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Saigon After Dark

Cô Thủy and 25 Years of Breakfast Bò Né in D4


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Historically, District 4 has been known for snail and barbecue restaurants. As a long-term resident, I suggest it should also be famous for having the most delicious bò né place as Bò Né Thanh Tuyền draws me back every time I try to leave.

 

Street food often provides a show as well as a source of sustenance. When I was a four-year-old trying to avoid going to the kindergarten next door, the sight of customers panicking and moving their chairs away from the bubbling hot oil was both entertaining and inviting at the same time. 

Bò né is one of those street foods in Saigon whose origin is a mystery. After reading as many articles as I could find, my guess was that it probably started out as a working-class meal. Somewhere along the way, perhaps some Vietnamese people invented and popularized the dish so that everyone could have access to a luxurious breakfast dish for as little as US$2.

 

The most common theory for the existence of bò né is its American influence. The similarity to a typical American beefsteak dinner is there once you look closely: pan-fried beef, onions, a sauce. Some restaurants even serve fries and sausages alongside them.

 

However, from my experience, it’s actually not very common to eat beef with pa-tê outside of Vietnam. This, we have the French to thank for. An argument for its French origin is how similar it looks to the first version of bánh mì at Bánh Mì Hoà Mã. Both are served inside a cast-iron skillet; both have similar ingredients. While bánh mì has taken a different route and become internationally famous, bò né continues to be a uniquely local, yet popular dish inside Saigon.

It is the smell and sound that attack your senses when you walk past Bò Né Thanh Tuyền. You don’t have to read the menu; the scent of thinly sliced, fatty beef quickly stir-fried alongside onions is unmistakable. The restaurant itself is barebones but spacious. The white-tiled walls and iron roof signal to passersby that this is a no-nonsense, eat-and-go kind of space. Interesting knick-knacks of Buddhist statues and Chinese characters give customers something to look at while they are waiting for their orders to arrive.

 

When I first entered the restaurant, it took me a while to find the owner amidst all of the busy action. Thủy, a charismatic 60-year-old, has been running the place for more than two decades. In the beginning, Bò Né Thanh Tuyền had few guests besides Thủy’s family members. “When I first opened, my father and brothers had to sit in as customers even though the price was only VND6,500. There were not many guests because nobody knew about our restaurant,” Thủy laughed as she recounted the difficulties that came with running a busy eatery. During the 25 years of owning a bò né place, she has never given up on her passion: “I love food a lot. Whenever I visit any place that has a specialty, I make sure to try it at least once.”

 

It is the family-like atmosphere and rusticity that add another dimension to the simple dish of sizzling beefsteak. She half-jokingly said: “Students and laborers are my favorite customers. My loud personality does not fit serving important people.” Prices are cheap, steak knives are not necessary and extra bread is free.

 

Although she admitted to learning everything herself along the way, her attention to detail and sharpness when it comes to what attracts customers shines. I spent too much time as a kid mesmerized by the flames that instantly cooked slivers of beef on the plate. How many years of practice does it take to have perfectly crispy, yet tender, egg white encasing runny egg yolk every time?

 

While the business ran smoothly following those early challenges, tough times returned last year. During lockdown, she had to close everything down. The restaurant was in a difficult financial situation for more than four months because there was no revenue. Thủy held firm in her beliefs, continuing to pay staff and giving them extra food because she wanted to retain the people who were there for her through many ups and downs.

 

Luckily for me, the restaurant is now back and running as steadily as ever. Food is often as much about memory as it is about taste. The homemade pa-tê still has a note of sweetness alongside the typical metallic undertone as I remembered it. Oyster sauce gently caramelized beef slices while leaving just a hint of saltiness. An egg on top often improves everything, and it is a must-have for anyone wanting the spectacle of sizzling egg white.

 

It all started with secret recipes for pa-tê and beef that are adjusted according to the taste of her customers. “Everything has to be different. It’s not completely westernized because I add garlic along with lemongrass to the marinade as well,” she said. Even the sauce is slightly sweeter and less oily than other restaurants because, according to Thủy, southern people prefer it that way.

 

My favorite way to enjoy bò né is by first dipping the crust in soy sauce and egg yolk. Spread pa-tê on it and then chase everything with beef afterwards. Don’t forget to clean your plate by wiping the leftover juice with any remaining bread that you have.

 

A plate of tomato, lettuce and onions is also served alongside bò né. I like to put raw onions on top while the skillet is still hot. It adds a touch of sweetness and freshness to an otherwise fatty and salty dish. The accompanying drink is no less important. Nước sâm and trà đá are cheap, delicious and good companions to the often meat-heavy meal.

 

Unfortunately, the institution that has existed in District 4 for 25 years might not be here in a few years. Thủy has not thought about expanding or bestowing her brand to anyone else when she retires. When she mentioned the possibility of taking it over to her children, they refused because they have other careers in mind.

 

I was saddened but relieved to hear the news. I am glad that Thủy, who has worked tirelessly for many years, finally decided to take a break. It is also a reminder to myself that things I often take for granted do not exist forever. So knowing of its eventual closure is also a call to action for anyone who has not tried Bò Né Thanh Tuyền to try it before it is too late.

 

Bò Né Thanh Tuyền is open from 5am to 11am.

Bò Né Thanh Tuyền

20/6 Nguyễn Trường Tộ, Ward 12, D4

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