While Vietnamese food debates usually revolve around whose pho is best, there’s also a fair amount of polarizing discourse surrounding cơm tấm, or broken rice, as everyone feels strongly about their favorite rendition.
Perhaps best described as an everyday meal of the people, this culturally significant dish is centered around its most humble ingredient, the rice. During the brutal French colonial period, a time of hunger in Vietnamese history, people began cooking with the rice that had been broken during the milling process. As such, it’s become a symbol of Vietnamese resilience and resourcefulness.
This is the origin of cơm tấm, which is the namesake dish at Cơm Tấm Nguyễn Văn Cừ, a beloved institution that’s been selling it since 1968. The rendition here is traditional: a couple scoops of the broken rice along with sides of sườn nướng (marinated pork chop), bì (shredded pork skin), chả trứng (egg and meat loaf) along with pickled vegetables. Fish sauce, with or without birdseye chili, is poured over the top and adds depth of flavor.
The big differentiator here is the larger-than-typical size of pork chop, which is prepared on the grill out in front of the nondescript storefront. It comes with a higher price tag (a little less than $7), of course, and while that’s earned it some detractors, it nevertheless remains packed for lunch daily with a mostly local audience.
Know Before You Go
Cơm tấm is more of a lunchtime food, so if you go around noon, it will be hard to grab a table. On one hand, the meat, which is the star of the dish, is best at this time since it won’t have been sitting too long on the grill. On the other, you’ll probably have to wait. If you’re in a rush, try dropping in around 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.