Di Mai is not what you would expect from a typical Vietnamese restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City: a sleek ambience, high-quality Vietnamese street food and great prices.
Most eateries fall under three categories – rural or colonial-inspired, high priced; mass chain, mid range; local corner eatery, budget – but Di Mai is in a category of its own: traditional Vietnamese street food in a sleek, modern environment. Di Mai’s creators, Capella D1, took the same approach they did with Sorae and San Fu Lou: smooth surfaces, dark, vibrant colours and excellent food. They also took a page from San Fu Lou and set reasonable prices.
A replica of a mid-20th century truck is parked in the middle of the restaurant, with “Made in Vietnam” painted on one of its doors. The truck is surrounded by sturdy wooden tables and comfortable seating, and the vehicle itself also seats a group of six. Black and patterned tiles line the floor, red tiles hugging the large open kitchen, immaculate behind a sheet of glass.
Black and red are the prominent tones, giving off a similar vibe to the Sorae and San Fu Lou interiors, with historical elements from 1920s to 1960s Saigon subtly infused alongside quality wood furnishing. Some tabletops sport newspaper ads from the era – a common practice back then – and dishware commonly seen in rich Vietnamese households lines a wooden shelf in the corner. It’s a smart setup.
Staff are attentive and communicate well in English. Service and hygiene are important to the Di Mai team, and they take special care to ensure that both are kept up to international standards. The chefs work fast and you don’t have to wait long to get your dishes. Everything comes neatly presented with quality dishware and silverware.
The colourful, photo-filled menu offers a choice of six ice teas (similar to the ones in San Fu Lou), five fresh American-style healthy juices, eight teas from Teapins and five beers from around Vietnam.
The fresh juices in glass bottles are the highlight here, and are all made on the spot: Wondermelon, with a refreshing watermelon-mint flavour, and Detox, a beet-infused cleanser, are excellent. Three house wines and a few cocktails round up the signature beverages. Portions and prices are small enough to order several dishes at once. Normally fatty dishes like mi quang and fried spring rolls contain sparse oil and fat, allowing them to highlight the excellent ingredients.
Here was our experience:
Bong Thien Ly Xao Toi (VND55,000): Vietnamese flowers stir-fried in light oil. A healthy starter and easy to finish.
Heo Nuong La Lot (VND85,000): This is a slight variation on the signature betel-leaf-wrapped street food, with three spicy minced pork patties and three noodle rolls.
Cha Gio Vit (VND75,000 for four): These crispy duck spring rolls are not as oily as their budget counterpart, and have a thin layer of dough that doesn’t distract from the duck and herbs.
Com Gao Lut (VND20,000): Simple, tasty and healthy brown rice. Goes well with veggie dishes.
Canh Bo Di Mai (VND95,000): This is similar to pho bo, but simpler and without the noodles. It comes in a medium-sized bowl that is perfect if you want a light breakfast or lunch. Similar to the original style of pho, there is a slight sourness as you sip the broth.
Mi Quang Ga (VND78,000): Chicken, quail eggs, shrimp and Hoi An chili make a wonderful bowl. The shrimp are juicy, the broth slightly spicy and full of flavour, and the side dish of veggies fresh.
Banh Gan: A common Vietnamese street cake, this is rarely seen in restaurants of this calibre. Delicious, professionally made, yet sticking to its roots, it’s a good complement to an after-meal tea or coffee.
Banh Khoai Mi: A tasty cassava and coconut cake that is not overly sweet, great as a finisher after a hearty meal.
The excellent fresh juices still don’t have a takeaway option.
While the restaurant had a shaky start, the clientele has increased ever since, and the reception is generally very positive.