Located near the entrance of International Plaza, occupying the corner opposite Watson’s, is Trung Nguyen Café. Most people are likely more familiar with their coffee than their food, as it is widely available in supermarkets. And for good reason too. The taste of their extremely finely ground, highly aromatic coffee is head and shoulders above most Western style coffee. At least, to this coffee drinker, who primarily drinks Kopi Os and Americanos.
At the café, the usual range of Western style coffee is available, along with Vietnamese snacks and food. I stumbled upon their Dry Beef Pho one day, after being told that their Vegetable Rolls were unavailable.
I have to admit, I was apprehensive at first. Everyone around me was eating and slurping Beef Pho with Soup and here I was, going for the brothless option.
To my delight, it was everything I was looking for. It was an especially hot day which was why I was reluctant to have a bowl of noodles in hot soup. All I wanted was a simple bowl of beef noodles that wasn’t too oily or heavy. And the café delivered.
My bowl of Dry Beef Pho was made primarily of thin, white rice noodles resembling bee hoon. Like Zhajiang Mian, there was a good helping of sliced cucumbers and carrots. There were also crushed peanuts, fried shallots sprinkled on top with chopped green onions and bean sprouts. Last but not least, there were the slices of thinly sliced, well-seasoned beef. A small saucer of gravy was provided on the side. The colour was roughly akin to that of light soy sauce. As the staff at the café were friendly but did not speak much English, I was unable to ask them what was in it.
The gravy was amazing. It tied everything together beautifully. It was savoury with a slight hint of vinegar. I can only guess as to what was in it. My best guess is light soy sauce with a dash of fish sauce thrown in? Maybe even a pinch of their beef broth. Because the flavour was so full and rich, I only needed to add a little.
Note that if you love chili, the café will add a smidge of chili oil to that magic gravy. This is actually the default setting, which I had to opt out of because chili makes my tummy angry.
The flavour is hard to describe. It’s not as salty as Zhajiang sauce, which is fermented soy bean paste stir-fried with minced pork. It’s lighter in taste yet not light on flavour. It would honestly make a pretty good dip for Chinese dumplings, or sushi, or vegetables. It was… really good.
My other favourite dish from Trung Nguyen Café would be the Vegetable Rolls which eluded me the other day. If you are an avowed carnivore, you can also opt for prawn or beef. Your chosen meat is packed inside fresh rice rolls, together with carrots, pho and cucumbers. If you like it spicy, they have a sweet chili sauce. If you’re one of the rare Singaporeans with a digestive system that disagrees with chili, have no fear. They have hoisin sauce dip with grated peanuts on top.
The only caveat is that your expected damage will hover around $10 and that’s excluding drinks. My bowl of Dry Beef Pho cost $8.90. For nearly half the price, you can get a good bowl of Ban Mian from the nearby coffee shop, called Pin Yi. Not only is their ban mian good, they have some of the friendliest staff you’ll ever meet. The only drawback is that their ban mian, like so many of our traditional noodles, tend to be excessively oily. Well, I have to admit that’s what got me thinking about trying out Trung Nguyen Café in the first place. And I’m glad I did.
Are you a fan of pho or Vietnamese coffee? Or are you completely new to Vietnamese food? Trung Nguyen is a good place to start, if you happen to be near or in the Central Business District area.