a theatrical sweep of his arms, gestures towards the entrance.
Despite the low key exterior, I am in the right place!
Stepping inside I’m greeted by two staff behind a counter. They also bear wide smiles. The room has a couple of intimate nooks for dining with a larger space behind. The tables are crammed with diners. I have not made a reservation and wonder if they can accommodate me?
“No problem,” says the smiling hostess from behind the reception counter
“Please follow me,” says another young man, grinning.
They all appear very accommodating.
We walk into a courtyard framed by a square pond. I follow, stepping cautiously onto the coloured mosaic tiles surrounding the pond, not wanting to make a fool of myself by falling into the water and disturbing the fish!
Cuc Gach Quan’s quirky interior
We go up a set of narrow steep stairs then through a tiny doorway. I had to duck to avoid knocking my head (a remnant of the colonial house days perhaps?) I’m beginning to appreciate the restaurant’s nickname: the architect house. The interior is quirky. An eclectic collection of Vietnamese ornaments and artwork is scattered throughout each room. Greenery from plants in freestanding pots and vases filled with floral cuttings softens the darker hue of the timber floor.
We step into a room that resembles an exotic boudoir. The room is noisy. Conversation and laughter coming from a table of diners (with American accents) sitting on bench seats on either side of a robust timber table. The frame of a four-poster bed covered in flimsy white gauze transforms their table into a private enclave.
This is not my room. My journey continues as I’m ushered into a room to the left via another stooped lintel. A scatter of smaller tables fill the space. My smiling host indicates a table in the corner. Finally, this is my resting place.
The room is empty, apart from two women, quietly chatting in the opposite corner.
My escort leaves me with a menu. A book filled with pages and pages of national dishes. Thankfully in English. The first page explains the restaurant’s inspiration by owners, architect Tranh Binh and his wife Thai Thu-to. Their wish is for guests to “eat green and live healthily,” cooking with fresh ingredients purchased daily at the morning markets. Creating food my grandmother would cook.
The focus is on original, pure flavours without MSG and free from preservatives.
The multiple vegetable choices were a testament to the premise of healthy eating. There are many meat and seafood dishes to satisfy the dining carnivore.
About the food
I eventually settle on one of my Vietnamese favourites: fried tofu with dried lemongrass and chili.
Such a simple dish and I enjoy every mouthful of the melt in your mouth tofu. I order a chicken and fried rice dish, which was a generous size (enough for two.) I consider trying one of their signature dishes, zucchini flowers sauteed with garlic and beef. But I have no room, the other dishes were too delicious – I cleaned the plate!
The wine list and cocktail choice were extensive. Most cocktails around 95,000 dong or $6.50 AUD (2015 prices.) The dishes ranged in price from 65,000 – 200,000 dong – all very reasonably priced. (Update: 2020 Trip Advisor advise meals range in price from $7 -14 AUD.)
Cuc Gach Quan’s quirky atmosphere, impeccable service, and tasty Vietnamese cuisine made for a memorable last night in Vietnam.
Brad, Angelina and Pax signed the guest book saying they enjoyed their lunch and will come back here next time they visit Saigon.
Cuc Gach Quan: 10 Dang Tat, Ward Tan Dinh, District 1, Saigon
Tel: +84 (08) 38 480 144 Larger parties: make a reservation!
Opening Hours: Best to call but the website says open for brunch, lunch and dinner.
*Disclaimer This is not a sponsored post. The writer paid for all meals and G Adventures tour. All opinions expressed by the writer are her own.