With sushi stalls popping up all over town, Simon Stanley heads to Saigon’s seafood hub in search of the original kerbside Japanese experience. Photos by Glen Riley.
“Irasshaimase!” comes the welcoming call of the staff at District 4’s Sushi Ko as we arrive. Tucked among Vinh Khanh Street’s endless strip of pavement-based seafood joints, it’s an easy one to miss — and we did… twice.
But the place is buzzing. Vietnamese, Japanese and western faces fill the tiny tables. Over everyone’s heads a food counter swarms with uniformed waiting staff and nimble-fingered sushi chefs.
Browsing the menu (with pictures and English translations), we find 100 percent authentic Japanese cuisine, covering countless sushi styles along with grilled meat/veg skewers, tempura and beef hot pots. With its canvas roof, the cracked pavement underfoot and a steady stream of peanut vendors rattling their wares over our shoulders, we’re still very much in Vietnamese dining mode. It’s a welcome change to the standard Japanese approach.
Taking It To The Streets
We find ourselves sat next to Taku Haruyoshi, a Japanese teacher living in Saigon since 1997. “Before Sushi Ko,” he explains, “I would always eat in the restaurants on Le Thanh Ton, but they are all indoors… too quiet, too formal. I prefer to eat outside like the Vietnamese… it is more relaxed.”
To say that Taku is a Sushi Ko regular is an understatement.
“I eat here every day,” he says. “The sushi is very cheap, and very delicious.”
Taku tells me that since opening in May 2013, the business has grown in popularity so much that a larger premises is currently under construction just a few doors away. “Every day, more and more people are coming here,” he says. “Japanese, yes, but lots of Vietnamese too.”
Despite an understandable apprehension, it seems that sushi is slowly weaving its way onto Saigon’s dinner tables. Behind me, three generations of a Vietnamese family huddle around an ornate spread of sashimi. The kids are popping the pods of the umibudo garnish, and grandma is anxiously nibbling a glossy slither of tuna as mum and dad look on. With so much fresh seafood on our doorstep, and Saigon’s taste for all things Nihon, it seems sushi represents an inevitable leap from traditional street food fare.
Formal Dining, Casual Setting
I realise that accessibility is the key here. Having perfected her craft in the kitchens of District 1’s Japanese enclave, Sushi Ko’s Vietnamese owner is bringing sushi to the people, with extremely affordable prices in a familiar, informal environment. The result is like a Vietnamese version of the Japanese izakaya, where diners can relax with friends over beers or sake and graze at their leisure. With a paperback novel and a VND22,000 can of Sapporo, that’s exactly what Taku is doing tonight.
Having been prepared by hand, from scratch, our food soon starts to fill the table between us and we’re immediately struck by the beautiful presentation and generous portions. Each dish is displayed like a work of art.
It may be crude, but I often judge a Japanese kitchen on its mixed tempura bowl. It’s easy to do yet difficult to do well. What I’m served here quickly puts Sushi Ko above many spots in town. The batter is perfect, as are the contents — light and flavoursome fish with an abundance of vegetables. Gyoza, edamame and char-grilled pork-wrapped okra accompany a beautiful selection of sushi, and our table is flooded with colour. The quality of the fish comes through in the first bite — the lack of odour proves its freshness, and having been expertly sliced, this is a cut of salmon that I will go to bed dreaming of. Oh-so-tender… and then some.
With our eye-poppingly small bill I’m handed a loyalty card. Same time next week, Taku?
Open daily until 10pm, Sushi Ko is at 122/37/15 Vinh Khanh, D4, Ho Chi Minh City.
Published February 2015 – Word Vietnam