While we generally frequent Cuc Gach's less imposing second location, the original spot at 10 Dang Tat in District 1 is a good choice when rolling with sizable groups or folks you like to impress with your finely polished epicurean sensibilities.
The vibe remains the same. Again, rusticity meets urbanity, but while the smaller location is decidedly dark, close-quartered, and crepuscular, this Cuc Gach works in brighter tones and has an even more elegant atmosphere. Long white curtains straddling massive windows allow warm light to wash over the interior. Monstrous vases hold vibrant flowers and customers repose on sturdy wooden tables set with timeless earthenware.
On this visit, we were seated on the second floor. We passed through a lovely, open-air atrium complete with scaly, multi-colored fish splashing in a tepid pond and timorously ascended a steep set of steps into a wooden, cabin-like room. A thick, thoughtfully constructed menu was placed in front of us. Rather than meticulously sifting through the hundreds of choices and leaving ourselves dazed, we followed the suggestions of trusted friends and ordered an array of recommended dishes to try.
We started with a vegetarian papaya salad. Gavin and I agreed it was one of the best we have had in Saigon, tangy strips of fresh papaya topped with leafy mint, peanuts, and a slightly sweet chili sauce that left our palettes stinging in the wake of the fresh chili pepper.
The tofu dishes at Cuc Gach are heralded by many and they proved to be impressive. Pan-fried, homemade egg tofu sprinkled with lemon grass was delightful and the grilled eggplant topped in peanuts was abundantly fleshy and moist.
Another favorite among our friends is the pan-fried sea bass drizzled with a rich passion fruit sauce. Although it was tasty, the fish tended to be a bit dry and I couldn't help but think of Papaya's crispier, fresher, and lighter version.
For once, we opted for dessert.
While Gavin went for a fried banana fritter, I got a cup of lotus seed porridge. It was a perfect dose of saccharine to end a great meal.
Post-meal we made our exit - admiring the anachronistic charms waiting in every nook of the restaurant like the umbrella/cane holder and the boisterous rooster in the courtyard.
What a proud cock!
Lunch or dinner at Cuc Gach is highly recommended and it would be wise to make reservations.