This is the tale of my culinary adventure in Vietnam, my Vietnam food tour.
In the final scene of Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade, our hero is pitted against three trials that he must pass in order to attain the Holy Grail – the storied chalice that offers those who drink from it eternal life. The final such trial requires Indy to take a “leap of faith” and jump across a chasm to reach the Grail’s final resting place. After a deep breath, he takes a step into the abyss and is rewarded by an invisible (to the naked eye) bridge which allows him to cross safely. I became reminiscent of the scene immediately upon arriving in Saigon (HCMC) because of the way you need to cross the street. Even legitimate crosswalks require you to walk straight through an onslaught of mopeds and cars, trusting that the swarm will pass ‘through’ you and leave you unscathed.
The Vietnamese aunt I never had but want
The first stop in HCMC had been on my bucket list for years now – “The Lunch Lady“. Nguyen Thi Thanh has built strong brand equity over the past few years by serving patrons lucky enough to catch a bowl of her daily lunch soup – only one soup offering each day. Brought to mainstream foodies by Bourdain’s travels throughout Vietnam, she is someone I’ve wanted to meet for a long time. The shop itself is located outdoors in a nondescript alley and my brother and I managed to get there just in time for the last two bowls from her huge pot. The chairs in the restaurant made us feel like we were repeating the first grade a la Billy Madison but we were able to jam ourselves in for the occasion. Massive bowls stuffed will perfectly cooked noodles, coconut milk, curry powder, chicken thighs, and a bevy of fresh herbs were carted out to us. What made the dish was the chili sugar which was served as a condiment. Simple fresh red chili, sugar, salt, and lime juice infused together and dehydrated again leaving an incredible granulated flavor enhancer – something easy enough to serve over your next bowl of noodles.
333’s and Crab
Our first night for dinner, my brother and I ventured to try a popular crab place we had heard about named Quan 94. It is such a popular restaurant that a copy cat has sprung up three doors down so watch out! The popular dish was a whole steamed crab basted with a tamarind glaze. Although the restaurant itself was nothing more than a shady stall, the freshness of the crabs and generous portions made it an excellent experience. We started the meal with a bevy of the Vietnamese beers (333, learn more about them here ) and crab spring rolls with blistered wrappers served alongside a light mirin based sauce.
Street food and bahn mi’s
You can’t goto Vietnam without having two things. A Bo Bia and a Bahn Mi. The former is a canapé stuffed with Chinese sausage, jicama, carrots, dried shrimp all wrapped in rice paper and served with a hoisin based peanut sauce. A couple of these will get you through the home stretch between lunch and dinner. The latter is in my opinion is an analog to the Philadelphia Cheesesteak and the NY slice. You see everyone eating Bahn Mi’s in Vietnam: tourists, street workers, business types.
The sandwich much as the aforementioned regional classics transcends any sort of social hierarchy. For those of you who don’t know what a bahn mi is – it’s a sandwich of cucumbers, mortadella, chicken liver pate, ham or headcheese, scallions, carrots, daikon, chili, and mayonnaise. Along with the fresh baguette prepared by the local boulangerie, you can tell where the French influence meets the Asian elements in this truly unique sandwich. If in Saigon, try the one at Nhu Lan and go either in the early morning or in the evening when the bread is sure to be at its freshest.
Central Vietnamese cuisine, league of its own
I tried a restaurant named Phu Xuan upon a friend’s recommendation. They specialize in Hue food which is the cuisine from central Vietnam. I had no idea how different that cuisine would actually be. The only dish that I knew of prior to eating authentic Hue food was the Bahn Xeo – a crepe stuffed with sprouts and beef among other things – something that had never inspired me. That is why I never expected to be so moved by the flight of dishes that followed.
I hate to belabor the point but Asian cuisine is popular for their condiments and Hue food has a star of its own. The sauce (the waiter told me) is called special fish sauce which is created by reducing equal parts of fish and shrimp stock and then simply adding a touch of sugar. It has a light almost watery consistency and yet has a bold and clean flavor. The dishes came in order:
1. Bahn Beo – Tiny steamed rice flour crepes topped with minced shrimp and yellow chilies
2. Bahn Uot Tom Chay – Mashed shrimp and garlic wrapped in rice flour, rolled, and steamed
3. Cuon Diep – Fresh lettuce spring rolls served with special peanut sauce and scallions
4. Ngheu Xao Banh Trang Me – Stir fried clams with shallots and garlic served over grilled sesame rice paper
5. Lotus Seed Rice – shrimp and sour pork mash with rice and lotus seeds wrapped in lotus leaves and steamed.
I would recommend searching for a hue food restaurant near you to check out this great cuisine.
A certain je ne sais quoi
One of the first things I do when I travel is try to meet locals during my first night in town so I can stress test my existing food list as well as fill in the gaps of places I might be missing. Conversely, hiring a fixer is probably a smart idea if traveling solo. After honing in on an expat bar, I met Minh, a former NYC banker who returned to Vietnam to do business in his native city . He referred me to a restaurant called Cuc Gach, which has been one of the revelatory culinary experiences in my life. The food in this Neo-French and Vietnamese restaurant is prepared in a painfully loving way as I was able to sneak a peak at the open air kitchen and the focused and passionate staff. The meal consisted of:
1. A cloudy and complex pineapple and lemongrass soup served over the tender flesh from a Seabass jowl.
2. Deep fried soft shell crabs served with a lime chili syrup
3. Fried Zucchini flowers
4. Seared tofu under a flurry of deep fried grated lemongrass and chili – previously I didn’t know lemongrass was edible/enjoyable used as anything but a flavor enhancer, but in this grated and fried form it is phenomenal.
5. The coup de grace was a stewed pork cube dish in a sugar fish stock served with a hardboiled duck egg – the 5 hour cooking time in a miniature crock yielded the most unctuous broth I’ve ever tasted.
Moreover, the ambiance of the restaurant was truly memorable. Essentially, the restaurant is a residence decorated in the old French style and only seats about 30 indoor and out. The upstairs houses a private dining room where the cocktail bench is a converted rustic bed garnered with a mosquito net. Antiquated maps adorn the sepia toned walls and an old military radio sits obliquely on an oak boudoir. If you’re ever in HCMC, please make sure to stop by. The place has an indescribable romanticism about it.
On to the next one…
The past week in Saigon has vaulted the city into one of my favorite food locales in the the world, coming only after the basque region. Regardless of what you may think about its political environment or its past, one fact is undeniable – Saigon is a rich city with some amazing things to offer in the way of food and culture. I just landed in Phuket and I’m heading to Krabi later this week. Here I plan on trying the freshest Thai seafood in the south pacific. I will revert back with what I find with another write up, but first things first, as they say about “all work and no play” – I’m jumping on a boat to the Phi Phi islands to take a dip at Maya beach…