Secret Garden & Teahouse

Now the secret is well and truly out, our mystery diner goes to check out one of Saigon’s best-loved restaurants. Photos by Mike Palumbo

The cat is well and truly out of the bag with Secret Garden — that’s if it was ever in there in the first place. The talk about town is that it’s one of the best restaurants — if not the restaurant — to go for traditional Vietnamese food in Saigon.

Despite its reputation among travellers for being difficult to find — perhaps apt given its name — in reality, Secret Garden is easy to find compared to most places in Saigon, located down a small alley off Pasteur Street in District 1.

The alley entrance is beside Thuc Coffee (180A Pasteur, Q1). The famous yellow Ngon restaurant is a few doors down. For motorcyclists, parking is convenient and attendants take care of things.

But there’s a catch — the restaurant isn’t easily accessible. If you have mobility issues, especially if you’re a wheelchair user, sadly, forget about coming here. There are four floors of stairs to tackle — 83 steps to be precise — and not much to hang onto for support.

Judging by the shortness of breath and collective moans emanating from some people I saw summiting the staircase, the owners could do well starting a foot spa up there to soothe the aches and pains of diners as they wait.

Top of the Heap

At the top, you’re greeted with the guts of the operation. You shimmy by the kitchen jammed with cooks and kitchen hands. The wait staff elbow past as they run orders back and forth. It’s a hive of activity because this place is packed most nights. It pays to book in advance.

It’s easy to see why travellers get swept away with the romanticism of Secret Garden. There are colourful lanterns separating the waiting area from the diners. On a clear dry-season evening, the breezy ambiance makes for atmospheric dining. In a wooden cage to one side is a rooster with a large and unwieldy comb — something different.

But for me, the draw is the rooftop dining area. There are fairy lights that bounce light about the diners, and the tables are back-dropped by Saigon’s city skyline, albeit slightly spoiled by the Vincom Centre looming over the back wall.

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Still, the Caravelle Saigon, just a few blocks away, is visible and restores any ambiance lost by Vincom’s blue lights. There’s enough space for at least 80 diners, but it doesn’t feel cramped, and the acoustics are such that a noisy table nearby won’t ruin your evening.

The Here and Nhau

The menu is extensive. The cheapest items are VND65,000 while the most expensive is a seafood and mushroom hotpot for VND395,000.

Our first selection was the lotus root stuffed with pork mince (VND85,000). Essentially meatballs, they are sandwiched between deep-fried lotus chips. They have plenty of flavour and look healthy, but the downside is they come with a fluoro-orange Cholimex dipping sauce, which always scares me.

Next, was the fried prawn and squid with salted egg (VND125,000). This dish is typical of what you get at seafood quans in beachside towns all over Vietnam. Its powdery coating gives it a light texture and the squid is extra tender.

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After that, dishes — sometimes not ours — came out plonked on our table in no particular order. Don’t expect your appetisers to come first, nor for your waiter to be able to tell you what you’re about to eat.

Eventually we got our braised pork and tofu (VND75,000). It comes out in a small clay pot, enough for two people. The pork is tender, but the highlight was the tofu. Like a sponge it had soaked up some fish sauce with a hint of tomato; the only downside, there wasn’t enough.

The mountain of Tonkin creeper and garlic (VND75,000) tasted as it always does, made bearable with soy sauce and fresh chilli, while the mango salad with dried beef was the surprise package. I recommend this. It’s an unusual combination, but the sweetness of the mango works beautifully with the savoury of the beef.

The watermelon juice and the lesser known amberella juice (both VND45,000 each) were refreshing, while the che (VND25,000) was an excellent choice to cleanse the palate for dessert.

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In total, our bill — although we were given the wrong one three times — came to just over VND600,000 for food for two that’s very difficult to fault for the price. But the real secret to raising the level of the dining experience here will be in nailing the service.

Secret Garden Restaurant & Teahouse is on the rooftop of 158 Pasteur, Q1, HCMC

The Verdict (out of 15)

Food — 13

Service — 8

Décor — 13