Due to the prevalence of practicing Buddhists and the plethora of monasteries housing hordes of meat-abstaining mendicants, Vietnam is a haven for vegetarians. Around the corner from almost every pagoda, a small family-run Com Chay restaurant is sure to be found - serving up fantastic tofu dishes, piles of fresh vegetables, and an inexplicably large variety of imitation meats. Some of my best meals in Saigon have been consumed in these holes-in-the-wall and I highly recommend them to omnivores and herbivores alike.
We have been combing the city and quizzing in-the-know folks for months and have come up with a pretty sizable number of hidden hot spots. As our first of many vegetarian restaurant reviews to come, I thought we would focus on Com Chay 27, located at 27 Phan Xich Long, just a stone's throw from the labyrinthine maze of alleyways surrounding our home in Phu Nhuan. Interestingly enough, this veggie spot appears to be the neighborhood filling station for not one, but two nearby monastic orders.
A tale of two pagodas: The first conspicuously towers over Phan Xich Long, resembling a medieval fortress or Kafka-esque sanitarium more than a place of ascetic worship. The second is unassuming, set in a back street while exuding a welcoming, low-key vibe.
My favorite part about the second pagoda is the images, icons, figures, and various offerings placed around the outside, graffiti-smeared wall on upside-down wooden crates and haphazard piles of brick.
After indulging in some architecture, park your bike at Com Chay 27 and try to snag a table immediately! This place is packed at any given time with locals from every walk of life: business suits, local hospital workers, insatiable youths with overly-coiffed haircuts, sweaty expats (oh, wait that was just us), etc. Make sure to have a look at the prepared dishes in the case out front to see if anything catches your fancy, otherwise check out the menus modestly taped to the walls. My one word of warning: make sure to go for an early lunch to be sure they haven't run out of anything.
As someone who generally shies away from fake meats, I tend to go for a plate of rice piled high with a few tofu dishes and some daily greens. Pictured below is a slice of egg tofu, tofu stuffed with bean sprouts, and water spinach over white rice. On the side, I added some pickled chilies to pique my taste-buds.
Gavin's plate looked almost identical to mine, only with a fried potato fritter which tasted a lot like a latka.
I'm a huge fan of goi cuon, but usually skip out of ordering them because it's such a pain (not to mention embarrassing) to have to gingerly pick out the chunks of pork fat and shrimp. Have no fear, at Com Chay 27 everything is vegan, and that strip of pink flesh in your spring roll is only an innocuous soy-based product!
As a devout Vietnamese soup lover, Gavin was pleased to see Bun Rieu on the menu, a vegan version of Bun Rieu Cua, which he sampled in both Hanoi and Dalat.
Rather than crab fat floaters and pork products, it was brimming with tofu, mushrooms, greens, and imitation crab fat that tasted shockingly authentic. Expect to eat well, pay little, and smile widely.