Among the smells you encounter on the streets of Saigon, none is more instantly recognizable and quintessentially Vietnamese than the constant tug-of-war between the smell of motorbike exhaust and the smell of grilled pork, its attendant stoking the charcoal grill and fanning the smoky fumes out into the open air.
There is a place in Phú Nhuận, however, where the tug-of-war is barely a competition at all. At Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền, the hazy plumes of sweet-smelling smoke greet you immediately, a sort of curtain that shields the interior of the eatery from clear view that every guest must walk through in order to experience one of Saigon’s best iterations of a Southern Vietnamese specialty.
For the uninitiated, cơm tấm literally means “broken rice”, and can be served with a variety of meats, curries, and side dishes. Cơm tấm originated in rural Vietnam as poor rice farmers set aside broken grains of rice collected during harvest. Those broken bits of rice served as the foundation for a humble dish that, only in the last century, made its way to the streets of Saigon, and has subsequently evolved and gained enormous popularity over the last decade.
There are many different variations and combinations possible with cơm tấm, but typically they all include a side of rau chua (julienned pickled carrot and daikon radish) and/or a few slices of fresh tomato and cucumber. The most common variation is cơm sườn, a bbq grilled pork cutlet, with optional add-ons such as chả (a sort of pork meatloaf reminiscent of breakfast quiche), a fried egg, or bì (shredded pork skin). It’s topped off with a spoonful of oil mixed with herbs and crispy bits of fried pork fat. The broken rice acts as a sort of porous “flavor sponge” that absorbs the fish sauce (added to taste) and distributes it evenly throughout the dish.
Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền is nothing if not generous with its portion sizes. Though often the novelty of having the “biggest” of something at a restaurant endangers the actual quality of the food, the flavors here are as loud and large as the heaping mound of food you’ll get.
The grilled pork is front and center; a massive grill is operated by three to four people at a time, covered head to toe with long sleeves, bandanas, gloves, and boots, who constantly rotate pork cutlets with long metal tongs from a huge basin of pork marinating in barbecue sauce, to the hot coals of the grill, to the heaping trays of meat in the food prep stations. The spectacle of this operation alone, at peak lunch and dinner hours, is a reason to go in and of itself.
Though these giant pork cutlets are the delicious centerpiece (and somewhat challenging to cut up on your own using only the forks and spoons provided—be sure to ask them to cut it up for you), don’t sleep on the grilled chicken. Every bit as flavorful and massive as the pork cutlets, the chicken with a fried egg (perfectly runny but fried to a crisp around the edges) is actually my go-to dish. The skin has an incredibly flavorful barbecue sweetness and complements the moist and delicious meat that nearly falls off the bone.
As an added bonus: fresh juices, smoothes, iced tea, and (my go-to) sweet creamy rau má (a deep green pennywort drink) are made-to-order.
A staple of Saigon street food, cơm tấm is as much an encounter with the smoky fragrance hanging in the air as it is the contents of the dish itself. And perhaps no place in Saigon delivers both in such a spectacular fashion as Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền.
Cơm Tấm Ba Ghiền is open daily from 7 am to 9:15 pm, 84 Đặng Văn Ngữ, Phú Nhuận.