Nestled in a back alleyway on Hai Ba Trung and hidden from Saigon's bustling traffic, Tib Restaurant (named after the founders' first daughter) occupies what must have been in the olden days, a mansion of a Saigon patrician. Like the street it stands on, the flagship restaurant holds immense historical significance since its establishment in 1993— having served everyone from the hordes of hungry students to the former President of the United States, George W. Bush.
Walking through the restaurant's doors, the setting will leave you at ease: the warmth of dark-wood paneling; the tantalizing aroma of home-made Huế food; and the traditional Vietnamese music performed by Trịnh Công Sơn, Tib Hoang's uncle and well-known Vietnamese musician and songwriter.
You’ll quickly notice the black-and-white photographs of the Hoang family and historical paintings of ancient Huế. Except today, instead of being framed against traditional red-brick, the paintings are delicately hung on newly white-washed walls.
In the 27 years since Tib’s opening, Saigon’s dining scene has exploded. Still, sisters Tib and Jap Hoang never miss an opportunity to take their kids to their parents’ restaurant to enjoy the same dishes they ate growing up, made fresh on the spot.
We sit down with Tib and Jap over a delicious lunch to hear them share the restaurant's history, what differentiates Huế cuisine from your typical Southern Vietnamese food, and to sample the must-try dishes.
What is the history of Tib Restaurant?
Back in 1993, there weren't any restaurants in Saigon serving authentic Huế food in a nice space. My mother was always traveling back and forth between Montreal (where she lived) and Saigon to take care of my uncle, Trịnh Công Sơn, and needed another reason to make Saigon her permanent base. So she thought... why not? She opened Tib in this exact location 27 years ago and has been serving the same food ever since.
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How would you describe the dining space?
It's very familial. My parents, who are in their 80s, still spend almost every night here. You can find my mom in the kitchen and my dad at that table over there, overseeing the dining room, trying the food and making sure the quality of everything is as it should be. We often come here ourselves on weekends with our husbands and kids.
Our family has tried opening several locations before because our food was in high demand. But we decided not to run our business as a chain because my parents weren't able to be as hands-on as they are currently with this place. We're proud of what we've created here and we want to keep it for as long as we can.
We have another location on Phan Kế Bính in Đa Kao: Tib Vegetarian. It has always been a project my mom wanted to do. All proceeds from that restaurant go to charity. There are many places in Vietnam that are underdeveloped, but you help where you can, and we’re starting with charities in Huế because it's our home.
The original design concept back then followed traditional Huế architecture, which incorporates elements from the Nguyễn dynasty, Buddhist culture, and French architecture. But in an ever-changing city like Saigon, we needed a change.
We actually very recently renovated this place. Our good friend Darren Chew, who co-founded District Eight and was the lead designer of L'usine, helped us renew Tib's dining space to give it a younger look without losing the essence of Huế.
We incorporated traditional red brick and dark wood carvings to mimic the Imperial City in Hue, while creating a more open space with a higher ceiling and white walls to modernize the dining room.
What differentiates Tib from other Vietnamese restaurants in Saigon?
Lots of places pre-prep their food and reheat it before serving it to customers. Tib has opted to cook with fresh ingredients and on the spot — preserving the purity of Hue produce and the integrity behind the cooking process that have kept our customers around for these past 27 years.
At Tib, there are certain dishes that take as long as 20 minutes to prepare because of how laborious the cooking process is. Take cá kho (fish braised in sugar and coconut juice) for example; you can tell if a restaurant reheats their cá kho if the color is dark and opaque. Because we make it on the spot, Tib’s version is much flakier and more caramel in color and flavor.
In our family, lunch has always been the most important meal of the day. When we were kids, regardless of where we were or what we were doing, we had to come together for lunch at home. So another aspect that sets Tib apart is that it holds a lot of childhood significance to us and because of that, it's a very familial and friendly space. We're serving food that is nostalgic to a lot of Vietnamese families.
How would you describe Huế cuisine?
As with a typical Vietnamese meal, it consists of a bowl of rice and side dishes— most of which are specific to Huế cuisine and were served to Vietnamese royalty during the Nguyễn dynasty. There's a myth about how for every meal, the emperor would request hundreds of different side dishes to eat with his rice so he could have a taste of everything. So in a sense, Huế food can be compared to little tapas. Tib recreates a lot of those authentic Huế dishes that you can't find anywhere else.
Huế food is clean, it's colorful, and it's full of flavor. There's a misconception that our food is flour-based— lots of noodle and rice dishes, but that's not true. We have so many specialties that people have yet to try. And it's truly magical to watch their first reactions, especially our friends from overseas. They're always mesmerized by dishes like the jackfruit salad. You don't see these dishes anywhere else.
What 3 dishes would you recommend to first-time customers?
Besides bánh bèo and bánh ướt thịt nướng, the all-time favorites, here are the three dishes that we would recommend to anyone trying Huế cuisine for the first time.
Giấm nuốc: You can't get more Hue than this. With an elaborate cooking process, these specialty noodles are cooked with all kinds of fresh produce and proteins, from crab to jellyfish, in a prawn broth. They're topped with tomatoes, pineapple, minced crab, and shrimp balls in a light prawn broth, served with fresh herbs to balance out the pungence of the shrimp paste (mấm nuốc) and can only be found in Hue, making this a must-try dish.
Cuốn Huế: Very few Vietnamese restaurants (or grandparents) still make this dish. Crispy lettuce, fresh herbs, cold vermicelli, seasoned sweet potatoes, and perfectly cooked pork and shrimp, served with a side of lightly fermented shrimp and sweet potato paste — all delicately wrapped in a thin sheet of rice paper making for a colorful and perfect bite.
Bánh Ướt Tôm Chấy: A delicious, easy-to-eat dish for the everyday. These savory rice-flour cakes topped with toasted minced shrimp are the perfect balance of sweet and spicy when served with traditional Vietnamese fish sauce. It can be found everywhere in Hue, as it's one of the more original dishes of Hue culture.
It would be nice if more people ate Hue food, especially the younger Vietnamese. It's important that we don't lose sight of traditions in the midst of the rapid changes going on. Vietnamese food is the foundation of our culture; we can't forget it.