Eat & Drink - Saigoneer Sat, 08 May 2021 14:55:27 +0700 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb Hẻm Gems: The Pandemic Kept Her in Vietnam, so She Opened a Thai Eateryẻm-gems-the-pandemic-kept-her-in-vietnam,-so-she-opened-a-thai-eateryẻm-gems-the-pandemic-kept-her-in-vietnam,-so-she-opened-a-thai-eatery

One of the joys of Saigon's F&B scene recently has been the expansion of international cuisine beyond the city center.

Gone are the days when your only option for certain dishes was to head to District 1, or even District 2. Take, for example, Thái Lê Ký. Located down a small hẻm off the Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal, this simple eatery features a spices and herbs cart outside, and a few wooden tables inside.

The decor nods to Thailand through the presence of several Thai flags and portraits of the deceased King Bhumibol Adulyadej (as well as, for some reason, Muhammad Ali and a basketball hoop with no backboard attached to one wall).

Thái Lê Ký is a one-woman show, with Nhi doing the ordering, cooking and serving of food. Before the pandemic, she had lived in Bangkok for over 20 years, where she learned how to cook Thai food and eventually opened her own restaurant. She returned to Vietnam last year and has been unable to return to Thailand, where her restaurant currently sits closed and her family still lives.

"When I opened this place a few months ago, I set low prices so that everyone can come and enjoy," Nhi said. "If it's expensive, how can they come back?"

The prices are indeed amazing, with all but one dish costing VND50,000 or less. The menu features 10 dishes, including Thai staples like tom yam, khao pao and som tum.

We ordered a feast of nearly every item, and Nhi puts great care into her cooking: carefully chopping chilies and crushing peanuts out front, before completing the rest of the preparation in the small kitchen. Just to get it out of the way, the pad Thai, that most stereotypical of Thai dishes, is fine — nothing exciting, and you should definitely focus your attention elsewhere.

The khao pao, for instance, is exceptional, and uses real Thai basil imported from Thailand. The pork is juicy and flavorful, while the fried egg placed on top was the right amount of runny once the yoke was pierced. Be warned, however, that the chilies used in this and the other dishes are potent, and not for the faint of heart. Nhi assured us that she can tailor the spice level to the preference of each diner, so be sure to let her know.

In the spice arena, the gaeng keaw wharn (green curry) took the crown, and actually overwhelmed our palates a bit. Visually, this is a beautiful dish, with bright red chili slices swimming in the opaque green broth.

The tom yam, featuring pork, shrimp and squid, wasn't as hot, and had more of a sour flavor profile. This would definitely be better for those averse to spice.

The roast chicken with Thai sauce and fried rice was something of a surprise, as I haven't had it in Thailand before, but the meaty chicken breast was perfectly cooked, while the sauce added a slightly spicy, smoky touch to it.

In short, everything we had was excellent, with the exception of the pad Thai which, again, wasn't bad, but there are so many better Thai dishes. And Nhi doesn't compromise on flavors either (well, unless you ask for less spice): "I don't mix any Vietnamese ingredients or styles," she said. "I want to do real, original Thai food."

She has certainly done that, creating a must-visit destination for fans of Thai food — or just good food in general — on the border of District 3 and Phu Nhuan.

Thái Lê Ký is open from 9am to 10pm daily and is available on delivery apps.

To sum up:

Taste: 5/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 3/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5

Michael has almost no sense of smell and was an on-screen extra in Jurassic World. You can usually find him with a craft beer in hand.

Thai food

796/11 Truong Sa, D3

]]> (Michael Tatarski. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Fri, 07 May 2021 15:48:45 +0700
The Alluring Backstory of Chả Rươi, Vietnam’s Slimiest Street Food Characterả-rươi,-vietnam’s-slimiest-street-food-characterả-rươi,-vietnam’s-slimiest-street-food-character

In the months leading up to winter in Hanoi, when the temperature starts to drop and a chilly breeze blows through the city, anticipation grows for a rare, unique delicacy — the palolo worm omelet, or chả rươi in Vietnamese.

The dish is made from the palolo worm (rươi) — an unsightly, two-inch-long sea creature. It’s mixed together with tangerine peel, herbs, minced pork and beaten egg before being fried over low heat. What results is an omelet that’s infused with a fruity zest and the rich, caviar-like flavor of rươi, yet avoids any resemblance to its most famous, unpalatable ingredient.

Freshly fried chả rươi in Hanoi. Photo by Julie Vola.

The mystery of the palolo worm

The palolo worm has a mysterious habit of “rising” and appearing in slithering masses on the ocean’s surface, but only on specific days related to the cycle of the moon. In Vietnam, this usually occurs in October and November. Their appearance corresponds with the ninth and tenth months of the lunar calendar. There's an old Vietnamese saying, “Tháng chín đôi mươi, tháng mười mùng năm,” translates as “the 20th day of the ninth month, the fifth day of the tenth month,” and refers to the times of year when a palolo rising can be anticipated, and the worms can be harvested directly from the waves that carry them.

The palolo worm is not unique to Vietnam. It also appears in many countries around the Pacific Ocean, including Japan, China and Indonesia, as well as the South Pacific islands. In fact, the name palolo originates from the Samoan language. In Samoa, the palolo worm is traditionally fried and served with toast, baked into a loaf, or even eaten alive.

In Vietnam, many farmers who had been harvesting rươi for centuries didn’t even know where they came from or why they appeared so suddenly. In reality, the worm is a bottom dweller and, when the time comes for reproduction, as determined by lunar cycles, it grows a detachable reproductive part at its rear, called the epitoke. This is a sac filled with either its sperm, which is brown-grey in color, or its eggs, which are blue-green. The sac then breaks off from the worm and, using its tiny, hair-like tentacles, swims to the surface and gathers with others to reproduce.

A palolo worm on the seabed. Photo via oceana.

Meanwhile, the rest of the worm continues to enjoy an unbothered life on the seabed. It can even grow a new rear part to be released a second time, which is why the “palolo rising” can happen more than once a year. More importantly, this means the harvesting process is sustainable — as humans only catch a number of the adrift sacs, the worms can be consumed without greatly decreasing their population.

Catching and preparing rươi

Without exact knowledge of the days in which the worms would appear, catching rươi used to be a game of hide-and-seek. When they did, those living near the sea would bring their nets, leap into the swarms, and catch them by hand. The worms then became a vital and cherished source of food for the next few days, until they eventually rose again.

More recently, farmers in the northern coastal province of Hai Duong have started populating their lakes and paddy fields with the worms. They can live in the mud, and when they rise each year, the farmers empty the water from the lakes, making them easy to collect. Rươi are rarely eaten by the farmers now, though. Due to their financial value, they are all packed into ice boxes and sold to traders from Hanoi and China.

Before cooking, rươi needs to be boiled to remove their tentacles and fishy smell. The added fragrance from herbs and tangerine helps, too. Traditionally, the peel is dried before use, but it can be added fresh in thin slices. The dried variety, called trần bì, is also a traditional ingredient in Chinese medicine and cuisine, and its use is thought to balance the food and aid digestion.

Cha Ruoi Hung Thinh, a popular chả rươi restaurant in Hanoi. Photo by Julie Vola.

Chả rươi as street food

At home, chả rươi is usually served with rice. When found in street food stalls around Hanoi, however, it is served, much like bún chả, with bundles of rice vermicelli and a bowl of sweet and sour fish sauce. These extras and complement and contrast the fatty taste of the omelet.

One of the most popular and long-running stalls selling this dish is Cha Ruoi Hung Thinh at 1 Hang Chieu Street. You can eat at tables within O Quan Chuong, an ancient gate to the city. They serve two different types of chả rươi, one with a larger proportion of worms, priced at VND30,000, and the other, with fewer worms than pork, at half the price. Those who come purely for the exotic taste of the worm apparently opt for the “more” option, while those who find the idea a bit grim choose the latter. Either way, it’s the season for it right now, so an ideal time to try and worm your way into one of the crowded chả rươi stalls. 

[Top image via YouTube]

]]> (Hieu Tran.) Street Food Fri, 07 May 2021 11:23:59 +0700
Hẻm Gems: A Nasi Lemak in Saigon That Evokes Memories of Hawker Centersẻm-gems-a-nasi-lemak-in-saigon-that-evokes-memories-of-hawker-centersẻm-gems-a-nasi-lemak-in-saigon-that-evokes-memories-of-hawker-centers

As I gaze at the glorious eight-dish Malaysian banquet on our table at Makiucha, perfectly spaced by our photographer, popping with colors and wafting off aromas of rich spices, it becomes apparent to me how much I’ve missed hawker centers.

The immersive, sensory experience of squatting on a pavement while waiting to wolf down a bodacious bún or bag of bánh tráng trộn is something that I wouldn’t change for the world, but at times I daydream of the food paradises within hawker centers where I could eat as diverse and far-reaching a diet as my heart desires. In Vietnam, an iteration of the concept exists in the form of food courts, though these are more often than not sheltered inside sterile and uninspired shopping malls. It’s usually where you grab a quick bite after a movie or shopping spree and where, instead of heartily prepared comfort food, the likes of Lotteria or McDonald’s languish. Hawker centers, a staple in Singapore and Malaysia, are much more affordable, communal and harbor some of the best food that the countries have to offer.

A sumptuous banquet of Malaysian dishes that might bring you to the hawker centers of Malaysia and Singapore.

Makiucha appeared on the Saigon food map just over a year ago in late March while Vietnam was suffering from the first wave of COVID-19 infections. For those who’ve spent time in our Southeast Asian neighbors, the eatery’s menu is a familiar sight, with a number of hawker center classics: nasi lemak, char kway teow and nasi goreng in the savory section; and teh tarik, bandung and Milo Dinosaur in the beverage. Living in Singapore as a student, one of my favorite breakfasts was packets of nasi lemak wrapped in banana leaf washed down with a refreshing glass of teh tarik. Accompanied by the usual hawker food is the cutthroat hawker sport of “seat-choping” — reserving a place at tables using a single almighty packet of tissue or umbrella. Are Malaysian hawker centers less competitive?

The shopfront of Makiucha inside a hẻm on Pasteur Street.

There’s no need to whip out a tissue packet at Makiucha, as a single phone call or Zalo message will suffice, but I highly recommend making a reservation during peak hours because of the place’s limited number of tables. Still, the current location, with its cozy but small dining area, is already a great step up compared to Makiucha’s early days, according to its Malaysian founder, Nigel.

Penang-inspired graffiti and posters of Malay movies as decor.

A marketer by trade, he came to Vietnam four years ago during a vacation. That was also when a connection was sparked with his current Vietnamese girlfriend, Giang. The pair decided to wade into the business realm together with a hospitality enterprise in Saigon providing tours and accommodation for tourists from Malaysia and beyond. When the pandemic hit and devastated the business, much like the rest of the country’s international tourism sector, the pair pivoted to food as a survivalist move, trying to make the best of the situation. The eatery was born first as mainly a takeaway place with scant seating options, though it turned out to be a hit among the Malaysian community in town.

You can smell this image.

Makiucha’s signature dish is no other than Malaysia’s national dish, nasi lemak, a rice platter served alongside cucumber slices, crispy anchovies (ikan bilis), roasted peanuts, fried chicken, a hard-boiled egg, and of course, a dollop of velvety sambal. When asked which dish in the menu he was most surprised that Vietnamese customers enjoy, Nigel immediately named nasi lemak, as he thought that combining rice with a paste like sambal would be foreign to the local palate. If anything, the paste is a great component helping nasi lemak assimilate to Vietnam, the land of a thousand mắm — all of which go incredibly well with rice. Of course it does help that Makiucha’s nasi lemak is a well-crafted creation in itself: aromatic coconut rice and crunchy toppings bolstered by a flavorful homemade sambal. I have never encountered a sambal that I don’t like, the version here included, but I don’t know if that’s more indicative of my immense luck or my shameless easiness when it comes to sambal.

Soft, flavorful chunks of meat make a pleasant rendang (not crispy!)

Another star offering here is the beef rendang, served with roti. Compared to nasi lemak, it is decidedly less familiar to the Vietnamese culinary repertoire. Beef stews in Vietnam generally lean western with a touch of Chinese spices — think bò kho, ragoût, or bò sốt vang. Rendang is much less soupy and much more spice-forward. To make their rendang, the chefs at Makiucha cook Australian sirloin for six hours with a broad combination of spices, including onion, galangal and kerisik, a Nyonya condiment made of caramelized coconut. The result is a thick, golden gravy and soft beef chunks that fall apart with minimal force. There isn’t much heat by way of chilies, but the spices are very present in each bite and linger on in your mouth.

From left to right, up to down: char kway teow, "volcano" nasi goreng (fried rice with ikan bilis and extra spiciness), kari kapitan Nyonya (Peranakan chicken curry), and Pattaya rice.

Much of the cooking at Makiucha is handled by a head chef who’s from Sarawak, a region in northwest Borneo. He used to be a tour guide for the now-suspended tourism business with a strong passion for food and cooking, having used to work for his family’s restaurant back in Malaysia. When the restaurant was conceptualized, it was natural for Nigel and Giang to ask him to step in to handle the cooking operation.

From left to right (unfortunately with slightly melted ice): teh tarik, Milo Dinosaur (less-sweet Milo with Milo powder), and bandung (rose-flavored milk).

More than just a beef stew, rendang is a key cornerstone of Peranakan culture and a culinary mainstay in ceremonial occasions. The term Peranakan refers to people of mixed Chinese and Malay/Indonesian heritage. Academic sources suggest that they are descendants of Chinese traders who married local women in maritime Southeast Asia back in the 15th century. Nigel himself is Peranakan, and he hopes that the existence of Makiucha will help to improve the standing of Malaysian cuisine in the local food scene.

“In Vietnam, there is Singaporean food and Thai food, but Malaysian food is not [popular], so we want to get Malaysian food to the same level of popularity,” he says.

Makiucha is open from 10am to 9pm. 

To sum up:

Taste: 4.5/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 3/5

Khoi loves fried rice, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Malaysian food

1/4 Pasteur, Nguyen Thai Binh Ward, D1

]]> (Khoi Pham. Photos by Le Thai Hoang Nguyen.) Street Food Mon, 26 Apr 2021 11:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Xôi Khâu Nhục, the Cantonese Breakfast for Pork Belly Loversẻm-gems-xôi-khâu-nhục,-the-cantonese-breakfast-for-pork-belly-loversẻm-gems-xôi-khâu-nhục,-the-cantonese-breakfast-for-pork-belly-lovers

I first found out about khâu nhục where I find all my Saigon information: Facebook.

Like a lot of expats here, I use Facebook for basically everything. It's where I get my restaurant recommendations and find out about the latest events in the city. It's where I apartment shop. I buy books from there. It’s my source for all.

I recently joined Chuyện Chợ Lớn, a Facebook group my Cantonese teacher here recommended. She said if I read through the posts, I could learn more about the Hoa (ethnically Chinese) community in the city. I love scrolling through the posts. There are suggestions on different temples to pray at. Lots of posts begin with “tái cá hủ,” a Cantonese greeting meaning “hello, everybody.” Many members share TikTok videos from China, more often than not featuring cheesy Cantonese puns. And, most importantly to me, there are lots of food posts.

One Friday after lunch, I was on my usual food coma social media scroll. I was leaned back as far as I could in my chair, phone held oh-so-delicately in my hand, when I saw a post of a glistening slab of meat with a caption about how the person had finally succeeded in making khâu nhục. I started down a Google rabbit hole to learn more about the dish and quickly became obsessed. When I found out the Chinese name, 扣肉, a spark went off in my head with memories of having eaten a dish of the same name in China. I got excited, and wanted to eat the version sold in Vietnam immediately.

My search eventually led me to a YouTube video filmed at a stall in District 11. I drooled over the footage of pork belly and piping hot sticky rice. A coworker stopped by to ask what I was watching. With a look of disgust on her face, she said: "That looks too fatty." Without thinking, I responded, "I know, it looks amazing, I'm going to eat it tomorrow." She shrugged and walked away. I set my alarm so I could get up early the next day to check it out.

The stall is right at the lip of a hẻm, just deep enough in so that it's not on the street. Coming from the main road, it’s on the left. If you’re having trouble, look for the yellow sign with khâu nhục xôi in red and 扣肉糯米飯 in green. A steady stream of people in motorbikes stop by, taking containers of the dish home. There’s a metal table to eat at, but most people seem to do takeaway.

The dish is simple and comes in at a cheap VND35,000 a serving. It’s a hunk of pork belly resting on a bed of sticky rice and dressed in scallions. Peppers and peanuts are optional. There’s even an option for the addition of chà bông, lạp xưởng or chả for a little extra money. As far as I’m concerned, the dish is perfect as it is, so I don’t get any extras.

What I find remarkable about the flavors in a lot of dishes here is how unremarkable they are. It’s sweet, savory, and spicy, all at the same time. If this stall were in some big city in Europe or the US, I can see the articles now, raving about the chef’s boldness to combine such seemingly incongruent flavors. And for breakfast, of all meals! But here, this is totally natural and normal, and it works so elegantly with such little effort or fanfare.

The little stall is run by a woman born in Saigon. Her family moved from Hai Phong a few decades ago, and have ancestral origins in Guangdong, China. She speaks Cantonese and Vietnamese fluently. If you ask her about her family’s history, she’ll eagerly point to pictures of various family members hanging on the wall, rapidly naming them off. If there aren’t many guests, she might even take out her phone to show you more pictures of more distant relatives.

The stall is open bright and early at 7am. She sells until sold out, which is normally around 11am or 12pm. I recommend getting there early to make sure you get some. Her family has been selling this dish for over 70 years. When I asked how long it takes her to make the meat every day, she said 10 hours. In response to my look of surprise, she put down her phone and raised all her fingers and said, "That’s right, 10 hours."

The stall owner is a savvy businessperson. The first time I visited, she noticed I was taking photos with my phone and immediately invited me to stand inside her home, telling me that the angle was better from there. She was right. The moment she saw that we were taking pictures for this article, she grabbed the largest pan of meat she had and displayed it eagerly. While she prepared our dishes, she placed the meat across the rice photogenically, and she made sure to grab extra juicy pieces. Even if you aren’t going to take pictures, don’t worry. Every piece is juicy and excellent.

The first time I went, I opted to sit down to eat. The shop is family-run, and the entire family is kind and has a healthy dose of Vietnamese curiosity. As I sat there, one of the sisters running the shop asked me the typical string of questions I get asked here in Vietnamese, “Do you have a girlfriend, yet?” “Are you married?” “How old are you?” “What do you do here?”

When new members of the family or neighbors appeared, they recounted my information to the new arrivals in Cantonese — “He’s 26, he teaches English, but he’s not married.” When I was struggling to rip apart the sinewy pork belly with just a fork and spoon, they immediately went to grab a knife. I love places like this in Vietnam, where people have time to sit on a street, chat, and watch the world go by. I feel so fortunate that I get to take the occasional Saturday morning to eat and sit and watch the world go by too.

I’ve seen the name for this dish a few different ways online. Some people write khâu nhục, others write thịt khâu nhục, and still others call it nằm khâu. Of these names, thịt khâu nhục is my favorite. Thịt means meat, and khâu nhục comes directly from the Chinese word 扣肉. It sounds pretty different from the Mandarin pronunciation, but it’s very close to the Cantonese reading of these characters. The character 肉 also means meat. So in the name, you have Vietnamese word for meat as well as a Sino-Vietnamese word for meat. Maybe it seems repetitive to have two different words for “meat” in one name, but I like how it reveals the Cantonese origins of a dish now localized in Vietnam.

Like so many eateries in Saigon, this xôi khâu nhục stall is unassuming. The stall owner sells one thing, and sells it really well. It’s the perfect place to grab a quick bite in the morning, or to grab some takeaway to eat for lunch. The neighborhood it’s located in is interesting, fanned out in concentric U’s that leave plenty of hẻms to wander around after a filling meal.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Brendan hails from the state of Mississippi and is working on eating so many dumplings he turns into one. He also loves ice cream and is constantly on the lookout for new coffee shops to waste away an afternoon in.

Xôi khâu nhục

259 Lanh Binh Thang, Q12, District 11

]]> (Brendan Ryan. Photos by Alberto Prieto and Le Thai Hoang Nguyen.) Street Food Sat, 17 Apr 2021 10:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: The Oldest Hủ Tiếu Bò Viên in Townẻm-gems-the-oldest-hủ-tiếu-bò-viên-in-townẻm-gems-the-oldest-hủ-tiếu-bò-viên-in-town

With only three dishes on the menu, this hủ tiếu spot has been running for more than five decades.

Even though it doesn’t have any grand name or eye-catching design, the consistency in the is the central appeal to its longstanding reputation.

Whether it is a rainy day or an extremely humid day at Saigon, Hủ Tiếu Bò Viên 153 is often packed with customers. The unchanging taste of the noodles seems to be the best selling point of the store. Thus, prior to our arrival, I was anxious whether we would have a table to enjoy our Friday after-work meal.

Luckily, we were the only ones there at the time, a surprising scene for this usually crowded place. It had been three years since my last visit, and it still looks the same as how I remember it even from ten years ago — the same chairs and tables, with a hidden aquarium along the back wall. Indeed, time seems to have stopped here.

When I was a child, my grandma would always take me here and order a portion of meatballs for my evening meal: it is my grandmother’s favorite restaurant. Despite her reputation for being a stingy grandma, in the early 2000s she was willing to spend VND30,000 for a bowl of noodle soup with only three meatballs. Over the nearly 20 years that I've been coming back, the chef still offers only three meatballs, no more, no less.

This consistency is a theme for Hủ Tiếu Bò Viên 153, even while many restaurants continuously change their menu to keep diners interested. The longstanding three dishes are noodle soup with meatballs (hủ tiếu bò viên), noodle soup with assorted meats (hủ tiếu thập cẩm), and noodle soup with beef flank (hủ tiếu tái nạm). The three dishes use the same soup base; thus, the only difference between them is their toppings.

Some might say that the menu is boring; however, the meatball is a crucial ingredient for its success. Since the meatball is the signature food of this place, the most popular dish here is the hủ tiếu bò viên. Unlike most bò viên elsewhere, these are chewy and juicy, with the signature taste of Chinese spices and herbs. Moreover, the flavor is not too strong: the cook seasons the bò viên with the right amount of spices so that you still taste the savory flavor of the beef, along with the pungent soup base.

When I asked the store’s owner about the secret that has created his 60-year legacy, he proudly said: “We just keep everything the same.” During the 1960s, the current owner’s brother founded the shop with the three noodle dishes after migrating to Vietnam from China. The spectacular taste of Chinese spices was the primary selling point back then. After the owner’s brother passed down the business to him, he vowed to preserve the taste regardless of the circumstances. As he now plans to give the business to his niece, the same preservation principle will also be passed down.

The only thing that has changed about this place is the price. To keep up with inflation, the price has increased substantially over the years, with a relatively small bowl of hủ tiếu bò viên now costing VND65,000. Hence, many online food reviewers complain about the rising price despite no changes being made to the dishes or the taste. However, for many old customers, the price increase is reasonable. They are still willing to pay extra money for their favorite dish. With more than 50 years of building loyal customers, the store has already established a strong reputation for its quality. In fact, they have even expanded their business by distributing bò viên to other vendors.

Hủ Tiếu Bò Viên 153 opens every day, but only from 4pm to 10pm. Whenever I visit, the owner is the one doing the cooking.

To sum up

Taste: 4/5

Location: 5/5

Friendliness: 4/5

Price: 3/5 — VND65,000

Atmosphere - 4/5

Tran is a milk tea addict with a weird obsession over raccoons. In her free time, she drinks milk tea while watching documentaries about raccoons.

Noodles with beef and meatballs

153 Vĩnh Viễn, Ward 4, D10

]]> (Huynh Bao Tran Nguyen. Photos by Le Thai Hoang Nguyen.) Street Food Fri, 09 Apr 2021 15:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Nha Trang's 22-Year-Old Bánh Canh Cá Sings the Praises of the Seaẻm-gems-nha-trang-s-22-year-old-bánh-canh-cá-sings-the-praises-of-the-seaẻm-gems-nha-trang-s-22-year-old-bánh-canh-cá-sings-the-praises-of-the-sea

Traveling in Nha Trang wouldn't be complete without tasting this delicious bowl of bánh canh which makes you enjoy eating almost every part of the fish, from its meat to its organs.

This dish has been part of many Nha Trang people’s daily meals, and it makes for such a complete, memorable fish soup bowl in this fishery beach city. You can grab this bánh canh at the corner of Trần Văn Ơn and Yersin street, and the eatery has existed there for more than 20 years.

One normal serving of bánh canh costs VND30,000. It contains chả cá (grilled chopped fish), lòng cá (fish organ), trứng cá (fish roe), cá dầm (steamed fish meat) and trứng cút (quail egg). The fish ingredients are from tuna and many other kinds of fish. If you want, you can get a special serving that costs VND40,000 and additional ingredients will be added for a greater experience, like da heo (pork skin) and chả lụa (Vietnamese pork sausage or pork bologna).

“She can make a variety of cooking styles from fish. The cook really makes use of the local natural resources from Nha Trang’s sea for this dish. She doesn’t import ingredients from somewhere else, but uses original products available locally and makes a disparate combination of fish meal in one bowl. It’s a great and interesting blend,” Hồ Đăng Tiến said.

Tiến is from Huế and now works in Nha Trang as a cable TV engineer. He has been eating at this place for almost 20 years. He recalled that he was still young and single the first time he ate here. Now he’s married with two children, and he still enjoys eating this bánh canh. For him, eating here a few times a week has become his favorite routine habit. “The fish flavor of the soup emits a deliciously fragrant smell and I don’t get bored eating it. Truly, it makes the typical taste of this seaside city,” Tiến added.

The most memorable thing is that this bánh canh street eatery has been located in the same spot for years. The owner hasn’t moved her business elsewhere and it has become a familiar place of people living in Nha Trang.

Lâm Thi, an immigrant from Quảng Ngãi living in Nha Trang, has eaten at this place for 20 years. He said: “This bánh canh place has become a famous brand by itself in Nha Trang. Everybody calls it ‘Bánh canh Trần Văn Ơn.’ You can find bánh canh in some restaurants within Nha Trang, but no other place can be compared to this street eatery. This one is the most delicious I have ever tried.”

“One of the most interesting things is that this is a street eatery located on the sidewalk. It has a friendly open atmosphere and is not covered with walls, like the restaurants. Inside some restaurants, you may be treated with different attitudes according to your appearance. However this street eatery always happily welcomes everybody and its prices are affordable,” Mai Thanh Trung said.

Trung is from Ninh Hoà and works around Khánh Hoà Province as a medical representative. Every time he gets the chance to work in Nha Trang, he never fails to visit to enjoy a bowl of bánh canh. Ten years ago, he first ate here when he was studying as a vocational student. Now he is studying to upgrade himself and get a bachelor's degree while working. He said that  Điệp, the owner Bánh canh Trần Văn Ơn, has fed him for the last 10 years.

“She has treated me like her son. Most often, she serves me more food than normal to make sure that I am satisfied and my stomach is full. There are times when she would also let me eat for free when I was short on cash,” he smiled and shared. “I feel this bánh canh is like my delicious homecoming dish and this street eatery is like my family. Whenever I’m still in Nha Trang, I come to eat it. If I would stay far away, I think that I would have to ask Mrs. Điệp to deliver this food to me.”  

Điệp is the nickname of Nguyễn Thị Minh Trang, an original Nha Trang resident. She is 65 years old and she has run this bánh canh spot since 1999, when the price was just VND1,000 per serving.

She has five children, two of whom have passed away, while two daughters got married. Now she lives with her husband and son. Her husband is 70 years old and a veteran of the American War. She didn’t want to share much further about her son and just simply said that he has an illness.

Trang is the only one who supports her family financially. “I sit here to run this street eatery from 10:30am to about 5pm every day. My skin has adapted to the heavy heat of the sun. I just wish that I’m always healthy to keep working to support my family. I’m not confident that my food is one of the most delicious in this city, but I think that god has blessed my business a lot. That’s why many locals and tourists visit my eatery,” she said.

She shared that she loves her work so much and selling on the street like this makes her happy. Sometimes her close and loyal customers would pass by and would tease her: “Hello Bà Tám. You are still alive and working. When will you retire?” She would tease back: “I will retire when I am inside the coffin.”

“Bà Tám” is another nickname of Trang. As to why she got this dear nickname, here is the reason: Many high school students often visit here as a favorite place to eat. They also spend a lot of time sitting here to chat. Vietnamese calls someone ”Bà Tám” (Madame Eight) if one loves chatting and gossiping a lot.

“There are two high schools near here. After class, many students often come to my place to eat and ‘tám.’ They all wear white uniforms and they look like a herd of storks that flock here every evening,” Mrs. Tám poetically shared.

A hospital is nearby too, and people often come to eat bánh canh and she always serves her food for free to patients with a serious illness. “The rich people can do charity using their money, but since I don’t have much money I give them bowls of bánh canh. It makes me feel happy when I have a chance to be the giver,” bà Tám said.

This fish soup bowl has stayed deeply in the memories of Nha Trang people not only because it is delicious, but also because it is filled with friendliness and the love.

Bánh Canh Cá Trần Văn Ơn is open from 9am to 9pm.

Bánh canh cá

Intersection of Yersin and Tran Van On

]]> (Tran Duy Minh. Photos by Tran Duy Minh.) Street Food Sat, 03 Apr 2021 11:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Quy Nhon's Unique Take on Bánh Khọt and Peanut Sauceẻm-gems-quy-nhon-s-unique-take-on-bánh-khọt-and-peanut-sauceẻm-gems-quy-nhon-s-unique-take-on-bánh-khọt-and-peanut-sauce

You’ve probably never had bánh khọt like this before.

One of the great joys of traveling is exploring local specialties: bánh mì xíu mại in Da Lat, cao lầu in Hoi An or chả rươi in Hanoi. When Saigoneer recently took a trip to Quy Nhon, one would assume the top restaurant on our list would be serving the bánh xèo, bánh hỏi or cháo lòng the city is famous for. And indeed, that has been the case in the past. But this time we were most eager to sample some bánh khọt.

Bánh khọt, those crisp discs of dough topped with shrimp and accompanied by herbs and dipped in fish sauce, is popular in the south, with Vung Tau at the epicenter. So when a colleague tipped us off that there was a popular place in Quy Nhon serving them up, we were intrigued, but a little skeptical.

The nameless bánh khọt spot at 19 Han Thuyen didn’t immediately instill confidence. Situated across the street from a school and surrounded by a familiar scramble of tạp hóa, eateries and shops, it contains only four tables and none of the telltale signs of a popular eatery, like a gaggle of Grab drivers waiting for delivery orders. If it hadn’t been recommended, we probably would have passed by without giving it a second look.

When the first “mixed” plate of bánh khọt arrived, however, we knew we were in for something special. In addition to the familiar bánh khọt topped with little shrimps and quail eggs, were ones with full squids and others that featured a large smattering of beef with wood-ear mushrooms. 

Beef bánh khọt?

Bánh khọt isn’t one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes. Too often the subtle crustacean flavors are overwhelmed by the pork lard used to fry them, resulting in grease pucks whose only enjoyment comes from the herbs and fish sauce they are dunked in. Tasty, but I might as well just make fish sauce herb soup.

The addition of beef and mushrooms changes everything. The stronger flavors cut through the grease, producing a more significant dining experience. It helps that this location doesn’t overdo it on the oil to begin with, and thus the more conventional shrimp or egg varieties will certainly thrill bánh khọt enthusiasts. 

While praising the inclusion of beef, the novelty of the squid must not be overlooked. I have a theory that animals can be either interesting or delicious, but not both (jellyfish are fascinating but not tasty; catfish are boring but scrumptious). Some squid’s internal organs produce phosphorescent light that distracts predators, some squid ink contains the dopamine that gives humans a natural high, and the end of a male squid’s arms serves as a penis. Incredible, right? Which means it isn’t especially delicious. Sure, it can be involved in great dishes, but on its own, it’s dull. 

So while the lackluster cephalopod bánh khọt might not be on par with the beef version, its texture adds a new dimension to the dish. And if you subscribe to my theory, seeing the bright purple creatures on your table at least provides a chance to marvel at the species’ many charms.

But the joys of XYZ restaurant, as I'll call it, don’t stop at the beef. As I already noted, I love the fish sauce typically served with bánh khọt, but what I love even more is the peanut sauce confoundingly relegated to the central region. The rich, nutty sauce adds great complexity to whatever one dips into it, and bánh khọt is no exception. It was a great joy to see a large container of it on the table.

But back to the beef. How did this delightful regional remix happen? The establishment’s owner, Huy, explained that he is originally from Vung Tau. Four years ago he gave up his job as a bike mechanic and moved to Quy Nhon and opened up shop, tailoring the bánh khọt to local preferences and thus the peanut sauce and the squids. And once any semblance of traditional flavors were abandoned, you might as well add beef because of how good it tastes.

Such stories of migration, availability of different ingredients and innovation explain how Vietnamese cuisine is ever in flux with new versions and dishes taking shape all the time, like phở cuốn in Hanoi or bánh tráng nướng Đà Lạt. A meal at XYZ is a nice reminder that it’s worthwhile to explore how different regions interpret dishes that may have strayed far from their places of origin. 

Moreover, if dozens of these Hẻm Gems over the years haven’t quite convinced you that some of the best meals are found in the most mundane locations, XYZ could do it. A few plastic tables and chairs on the street, dozens of mismatched chopsticks clustered in a cup, a giant jar of fish sauce and, best of all, thin pieces of paper serving as napkins: this place provides all the many charms of Vietnamese street food. And that includes affordability. A plate of the mixed bánh khọt, which could satisfy the average diner, runs just VND25,000. The husband and wife team are exceedingly accommodating as well, checking on if you need a complimentary refilling of any of the herbs or pickled vegetables that pair with the bánh khọt

But there’s even more to a trip to XYZ! Situated next door is a juice stand that serves incredible sữa chua nếp cẩm (fresh yogurt with black sticky rice). Not only is it delicious, but it’s a healthy dessert that can make you feel better for having had an oily meal. 

If you go during the afternoon, you can enjoy the nostalgic scene of parents parking their motorbikes waiting for their children. When we visited, a few families had decided to stop at XYZ for an after-school snack. It’s possible that for some of the young children the beef and squid bánh khọt dipped in peanut sauce might be the only version of the dish they know, and they’ll be disappointed to learn one day that it’s not found elsewhere. That is a pretty cool way to think about the evolution of cuisine.

Bánh Xèo Bánh Khọt Hàn Thuyên is open from 2pm to 8pm (could close sooner if stock runs out).

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 5/5

Atmosphere: 4.5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Paul Christiansen is a Saigon-based writer. Read more at his website.

Bánh khọt

19 Han Thuyen, Hai Cang Ward, Quy Nhon

]]> (Paul Christiansen. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Sun, 28 Mar 2021 08:00:00 +0700
2 Vietnamese Restaurants in Saigon, Hanoi Named Among Asia's 100 Best,-hanoi-named-among-asia-s-100-best,-hanoi-named-among-asia-s-100-best

Vietnam’s culinary prowess is no secret, with its traditional dishes helping to draw tourists from all over the globe. 

But the country’s fine dining scene has quickly earned a reputation for itself on its own right, culminating in two restaurants being named on a regional "Best of" list.

Despite the moniker “Asia's 50 Best Restaurants,” the list — in its ninth iteration  actually ranks the top 100 across the continent. For this edition, Anan Saigon and Hanoi’s T.U.N.G. Dining came in at No. 38 and No. 98, respectively. It is the first time since 2013 that any eatery in Vietnam has made this list; previously Don's in Hanoi placed at No. 47.

Anan Saigon, led by Chef Peter Cuong Franklin, has earned praise for rethinking Vietnamese staples, elevating them through the use of premium ingredients and creative cooking techniques. The restaurant has thus become an important culinary node within Ton That Dam’s old market.

In the capital, T.U.N.G. (“Twisted, Unique, Natural and Gastronomique”) Dining’s Nordic, minimalist interior is the site of elaborate 18-course dinners prepared by Hoang Tung and his kitchen team. The same group launched Å by TUNG earlier this year in Saigon.

According to the voting criteria, selections for “Asia's 50 Best Restaurants” were made by a group of over 300 industry leaders divided into six regions: India & Subcontinent; South-East Asia – South; South-East Asia – North; Hong Kong, Taiwan & Macau; mainland China & Korea; Japan.

Each region has a panel of 53 members — comprising "food writers and critics, chefs, restaurateurs and highly regarded foodies" — led by a chairperson. Restaurants could not apply to be considered nor did the program’s sponsors have any sway over the selections.

Four other Vietnam restaurants were named in the unranked section based on recommendations from the chefs of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2020 and 2021: Hanoi’s Pho Gia Truyen, Saigon’s Ngoc Suong Seafood & Bar, Pizza 4P's and Madam Khanh – The Banh Mi Queen in Hoi An.

[Top photos via Vietnam Tourism and T.U.N.G dining

]]> (Saigoneer.) Food Culture Fri, 26 Mar 2021 15:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: From Ohio to D7, the Serendipitous Story of Saigon's Lamb Phởẻm-gems-from-ohio-to-d7,-the-serendipitous-story-of-saigon-s-lamb-phởẻm-gems-from-ohio-to-d7,-the-serendipitous-story-of-saigon-s-lamb-phở

A highlight of my last visit to Phở Lạc Việt was a special moment when I reached out and the tips of my fingers touched a warm bowl inside the heating cabinet.

The warming contraption is meant to ward off germ growth and help the soup retain its ideal heat for longer. Most casual eateries in Vietnam are rarely this hardcore, and the amenity serves as one of many testaments to its owner Nguyễn Nhật Thăng’s palpable passion for restauranteurship. For as long as I’ve written about food in Saigon, I’ve learnt that there’s always a fascinating story behind how and why local chefs decide to get their culinary creations out there for our munching pleasures, the challenging part sometimes is how to get them talking about that passion. Thăng’s affable demeanor makes this a non-issue; the friendly chef and owner of Phở Lạc Việt is always down to discuss his food with any patron who expresses an interest, not just because they’re writing an article about it.

Phở cừu (top right), phở gà (bottom left) and bánh mì phở (bottom right).

Lạc Việt is based on the ground floor of an apartment block in southern Saigon so close to Nha Be that if one so much as blinks on the drive there, the edge of the city is already in sight. Phở is among the few Vietnamese dishes that perhaps has lost much of its mystery. It’s ever-present, dependable and comforting, but not very exciting. You can trust a bowl of phở to have your back if you feel peckish after a night out or in need of some curative warming broth, not very often can it surprise you. Lately, rumors of a newly opened lamb phở joint in Saigon pinged my novelty radar, so one sweltering Saturday afternoon I found myself traversing the absurdly spacious avenues of District 7 to get a slurp of the elusive phở cừu.

In between shabby neighborhood coffee shops and ornate villas, the red-white banners and outdoor dining area of Phở Lạc Việt don’t appear too much out of the ordinary. The menu, on the other hand, features some atypical grounds that few phở eateries have ever trodden, like phở cừu and bánh mì phở, among other staples like phở gà and tái nạm.

Clear broth is a feature at Phở Lạc Việt.

A bowl of lamb phở features every usual element of its beef counterpart, albeit with lamb instead of beef slices. The broth is made of conventional beef bones, as lamb bones are too rare in Vietnam, according to Thăng. Its clarity in both flavor and texture is commendable. With every sip, notes of cloves, cinnamon and onion fill my nose, while the strong beef umami taste makes it hard to stop slurping. The morsels of cừu are quite tender, retaining that distinctive lamb aroma without overwhelming the taste.

A common complaint deterring Vietnamese palates from appreciating mutton is this odor. To avoid this problem, Thăng shared that he seeks spring lamb from Australia, which comes from sheep not older than six months. All told, Lạc Việt’s phở cừu is a carefully crafted invention that will no doubt earn showers of praise at house parties and potlucks, but it’s not so spectacular to justify frequent treks to District 7. Admittedly, I am not a huge phở fan; if I’m in a pinch, I would gladly sit down for a sizzling bowl at the shop right around the corner, but I rarely crave it.

Bits of stir-fried lamb are piled on top of the noodles.

What I’ve been craving recently, however, is Phở Lạc Việt’s bánh mì phở — a standard baguette stuffed with slices of gầu bò, herbs and condiments. As far as deconstructed phở goes, this is not even the wackiest, compared to the plethora of phở-inspired gelato, cocktails and burgers I’ve sampled. Gầu, the fatty part of the brisket, is braised with spices, sliced and then submerged in the broth to keep it juicy until it’s added to the bánh mì. A loaf comes with heaps of ngò gai (culantro) and a healthy drizzle of hoisin sauce and homemade chili sauce that bears a subtle sourness.

Preparing bánh mì phở.

At VND80,000, it will likely be the most expensive bánh mì you’ve ever eaten, but the amount of beef inside is appropriate for the price tag. If phở’s century-old reputation as Vietnam’s national dish is any indication, its flavor combination is a tried-and-true classic with all fundamental tastes — salty meat and sauce, sweet hoisin, spicy and sour tương ớt, and umami meat. The crunch of bánh mì rectifies the lack of textures that phở noodle soup usually features.

Phở Lạc Việt is a relative newcomer to the Saigon food scene, having opened only in October last year, but its name harks back to over a decade of Thăng’s phở legacy that started in Columbus, Ohio. Thăng was born in Saigon, but he came to the US in April 1975 with his parents, sister and three brothers. They first lived in the Fort Chaffey refugee camp in Arkansas. Another family living at the same site was sponsored by the Lutheran Church, but they declined the offer. Thăng’s family took it and was relocated to Columbus where he went to school and later started a career in the US Postal Service.

Happy patrons from a local medical center in Columbus, Ohio queuing for Lạc Việt's takeaway cups of phở in 2013. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Nhật Thăng.

After retiring, Thăng turned to his life-long passion for food by opening the first iteration of Lạc Việt in Columbus, which over time spawned mobile food carts and other stints at cafeterias and food fairs. The menu almost always included hot phở and bánh mì — prized creations that have marked the Lạc Việt name from then until now. Thăng acknowledged his late mother’s influence in the formation of his own phở recipe. The family has roots in Nam Dinh Province and he was born in Saigon, but the chef shared that his phở doesn’t follow a distinctive style. Still, Thăng was adamant in assuring me that his phở philosophy is free of flavoring agents, MSG or sugar on principle.

A young Thăng behind the counter in Ohio in 2007. Photo courtesy of Nguyễn Nhật Thăng.

With just a short chat with Thăng, anyone could see that he’s extremely serious about restauranteurship. Our chat had a ten-minute intermission so he could show me industrial-grade electric kettles on his phone and rave about their effectiveness in producing superior broth. At one point, we detoured to the kitchen to visit the warming cabinet housing clean bowls and the sink that’s equipped with hot water to sanitize hands. He also makes his own chili sauce by fermenting fresh chili peppers. The sauce bottles at Phở Lạc Việt, hilariously, carry a warning label — “our chili sauce is very spicy, don’t add too much.” The condiment, indeed, was potent. Even though I already heeded the label’s advice, the brightly colored concoction still did a number on my unassuming taste buds.

“Making phở requires its own unique process and a lot of passion. Not any layman can randomly decide to do it,” he told me. Coming from anyone else, this might sound like tired platitudes, but I believed it when he said it.

I touched one of those bowls! Sorry random diner.

We all know the delightful episode of history that led to Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin. In the grand scheme of things, how Lạc Việt came to include lamb in its phở was undoubtedly less instrumental to the advancement of mankind, but it was no less serendipitous. It all started during the restaurant’s early years in the US, Thăng reminisced. One day, the place welcomed a local patron who had visited Hanoi before and thus had a hankering for the special phở served by the incomparable Phở Thìn. Instead of merely layering beef slices onto the noodles, Phở Thìn traditionally stir-fries the meat with garlic and onions — a style known as phở tái lăn. He requested that Thăng make an exception and replicate that method for his portion.

The chef obliged and got a line cook to fry up some beef they had already marinated. When Thăng checked the bowl afterwards, he noticed that something was amiss: the cook accidentally stir-fried lamb instead of beef. A replacement was quickly ordered for the hungry patron while Thăng decided he would eat the errant meat himself as a meal.

“When I tried it, I thought to myself: ‘How delicious!’ It [lamb] really fits phở,” he recalled. “After that I just put lamb phở up as a daily special because I don’t know if anyone would like it. But over time, everyone started ordering lamb phở way more than beef so I decided it would be a permanent menu item.”

Phở has been the centerpiece of Thăng’s career for a long time, so he’s tasted a myriad of phở renditions across Vietnam during his trips back. In mid-December of 2019, he landed in Saigon with the goal to experience the Christmas season in tropical southern Vietnam. “Christmas in Saigon is very fun. You live here, you know how it is,” he told me. “The city is very empty during Christmas in America because everybody spends time indoors with their family. Here people head to the street to celebrate. I went to Tân Định Church and it was packed!”

Phở Lạc Việt at night.

A few months later, the coronavirus descended upon us and Thăng had a crucial choice to make: to stay or to return. He picked the former, which turned out to be the right decision. Living in District 7, one day he spotted a commercial space available for rent in the neighborhood, and the rest is history.

Making phở from scratch is a tall order, as any sterling home cook would tell you, so I’m always grateful to live in a place where it’s present at every street corner, always hot and ready to remedy the toughest of hangovers. Phở cừu may not be for everyone, but if you’re ever bored of the basics, Phở Lạc Việt’s novel creations are worthy of at least one try.

Phở Lạc Việt is open from 6:30am to 9pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 3/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi loves noodles, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Lamb phở and bánh mì phở

38 Street 17, Tan Phu Ward, D7

]]> (Khôi Phạm. Photos by Lê Thái Hoàng Nguyên and Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Mon, 22 Mar 2021 17:00:00 +0700
Binh Duong, a Surprising Oasis of Taiwanese Snacks and Chinese Dumplings,-a-surprising-oasis-of-taiwanese-snacks-and-chinese-dumplings,-a-surprising-oasis-of-taiwanese-snacks-and-chinese-dumplings

This is part 2 of our two-part series on Taiwanese and Chinese food in Binh Duong. Read part one here.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about two restaurants in Binh Duong — one Chinese, one Taiwanese — that are well worth a vist. Those are far from the only worthy eateries in the area though, and this article will focus on four snack-able options in Thuan An City in Bình Duong, 25 kilometers north of Saigon.

The fried stuff

The road naming conventions around here odd, but on what appears to be Street D20 is an open-front spot selling fried delicacies such as dumplings and scallion pancakes wrapped around an omelet, as well as seafood congee and a number of herbal teas. Prices are cheap in the VND15,000–30,000 range, and food is as delicious as you'd expect fried dough to be.

The women who run the place weren't working at full capacity when we showed up in the middle of the afternoon, so this would be best in the morning or during the lunch hour.

And, once you've stuffed yourself with fried treats, the spacious Yarn Coffee across the street is a great spot to digest a bit. Owned by a Chinese textile manufacturer, this comfortable business somehow manages to sell coffee, bubble tea, furniture, and high-end cycling and golf equipment.

The guts

On nearby Street D33, one can find another example of strange business combinations. Here, Trà Sữa T&T (located next to C13 Street D33), a fruit juice/bubble tea shop, doubles as a phá lấu outlet with a Taiwanese twist. Next to the entrance, a display case presents customers with a variety of protein options, from delicious braised tofu and pork to intestines and other organs for more adventurous eaters.

Once you've made a selection, the staff slices it up, mixes it with a heaping handful of spices, herbs and Taiwanese seasoning, and presents the result in a cardboard container. These dishes have a nice spicy kick to them, especially if you add in the chili sauce served on the side.

If you're there after 3pm, you'll notice a cart on the pavement next door with TAIWANBURGER emblazoned across the top. Somewhat confusingly, they don't serve burgers: instead, Bánh Nướng Gấu Đài Loan offers small cakes cooked in circular molds and filled with sweet and savory options, including Oreo, coconut, chocolate, and egg with cheese.

These are popular after-school snacks in Taiwan, and here they cost just VND10,000–15,000. I would personally recommend the custard or red bean varieties, but the world is your oyster, as they say. The small cakes are a perfect snack in between courses, as they aren't particularly filling, but they will satisfy your sweet tooth.

The dumplings

The final stop on our food tour is Bánh Bao Nhất Phẩm Phong, around the corner from Yarn Coffee. The humble restaurant is run by Liu, a Chinese woman who moved to Binh Duong from Yangzhou, northwest of Shanghai, with her family two years ago. They ran a restaurant in China, and continued the tradition in Vietnam.

We were already very full from the day's eating, but the menu (which is only in Chinese and Vietnamese) was too tempting to ignore. In addition to several kinds of traditional dumplings — all made in-house — a line of freezers contains frozen dumplings, scallion pancakes and other goodies that customers can purchase to enjoy at home later.

An order of xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) and another order of bao quickly arrived, and it was immediately apparent that Liu knows what she is doing. Xiaolongbao is a tricky dish — not that I could even attempt to make it — but there is fine line between them being too soupy, or not soupy enough: you don't want one completely exploding in your mouth, or burst before it even makes it that far, but you also don't want it to be dried out.

These were just right: tough enough to survive the journey from basket to mouth, yet tender enough to melta apart on the first bite.

Street D33, which is home to most of the locations in this article, also features several convenience stores and shops that sell instant noodles, sauces, tea, beer and other goods imported from Taiwan and not easily found in Saigon. It's dangerously easy to come away with bags full of food and drink from the island nation — a real treat for people like me who are huge fans of the place.

Chinese and Taiwanese snacks

Thuan An City

]]> (Michael Tatarski. Photos by Michael Tatarski.) Food Culture Sun, 07 Mar 2021 15:00:00 +0700
A Journey into Binh Duong's Deep Chinese & Taiwanese Flavors

Believe it or not, there is more to Binh Duong than just industrial parks producing your next Uniqlo T-shirt or pair of running shoes.

Be honest: when was the last time you really thought about Binh Duong? Have you ever even considered it? Though it neighbors Saigon, I'm guessing most city residents rarely spare a thought for the province, unless they work in manufacturing.

Of course, this industrial image isn't wrong: QL13, which stretches north from Binh Thanh District into Binh Duong, is lined with factories and huge manufacturing zones. This doesn't make for pleasant scenery, but thanks to the vicissitudes of global supply chains, there is a large population of Chinese and Taiwanese factory managers and workers in the area.

This has given rise to a diversity of restaurant options that would likely stun a Saigoneer who has only ever driven through Binh Duong on the way to somewhere else (I'm including myself in that camp, for the record).

Cholon is famed for its Chinese cuisine, and there are certainly many wonderful options there, but they generally fit in the same rather narrow band of Chinese food. Binh Duong has a far greater variety - a variety that extends across the Taiwan Strait from mainland China to a personal favorite nation of mine. 

However, these restaurants are not easy to find for the uninitiated, and their menus are only in Chinese and Vietnamese, so over the course of two features I'm going to provide a small guide for adventurous eaters willing to look beyond the borders of Saigon.

The hotpot

I'm not shy about the fact that I'm not a big fan of hotpot. The preferred dish of weddings and banquets generally just doesn't do it for me, especially in the tropical climes of southern Vietnam.

Moving forward I will make an exception for the offering from Quán Ăn Trùng Khánh, a humble restaurant at the entrance to the Viet Huong Industrial Park. The eatery, which uses the Vietnamese name for the Chinese province of Sichuan, falls into the 'substance over style' category, as its peeling walls, faded curtains, anemic air conditioning and aggressive lighting don't create a very gentle ambiance.

But that's not the point. The point is flavor, and the kitchen serves that in spades through its Sichuan hotpot.

The signature dish, lẩu uyên ương, is divided into two halves in the serving pot at the center of each table: one half is an opaque bone broth with tomatoes, onions and Chinese herbs, and the other features a broth absolutely packed with powerful Sichuan peppers.

Diners can choose what to add from a menu with over 80 items, with prices ranging from VND38,000 for corn to VND328,000 for goat meat.

We went with three types of mushrooms (nấm kim châm and nấm), tofu (đậu hủ non), tofu skin (đậu hủ ky), blood cakes (huyết), taro (khoai môn), thinly sliced lamb and beef (dê miếng and bò miếng), pig intestine (thú linh), and an assortment of herbs. As the hotpot comes to a boil, assemble your custom sauce configuration from the provided Taiwanese sate sauce, sesame sauce, garlic and fermented tofu paste. Drop your ingredients into the hotpot, let them cook, remove, dip and eat.

I'll include a disclaimer here that Quán Ăn Trùng Khánh's hotpot is not for the faint of heart. The chili broth doesn't punch you in the face like a hot chicken wing; instead, the deep, powerful spice numbs your mouth to a degree. Anyone who doesn't like spice probably shouldn't attempt this, but those who can handle the heat are in for a rewarding Sichuanese experience that I haven't been able to find in Saigon before.

A good strategy is to alternate bites of the pepper broth with spoonfuls of the more balanced bone broth, which will give your taste buds a moment of reprieve.

We also ordered a plate of dumplings (bánh bao nhỏ), but they were on the doughy side - much closer to an actual bánh bao than dim sum, and I'd advise simply focusing on the hotpot and the dozens of potential components on offer. As for drinks, iced tea is complimentary, while herbal tea, Heineken and Tiger beer are also available. Expect to sweat, so you'll need to stay hydrated.

The banquet

Further up QL13 sits Điền Gia Quán, which presents a far different atmosphere from Quán Ăn Trùng Khánh. Turn into the restaurant's plant-fringed compound, and the highway noise quickly fades away.

This banquet-style Taiwanese business has dining rooms for parties ranging in size from six to 150 and is very popular with Chinese-speaking businesspeople in the area as well as, according to the manager, Japanese and Korean groups celebrating successful deals. As a result, making a reservation in advance is recommended.

Điền Gia Quán is owned by a Taiwanese parent company known on the island for their frozen hot pot products. This outpost, which opened two years ago, serves an expansive menu overseen by Chef Tang, who was brought in from Kaohsiung specifically to run the kitchen. Other than imported seasonings, almost everything on the menu is sourced locally.

Chef Tang's offerings span several menu pages of grilled meat dishes, vegetable-based dishes, Taiwanese staples and Chinese-Japanese fusion creations - appropriate for Binh Duong's diverse Asian diaspora community.

Our group of five split five dishes. and while prices are higher here, the quality and expertise of the cooks match the price tag. Given the giant lazy Susan on the table, it's clear this place is made for sharing.

First was the fried taro and duck, served with a martini glass of dry ice (khoai môn vịt chien giòn). The crispy, perfectly fried taro crust gave way to rich, tender duck meat, making for a rather decadent start to the meal.

Then came the almost comically rich slow-cooked pork belly, with marbled layers of fat between melt-in-your-mouth meat. The small bunches of bok choy served with the opulent pork portion almost seemed like a satire of vegetables.

Following the pork was the fried shrimp with mayo and pineapple (tọm chien sốt mayo). Plated in a way that the dish looked a bit like a cartoon sun from above, this colorful creation was more subtle in flavor. When overused, mayonnaise is repulsive, but Chef Tang's team didn't overdo it here, adding just the right amount of creamy goodness to the plump, crunchy shrimp.

The final two dishes of this feast were Taiwanese staples: an excellent, gently spicy rendition of mapo tofu (I abide by an unwritten law that this item must be ordered whenever visiting a Taiwanese restaurant), and juicy grilled Taiwanese sausage (lạp xưởng Đài Loan nướng). The sausage is actually made by the company which owns the restaurant and is available here in Saigon at places like Annam Gourmet, for those interested.

Quán Ăn Trùng Khánh and Điền Gia Quán illustrate the huge range of Chinese and Taiwanese options in Binh Duong, from dingy and utilitarian to white-tablecloth banquet compounds. There is much more to explore in the province (more on that in the future), but these two restaurants alone are well worth the trip, which takes no more than 45 minutes each way (outside of rush hour). So, if you're looking for authentic Sichuanese hotpot or Taiwanese mainstays, go north!

1. Quán Ăn Trùng Khánh: 36/2, To 3, Thuan An City, Binh Duong (It's only listed in Chinese on Google Maps - the exact location is here.)

2. Điền Gia Quán: 246 Dao Lo Binh Duong, An Thanh Ward, Thuan An City, Binh Duong

]]> (Michael Tatarski. Photos by Michael Tatarski.) Food Culture Sat, 06 Feb 2021 14:05:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Da Lat's Ngàn Cafe Is as Comforting as an Embraceẻm-gems-da-lat-s-ngàn-cafe-is-as-comforting-as-an-embraceẻm-gems-da-lat-s-ngàn-cafe-is-as-comforting-as-an-embrace

Walking down Da Lat’s Robin Hill amid emerald pine trees and languid fluffs of cloud, one’s eyes will inevitably encounter a visual disturbance in the form of bright orange plastic maple trees. They are not the heroes of this story, but reluctant antagonists that nonetheless serve as hurdles on the journey to discover a hidden treasure.

As far as Vietnam’s cable car projects go, the Da Lat Cable Car is neither the longest nor most exciting, but its existence does provide a decently priced, reasonable way to enjoy a slice of the city’s mountainous beauty. It also serves as a link between the intercity bus station and more secluded lodgings dotted in the vicinity of Tuyen Lam Lake.

On my recent trip to Da Lat, we didn’t ride the cable car, but visited the station anyway to sample a delectable vegetarian hotpot that also nestles in the same complex. It is true that concretization has claimed large swaths of the town’s heartland, but for a moment there, as we exited the building to amble downhill, nature prevailed. There before my eyes, a breathtaking vista of tree-covered hilltops that ebbed and flowed like contours on an origami art, below a sky filled with cotton clouds. It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the sheer grandeur of the Central Highlands' topography.

The view from Robin Hill. Just out of frame on the left is the garden of plastic maples.

A few more steps in our descent and this harmonious canvas of natural elegance is brought to a halt by splotches of a gaudy, almost vulgar, flare of artificial orange. A hillside coffee shop decided to install on their premise numerous fake maple trees on a bed of plastic lawn. It felt like a crime against nature to defile such a scenic sight with something so senselessly synthetic. As it turned out, the maple was only the appetizer, because the venue is much less a café than strategically constructed Instagram fodder with many other photographic props. On the menu: a swimming pool with ankle-deep water just enough to add a reflection to photos, a fake torii gate, and, for the pièce de résistance, a replica of Bali’s famed Gates of Heaven. The operation stood out in the landscape like an inflamed boil on an otherwise unblemished face.

The steep hill that one can walk (or roll) down to Ngàn Cafe.

Ocular fatigue eventually got the best of us, replacing the initial curiosity with a swelling urge to escape. That was also the precise moment a tiny wooden sign bearing the name Ngàn Cafe came to our attention. It stood on the street level of the incline, overlooking a steep alley heading to what seemed like nowhere. Hidden at the end of the hẻm is a spacious coffee shop perched on the side of the hill among towering trees, a haven that somehow was the exact salve needed to soothe our souls after that visual atrocity.

Left: the coffee shop's entrance. Right: the forested area just behind the cafe.

The café was opened in November last year by a pair of Da Lat residents working in the creative industry. With a background in architecture, they created an open space that blends rustic materials with tastefully curated decorations. A hammock hangs beneath the canopy, fresh flowers in vases, expressionist paintings on the wall, guitars, vintage album covers line neatly on a shelf — the attention to detail is apparent. The coffee shop is divided into three main areas: a main building with an upper floor for a design office, the first floor that houses the mixing area, toilet and a living room set. Outside, a wooden deck protrudes into the space among treetops. There’s a staircase leading to a “basement” that’s also open to nature.

The main sitting areas, all open to nature, though that, unfortunately, includes mosquitoes.

Just looking at the retro knick-knacks, one can mistake the place for any of Saigon’s similarly themed drinking establishments, but Ngàn Cafe has something that Saigon coffee shops can only dream of: access to nature and fresh air that’s just an arm’s reach away. With a cursory glance from the deck, I spotted a mulberry tree bearing ripening berries, a blossoming peach tree, and a citrus tree with plump green fruits.

Mè (left) and Củ Lạc (right) are resident cats.

In addition to the owners and a waiter, Ngàn Cafe is a home for three furry friends that I am eternally grateful to have met: Lửng is a mutt who was heavily pregnant during the visit; Mè, a rotund and somewhat shy feline that was very selective regarding who can receive his affection; and Củ Lạc, a gangly kitten who’s the physical embodiment of energy. Over the course of an hour, we sat in awe as Tiên, one of the owners, relayed one story after another of their shenanigans — Lửng managed to get knocked up right before they could spay her; she had a coterie of paramours waiting outside the gate every morning; Mè has been going on adventures for “me time” since Củ Lạc joined the family.

Tiên and Lửng during a play session.

I could go on and on, for my memories of Ngàn Cafe are still as vivid as the day they were etched into my brain, but as is the case with many of Da Lat’s spectacles, they should be experienced rather than read about.

The cozy interior of Ngàn Cafe.

There have been many discussions surrounding the effects of unchecked tourism on Da Lat, brought about by both tourists and tourism administrators. The rising number of tourists boosts demand for accommodation, hence turning downtown Da Lat into a labyrinth of concrete. Chronic congestion, waste management, and conservation are also pressing issues. In August, a plan put forth by the Lam Dong construction department sparked furor as it sought to transform Đồi Dinh, the lone green spot in central Da Lat, into a hotel complex.

Strolling the city as tourists, sampling its bánh căn and snapping shots of people bundling up in winter wear, we were conscious how our actions could impact the town, even though at times it was challenging to gauge these implications. Supporting local businesses might be a good way to start, and to me, Ngàn Cafe is a shining example of an ideal Da Lat tourism experience. Like the way the sitting area molds its physical structure along the hillside, it shows a respect for the landscape instead of dogged determination to cater to tourist taste without consideration for the ambient environs.

I bear no ill will towards the patrons of the maple café; after all, if you sprinkle syrup on the floor, the ants will come. However, I can’t help but wonder what drove these particular ants to lap up artificial sweetener while right next to them are bountiful fruits. What drives us to abandon our city burdens to seek out Da Lat but a desire to once again be among the therapeutic enigmas of nature? If so, why come all the way here in the middle of the forest to pose next to plastic trees while majestic pines beckon right within reach?

Ngàn Cafe is open daily from 8am to 6pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 6/5 

Friendliness: 6/5

Location: 5/5

Khoi loves bánh căn, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Ngàn Cafe

2A Đống Đa, Ward 3, Đà Lạt

]]> (Khoi Pham. Photos by Khoi Pham.) Bars & Cafes Sun, 31 Jan 2021 12:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: D6's Hot and Sour Suan La Fen Is the Noodle Dish to Conquerẻm-gems-d6-s-hot-and-sour-suan-la-fen-is-the-noodle-dish-to-conquerẻm-gems-d6-s-hot-and-sour-suan-la-fen-is-the-noodle-dish-to-conquer

Every time I lap up a spoonful of searing broth that’s so spicy I could almost count the number of times my face pulses, I feel grateful for taste buds.

In Asia, we take such immense pride in our food’s savory heat and our palate’s sterling tolerance of spiciness it’s hard to believe that chilis were once non-existent in the continent. From Aleppo to Kashmiri, all of today’s pepper cultivars are distant descendants of chilis from the Americas. European traders brought them across the Atlantic back home and then to Africa and Asia, where these enthusiastic fruit-bearing nightshades took root and proliferated with reckless abandon.

Gochujang, Sichuan pepper, sa tế, shichimi togarashisambal, you name it — some of Asia’s most delectable condiments make spiciness their central flavor. We would be unmoored without chili pepper, relegated to a barely lived fate filled with bland broth and insipidly unremarkable noodles. Being able to sense spiciness, the effect of a special chemical called capsaicin, is a feature reserved for mammals. Nightshade plants like chilis evolved to store the striking heat in their fruits to deter erring mammals, which find the taste abhorrent. Birds, however, cannot taste capsaicin, and are therefore the trusted vessels helping chili plants disseminate their seeds across distances. While buffaloes, horses and rodents are repulsed by chili peppers, humans eat them for sport — for the enjoyment of spiciness is a uniquely human privilege.

There are few Chinese dishes that celebrate spiciness quite as unapologetically as suan la fen, a hot and sour noodle that originated in landlocked Chongqing, but over time has followed immigrants to all parts of China and even abroad. The megacity of 12 million citizens, attached to the belly of Sichuan Province, is famous for its hot pot and a range of delicacies heralding the region’s prized chili peppers like la zi ji and xiao mian.

In 2020, pandemic culture spawned a number of food trends of varying degrees of involvement. There’s Dalgona coffee, a frothy beverage from South Korea; sourdough bread baking adventures; and, of course, home-cooking has never been so prevalent, now that it’s legally impossible in some countries to eat out. A curious trend also swept over Asian countries: trying novelty instant noodles. At the forefront of this was no other than instant suan la fen, sold in now-iconic paper cups. Netizens in Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam slurp up the crimson-colored noodle soup with glee (and grimace) in TikTok videos and YouTube taste tests. In Vietnam, it’s known as miến chua cay Trùng Khánh and are sold via online vendors of e-commerce platforms.

The version of suan la fen we tasted in Saigon for this week’s Hẻm Gem is reportedly a rendition popular in Macau, where the noodle shop’s owner used to work. It is challenging to compare and contrast the two noodle dishes between the inland and coastal cities, though we can be certain that it’s vastly superior to its instant iteration. To seek out bún chua cay Macao, as the restaurant calls it in Vietnamese, head to Bửu Đình Street in District 6 just west of Chợ Lớn. Despite the designation, Bửu Đình is more hẻm than street, with nary a pavement, and civic life blending seamlessly between private households and alley vibes. We settle down at one of the three tables on the curbside right in front of the eatery’s shopfront, smack-dab in the chaos of hẻm life.

To customize your own portion of suan la fen, first pick a noodle type between “white” and “black,” or both — white noodle means thick strands commonly seen in bún bò, while black noodle is the traditional kind enjoyed by Chinese eaters. Then, choose a favorite protein: frog, chicken, pork ribs, squid, shrimp, beef, meatballs, offal, or thập cẩm mix that has a bit of everything. The noodles and bits of protein are then submerged in a sparkling broth peppered with roasted peanuts. Of course, our omnivorous appetite means that thập cẩm is without any question the must-have pick.

The resulting bowl with black noodles (VND66,000) is interesting, to say the least. The mish-mash of surf-and-turf evokes strange memories of wedding hotpots at the end of a reception, even though each meat is cooked decently — I would recommend picking only one or two favorite proteins at a time instead. The broth doesn’t pull any punches and truly lives up to its hot and sour title: a sharp sourness brought about by black vinegar and pickled cabbages is flanked by a heat that will leave one panting. Despite the assault on the senses, you’ll find yourself unable to stop eating and slurping the soup to exercise your very human privilege of being thrilled by spiciness. The “black” noodle is in actuality an ashy grey, possessing a fantastic bite unlike any noodle I’ve ever tasted. According to the owner, these noodles are made from sweet potato, instead of rice. It may take a few more seconds to chew through, but I’m already envisioning a future with sweet potato noodles in everything I eat from now on.

Apart from the main noodle course, the restaurant also sells three types of snacks: cucumber salad, century egg with spicy bean paste, and curried fishballs. The sourness sings through the cucumber and century egg salads and pairs particularly well with the umami richness of century egg.

It’s obvious that Bửu Đình’s suan la fen is not for delicate eaters: it champions generosity, both in flavors and portion size. There is a lot, quite literally, to work through, but if one has a penchant for sharpness in their culinary preference, this is the noodle dish to conquer.

Bún Chua Cay Macao is open from 10am to 9:30pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 4/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 5/5 — Charming hẻm and charming neighbors.

Khoi loves noodles, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Hot and sour noodles

51 Bửu Đình, Ward 5, D6

]]> (Khoi Pham. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Sun, 24 Jan 2021 16:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Cù Rú, an Old Saigon Bar That Took Root in Da Latẻm-gems-cù-rú,-an-old-saigon-bar-that-took-root-in-da-latẻm-gems-cù-rú,-an-old-saigon-bar-that-took-root-in-da-lat

Editor's note: Cù Rú Bar, the artists' solace, was born in Saigon by a tightknit group of friends and lovers, fueling creative souls with delectable homemade rượu cocktails, the group relocated to Da Lat, filling their newfound home with art events and crafting a new community of cocktail swillers.

Read the article in Vietnamese here.

I am walking into Cù Rú Bar in Da Lat
A greenhouse in the middle of town
There is a substantial amount of fairy lights
And there is a very sweet dog watching me as I descend slowly into the plant-filled space

Two deck chairs
A wooden panel with a hole
A hole with a spiderweb
A large chopping board hanging
I am walking towards a group of people 
I can see some musicians in the group
Tiny Giant will play a concert tonight

To my right I see what looks like a gynecologists’ examination chair
And I see an old medical cabinet lit from the inside with blue and pink fluorescent lights
Holding broken glasses from the bar
Underneath is a pug
He just had a fight with the dog inside and then proceeded to pee on some of the furniture
He now looks slightly confused and yet slightly proud

I can see a Minnie Mouse office chair
Next to it is the tiniest of tiny stools
As I continue, a child's bicycle
As I continue, an oven
On the oven are seven broken windows
As I continue there is a hammock
An outdoor hammock silver in color
One that you would see in roadside cafes of the south
It is hung on top of a pile of junk wood
I am unsure if this wood will be set on fire but I doubt it
As a structure that holds high an orange kite englobes it
Next to which is a birdcage
And on top of which is a cross made out of tiny tiny bits of silken fabric

I am walking into the main part of the bar
The pool table is being used to hold the concert equipment
To my right is a bamboo sofa that looks used
“Used” would be a kind word
I continue into the space
To my left I can see a bird's nest holding ping-pong balls like eggs
To my right vases filled with flowers
Underneath a rifle

I see four frames displaying various images of genitalia
Another is a portrait with a leaf delicately placed
I am next to the bar now
It is made of wood
You can see the various glasses
You can see some unbaked ceramics that vaguely look like penises
You can see a papier-mâché green giraffe with strange white hair and eyes that are drawn like flies
30 glass barrels of rice wine hold different hues
Ingredients marinating in suspension
Two postcards say “joy for this”

I am looking right on top of myself now
There is a papier-mâché head with glowing LED lights shining in blue green red blue green red
Spurting out are all kinds of plants that all
A brick and ceramic path
I go forward
There is a closed book called Hacker next to an empty packet of cigarettes
I am walking past a swing
I look forward there is an electric guitar
I look forward again there is a photo of naked people
I look forward again there is a family that arrives
I look forward again there is a beautiful sculpture of a man with a scarf
His leg hangs over the bed
Next to another electrical guitar
Next to another bed
Next to a comfortable looking bed
Full of books and plants

I look up
There are lights
Yellow red blue yellow white red
I go forth
I duck under the bamboo
The bamboo holds a ladle
I watch my step
There are broken ceramics
I look to my left there is a mirror
The mirror is much taller than me
It says “Oh! You are GORGEOUS!”

Underneath I see nail polish
I see nail polish 
Silver glitter maroon
Red red blue
White maroon
White maroon white
Blue again
Blue again

An empty candle holder
A family sits down
I move back
There is a huge orchid plant
I am at the entrance of Cù Rú Bar in Da Lat

Elise is usually pretty friendly, she enjoys being inconsistent about any decision-making and looking at things.

Whimsical drinks and a good time

2 Pham Hong Thai, Ward 10, Da Lat

]]> (Elise Luong. Photos by Michael Tatarski.) Bars & Cafes Sun, 17 Jan 2021 11:00:00 +0700
Year in Review: Saigoneer's Picks for Favorite Hẻm Gems, Art (and More) of 2020ẻm-gems,-art-and-more-of-2020ẻm-gems,-art-and-more-of-2020

In 2019, when the world was not going through a global public health disaster, dining out seemed like the most natural activity in our daily routine. We drank, we relished, we munched, and we bantered.

Then came 2020. For a moment, it might have seemed like our time together in restaurants and sidewalk cafes would never be the same. Thanks to Vietnam’s public health strategy and collective vigilance, we’re privileged and grateful to be able to continue to hang out, go to the cinema, enjoy art exhibitions and, most important of all, have meaningful contact with our friends and family. Here are some favorite highlights of Saigoneer’s body of work this year across several topics, according to our editors.

1. Favorite Hẻm Gem/Ngõ Nook

Cơm Gà 142's gà mắm tỏi. Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Khôi Phạm: My favorite meal from 2020 is no doubt this fried chicken in District 8, an affordable and addictive spectacle of rice and fried chicken coated in a sheen of sticky fish sauce glaze and golden fried garlic bits. Its monumental rise from small-town favorite to city-wide delivery sensation is emblematic of this year, when online commerce and delivery services thrived as we shied away from close contact. This fried chicken has more than a dozen of times provided comfort for my family on days when we are just too lazy to cook and too wary to eat out.

Cơm Gà 142 is the quintessential Vietnamese street food: quickly prepared, delicious, cheap, and best consumed right on the pavement. It’s a favorite of mine because it defies many expectations — that good food doesn’t just come from high-end restaurants, that good food can be incredibly cheap, and that good food isn’t just concentrated in the city center.

Michael Tatarski: Ooh yeah that chicken in District 8 is great, though I haven’t had it at the place yet. We ordered delivery to our house in District 2, which is admittedly a hike for the driver, but it looked like he made multiple stops along the way so hopefully it was a good trip income-wise.

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

In going back through Hẻm Gems for this year, I realized I missed a lot of them, I guess either due to laziness or scheduling conflicts. But my pick is the cơm tấm spot near our office. I will readily admit that it’s not among the best cơm tấm in Saigon, but it’s become a dependable part of each week for me, something everyone needed in this year from hell. I’ve gone there so many times now that sometimes they’ll spot me coming down the sidewalk and have a take-away container ready to go by the time I arrive. That’s what I call service! Extra points for being so close to central District 1 and remaining so affordable.

Paul Christiansen: Mike, you eat a lot of cơm tấm. I would venture you surpassed 100 kilograms’ worth of it this year alone, so I will take your word for the recommendation. 

Mike: 100 kilos sounds high — way more than my body weight.

Elise Luong: I’m gonna vote for this feature of a dim sum place in Hanoi, which was temporarily named “Last Night a Dim Sum Saved My Life.” This one gets my gold star because I think every single one of us went there multiple times and ordered about five times the whole menu. Labor-intensive and DELICIOUS!

Photo by Alberto Prieto.

Paul: I have yet to go but I do love dim sum, though I am interested in what you mean by “labor intensive.” Does one have to assemble the tiny morsels by oneself? Is it related to the complicated spinning-system of the table?

Elise: Haha! Digestion labor! I think there were eight of us at the first meal, launching morsels to each other as our photographer tried to capture the images, as one dish emptied it was soon replaced by two more orders. A great ping-pong of dim sum! By the time Mike came to visit Hanoi and asked for menu recommendations we just told him to do like us, order everything.

Khôi: I love myself an action-packed dim sum feast. One more stop to make the next time I’m out and about in the capital.

2. Favorite Old Photo

The Majestic Hotel at night.

Paul: My favorite old photo this year is this shot of the Majestic Hotel from this stunning collection of nighttime photos. We publish a lot of great snapshots from times past, but this selection of images made me realize that they are almost all taken during the daytime. Limits in past technology made it difficult to take photos with limited light, leaving our collective memory devoid of diurnal visions. It’s fun to play anthropologist and theorize what exactly the city’s past inhabitants were up to at midnight; these photos are helpful guides.

Khôi: I’ve never seen anything like it. One thing that piqued my interest when I peruse the photo set is the presence of public lighting in Saigon during the time. Walking along Ton Duc Thang at night today, one is greeted by neon signs, that golden tint of restaurants, and hundreds of headlights, but in the late 1930s, few corners were outfitted with lighting, creating a striking juxtaposition between brightness and darkness.

A cinema with a glowing marquee.

Mike: That is definitely an incredible photo, Paul. That whole set was great for the reasons you mentioned. My pick is the “Christmas outside the Tax Center” photo from this set. It shows a classic — and since-demolished — building of the city, gives a hint of what Christmas looked like at the time, and just has so many images of life then: motorbikes, bicycles, street vendors, and more. It’s a picture full of excitement and energy.

A bustling corner of the Tax Center during Christmas season.

Khôi: I have to admit I have a soft spot for these nostalgic glimpses into the now-defunct Saigon Water Park taken by Marcel Lennartz, a Dutch engineer who worked on the project in 1997. The photos are rough around the edges and not that impressive aesthetically, but they remind me of my formative years spent frolicking in the water with my friends. Ask any Saigoneer born in the 1990s and they could tell you a memory at the water park, as it was one of the few family-friendly places in town. The park was dismantled in the 2000s, so the only way we can access that phase of our collective memory is through photos like Lennartz’s.

The Saigon Water Park on its opening day in December 1997.

3. Favorite Art/Illustration Project

An installation of the Phuc Tan Public Art Project. Photo by Bac Ha.

Elise: Gawd it's been such a particular year everywhere obviously, but for the arts sector even more so. I’m going to go for two projects I wrote about for Urbanist and I rate them very selfishly because they were big ones in my eyes! The Phuc Tan public art project was my first contribution ever to Urbanist Hanoi so it was a milestone for me as I jumped into the Saigoneer/Urbanist family. (HI WORLD!) Previously I had spent many years and neurons focused on art in public space, and this was a challenging project for me to change writing styles and reflect on what street art can/should/could be for Hanoi. Big ups to The Son, the curator of the project, for fighting the good fight.

My second high-five goes to a very important human in my life, Mộng Bích, who this year had her first solo show at L’Espace. Bích is 90 years old, a painter and the cherished member of an incredible family of artists that are profoundly generous and insatiably caring towards the promotion of artistic cultural heritage in northern Vietnam. Nibbling fruit, sipping tea and watching leaves fall in the family’s country house has allowed me rare moments of making sense of the world and I am truly thankful to have known them during my time in Hanoi.

Mộng Bích by her family pond. Photo by Bùi Hoài Nam Sơn.

Khôi: I’m very jealous that you got to spend time with her at her homestead and I also appreciate how you dissected and ruminated on her life’s work with such respect and thoughtfulness. It’s truly humbling to read about her life, hardships, and her pure passion for the pursuit of creativity despite everything life has thrown at her.

Paul: Those were both great articles, Elise. And your arrival this year really has ushered in a lot of insight about art in Hanoi. It’s more than just shapes and colors after all! Your discussion with us about street art on the podcast was especially illuminating. I was really inspired in particular by your piece on Mộng Bích. Artists that toil away for decades, especially amidst such arduous and difficult conditions, are so incredible and motivating.

Illustrations by Tung Nam.

As far as art projects we covered down here in Saigon, my favorite was the Red Stamps List. The project by Tung Nam combines two of my favorite things: animals, and the postal system. Each of the stylish stamps features one of Vietnam’s endangered species. As with many of these concept projects, my only disappointment is that the stamps are only theoretical, and I can’t place one on a letter that is destined to get lost in the mail.

Khôi: A fellow philatelist! Join the club, O weary wanderer!

Mike: I totally agree that Elise’s arrival was much-needed for our coverage of colors and shapes…I mean art. As podcast listeners will know, I’m a nincompoop when it comes to art, though I’m going to give a selfish shout-out to S.E.A. Focus, which I attended in Singapore in early January, right before the entire world exploded. I’m still kind of amazed that I managed to make it out of Vietnam within this calendar year, and it was fascinating to see creations by artists from all over Southeast Asia, though I’ll never understand that one exhibit that was largely just a stick propped up against a wall.

Illustration by Đỗ Minh Hải.

Khôi: As an animation enthusiast, my favorite artworks of the year are these anime-inspired landscapes of Cao Lanh City in Dong Thap, created by a local student. When we published the illustrations, thousands of people enjoyed them too, showing that such an exciting mix of style and subject matter can surprise anyone. Đỗ Minh Hải, the illustrator, drew daily scenes of his hometown in the vibrant palette of Japanese auteur Makoto Shinkai and made us fall in love with the Mekong Delta all over again.

4. Favorite Article

Mike: We’ve published a lot of great writing this year, but I think I have to go with Paul’s meditation on the Saigon Zoo as my favorite, for a few reasons. The design is fantastic — with shout-outs to Hannah and Alberto, our designer and photographer — and something that would be cool to see more of on the site. The writing was great, as expected, and made me think more than just about anything else I read from us in 2021.

Readers may not know this, but I’m a bit of an animal person, and I’ve avoided the zoo here for the entire decade I’ve been in Saigon since I’ve seen so many depressing photos of it, and also heard from people that it’s just not a pleasant place. Full disclosure, Paul’s article didn’t move me enough to actually visit the zoo, but it certainly made me think about its merits — after all, what would happen to the animals if it were closed?

Elise: I’m so glad you picked this article Mike! I had not been to the zoo either and, after reading it, begged Paul to take me on a tour. I’m a total sucker for people who are passionate about seemingly obscure things, and boy does Paul have a thing for the zoo! The afternoon was delightful; some questionable pens aside, it’s a recommendation for me if you're looking for an afternoon stroll in Saigon. Look out for the American racoon, having a ball with his Da Nang buddy.

Paul: Aww, I’m so touched you both enjoyed it! I admit two major highlights of this year have been the trips we took to the zoo — both the one with Alberto and Hannah to get inspiration for the article images, and the time when myself, Khôi and Elise had a delightful afternoon strolling around, discussing the differences between Greater and Lesser Adjunct birds. But I must note that the article was not successful in terms of it convincing the zoo to sell me an annual pass. We’ll see if the tattoo that I got last week of my favorite zoo sculpture occupying my entire lower leg changes that.

As for my favorite, I’m going to break the rules a bit here and select an article we published this week: Saigoneer’s Picks for Best Music of 2020. I have been bumping the playlist for the last few weeks as Khôi writes it. Last year’s list was fantastic, and this year’s is even better! It’s impossible to determine what makes something one’s “favorite” but these music lists always prove the most lasting, providing hours upon hours of audio bliss.

Inside the Geological Museum. Photos by Alberto Prieto.

Khôi: I also share Elise’s love for people who find passion in obscure things. In this case, we’re delighted to have Paul among us to share his deep thoughts on whales and the Saigon Zoo, among other things. My favorite piece of writing of this year is also a work by Paul that chronicles our exploration of the mysterious Geological Museum. It’s hard to believe that such a fascinating piece of city history is so little-known. The way you weave in personal thoughts and keen observations of the derelict place is inspiring. Lucky for those who are interested in visiting, both the museum and the zoo lie within walking distance of each other.

5. Favorite Interview

Mike: My pick is my interview from the Saigoneer Podcast with Trang Nguyễn, one of the founders of the conservation organization WildAct. In keeping with the animal theme above, a lot of my freelance writing is on biodiversity conservation in Vietnam, and Trang has become an invaluable resource on that subject. What really stands out to me about Trang’s work is her focus on educating younger Vietnamese on the importance of preserving what’s left of the natural world, and also providing opportunities to women, which is key for a sector that is dominated by men globally. It was just great to come away from a discussion on a topic that can often be depressing with some hope.

Paul: That was a great interview and a fantastic reminder of how passionate, dedicated people can have an infectious impact on their cause. It’s depressing one is needed for conservation, but certainly some solace can be taken in the fact that people like Trang are fighting the good fight.

I am going to look back to nearly a year ago, when we interviewed author Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai on the podcast. We chatted just as her debut novel, The Mountains Sing — a Saigoneer favorite, I think it's safe to say — was coming out, and the 11 months that followed have been a wild ride for her. The book has been racking up accolades, awards and glowing reviews and outperforming her wildest dreams. As the interview shows, she is an extremely caring, generous person, so it’s especially good to see the novel get the attention it deserves. This is also my official moment of saying “Saigoneer was first” when it comes to covering what will be a long and illustrious career, because we first wrote about her in early 2018.

Mike: Go read The Mountains Sing!

Dzũng's EP "Tình Tính Tang."

Khôi: This should be apparent to everyone, but talking to people who are passionate about their work is one of the best things that this job has to offer. Trang and Quế Mai are both incredible figures in their respective fields, and whether one is fond of conservation or literature, they will without a doubt provide many insights about Vietnam that are worthy of note. My most memorable interview of 2020 was with Dzũng, a progressive metal guitarist, to learn about his music, a contemporary, fiery take on traditional materials. Even with whatever amount of prior reading I was able to do before, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the knowledge and hard work that he undertook to produce such impassioned music.

We hope you enjoyed our work from 2020, and we look forward to exploring Vietnamese cuisine, history and culture even futher in 2021. Happy New Year!

]]> (Saigoneer. Graphic by Hannah Hoang.) Food Culture Thu, 31 Dec 2020 13:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Saigon's Hakka Culture Lives in D5's Khổ Qua Cà Ớtẻm-gems-saigon-s-hakka-culture-lives-in-d5-s-khổ-qua-cà-ớtẻm-gems-saigon-s-hakka-culture-lives-in-d5-s-khổ-qua-cà-ớt

Stuffing food inside other food is an ingenious human invention on par with refrigeration, chopsticks, and Gmail’s “undo” button.

Across the vast, fertile landscape that is Vietnamese cuisine, remnants of this astute mode of food creation are aplenty: stuffed bitter gourds in soup, river snails stuffed with minced pork and lemongrass, and, of course, who can discount the classic meat-stuffed tofu in sweet-and-sour tomato sauce. Cooked in pockets created by other food, the filling doesn’t dry out, and it even absorbs the flavor of whatever is holding it in, making the eating experience more nutritionally fulfilling and less one-note. This brings us to this week’s hẻm gem, khổ qua cà ớt, a member of the stuffed lineage whose manifestation is neither one-note nor simplistic, for it has roots in culinary traditions that are centuries old.

Khổ qua cà ớt, sometimes known as khổ qua lạc chiếu, might roll off the tongue very smoothly, but the name is merely a list of vegetables — bitter gourd, tomato, chili — which probably won’t help it win any popularity contest. Its highly sought-after attribute lies in what’s not mentioned: the stuffing, the pulverized flesh of a freshwater fish called cá thát lát. If cetaceans are well-known for their blubberific figures and blue-fin tunas for their swiftness, the thát lát is notable among Asian circles for being goddamn delicious, which is great for us, but unfortunate for the species. Thát lát is among the few seafood ingredients whose flesh, when deconstructed into a paste, takes on a chewiness that Asian palates consider exceedingly desirable.

That special bite, for those who are curious, is known as the “Q” factor in Taiwan and “dai” in the Vietnamese language. The prized texture is featured everywhere in the continent’s cuisines, from Taiwanese boba and Vietnamese bò viên to Korean tteokbokki. Thankfully, thát lát thrives quite comfortably in fish farms, so we’re in for a lifetime of tasty chewiness. Outside of khổ qua cà ớt, fried cá thát lát is too a frequent topping in a number of Vietnamese noodle soups like bánh canh and and bún chả cá.

Khổ Qua Cà Chớn of District 5 fame is one of a handful of Saigon eateries where these morsels of fried vegetables are the vedette of the show, amongst other Chinese dishes. “Cà chớn” is a humorous insult-turned-term-of-endearment that’s equivalent to “rascal” in English. According to the owner, a self-proclaimed rascal, it doesn’t mean anything much other than a playful jab at himself. How he decides whether to open for business on a particular day is very much like how one decides to step out of bed with their left or right foot; that is, completely spontaneous and mood-dependent. I visited his khổ qua cà ớt cart twice in one week and was treated to delicious food both times; my photographer colleague’s three visits only yielded one meal. Cà chớn, indeed. Oh to be a fried vegetable hobbyist in this day and age, being able to turn up at work whenever you feel most passionate. 

To make khổ qua cà ớt, the thát lát paste is stuffed into hollowed-out bitter gourds, chilies, fried tofu pieces, eggplants, tomatoes, amongst other cylindrical vegetables. Then, the stuffed pieces are fried until golden. Depending on personal taste, an assortment of fried morsels can be eaten as is, dipped in hoisin sauce and chili oil, or in a bowl with broth. Khổ Qua Cà Chớn also presents tasty-looking platters of soy sauce sticky rice, bánh khoai môn, and pork ribs soup with sheet noodles. My mixed vegetable bowl came with a big crimson chili, three chunks of bitter gourds, a triangle of fried tofu, an eggplant “sandwich,” and a tomato half all stuffed with cá thát lát, fried and submerged in the warm umami-laden broth. Soft vegetable, sweet hoisin, a zest of spicy chili oil — a hearty, Q-licious afternoon snack for thát lát lovers.

Upon digging into the clear broth, long-term residents of Singapore and Malaysia might find this setting familiar, because khổ qua cà ớt is the Hoa-Vietnamese localization of yong tau foo, a traditional Hakka dish popular across hawker centers in those two countries. Still, across the proverbial pond, these pieces of vegetables might be filled with a different mixture of fish flesh and mince pork instead of the chewy thát lát.

In a paper that examines the history of Hakka people in Vietnam, Nguyễn Văn Chính states that among Vietnam’s Hoa ethnic group, about one-tenth identify as Hakka and are referred to as người Hẹ, Hắc-cá or Khách. Hẹ is the most common term in Saigon and southern provinces, while the others are prevalent in northern localities. Academic sources on Chinese history chronicle the migration of Hẹ people to southern Vietnam during the second half of the 17th century. From 1889 to 1906, the southern half of the country became the new home of some 1.2 million Chinese immigrants. The group grew to 1.5 million by 1952, accounting for 6% of the general population. Among them, those speaking the Hakka dialect made up 11%, behind Guangdong and Teochew, but more than Fujian and Hainan.

In Saigon, Hakka people were contractors, blacksmiths, stone carvers, maritime traders, and merchants trading tea and other small goods. They worshiped Thiên Hậu Thánh Mẫu (Tianhou), a sea goddess and patron deity for fishermen and seafarers — a natural fit considering the community’s intimate history and association with the ocean. Temples for Tianhou worship were constructed in southern towns with Hakka presence and used as venues for gatherings. Contemporary Saigon is still graced by the major Thien Hau Pagoda, one of the oldest of its kind, on Nguyen Trai Street.

How yong tau foo, and by extension, khổ qua cà ớt, came to be is still a subject for debate, though the prevailing theory surmises that it manifested from a dumpling replacement. Yong tau foo can be translated into “stuffed tofu,” the earliest ancestor of the khổ qua cà ớt family, though this progenitor has survived until today to be amongst its vegetable-enveloped offspring if my bowl of khổ qua cà ớt at Khổ Qua Cà Chớn is any indication.

Research by Yang Liao and Shao Di He speculates that putting meat filling in tofu pieces was a way for Hakka migrants in southern China to simulate the dumplings of central China after they migrated southwards. Embedded in the creation of yong tau foo is the art of making tofu at home, and the pair believe that the tofu-crafting process embodied the crucial role of the familial bond of Hakka households.

“Making Hakka Yong Tau Foo [is] a recreation and collective action [that needed] to mobilize the members of [the] family to participate in making Hakka Yong Tau Foo,” they write. “This collective action creates a feeling of harmony to encourage more open communication and strengthening the sense of cohesion for Hakka [families]. Making Hakka Yong Tau Foo became a celebration and symbol of [the] Hakka family meal.”

I am quite certain that the folks at Phung Hung Street’s Khổ Qua Cà Chớn don’t go through the tribulation of making fresh tofu at home. Still, sitting at their cart making my way through the fried fish paste, I feel a convivial bond between the hawker and myself, and amongst us diners. The cart is a traditional hawker model that houses trays of prepped vegetables and the cooking area in the middle, and narrow counter areas around for eaters. You’re not meant to linger for after-meal beverages or desserts, but even during the short while when you’re slurping noodles there, in the middle of an open market, there’s a palpable feeling of home.

Khổ Qua Cà Chớn is open from 4pm on days that the owner feels like selling food.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5 — The cart is based in Chợ Phùng Hưng and could be easy to miss. Drive slowly.

Khoi loves cá thát lát, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Khổ qua cà ớt

202 Phung Hung, Ward 14, D5

]]> (Khôi Phạm. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Mon, 21 Dec 2020 11:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: Thời Thanh Xuân, the Special Saigon Cafe Run by Deaf Staffẻm-gems-thời-thanh-xuân,-the-special-saigon-cafe-run-by-deaf-staffẻm-gems-thời-thanh-xuân,-the-special-saigon-cafe-run-by-deaf-staff

Quán của Thời Thanh Xuân not only encompasses the youth of its founder, Võ Thành Luân, it’s also where hard-of-hearing Vietnamese can write their own story, learn, focus on self-development, and be a part of society.

A cafe without the usual bells and whistles

It doesn’t matter whether you’re at Thời Thanh Xuân’s Da Lat or Saigon location, a feeling of calm will wash over your visit. For first-timers, you’re likely to miss Thời Thanh Xuân’s Saigon cafe, as it’s based inside a nondescript tube house on Phu Nhuan District’s Truong Quoc Dung Street. There’s no ostentatious marquees, flashy neon signs, or any security guard intently perusing a newspaper in front. Park your bike in the front yard, open the cafe’s homely metal door, and a whole different world of quietude and serenity beckons you.

On the day of our visit, my photographer colleague and I are the first customers to Quán. Spotting us from afar, the only employee of the shop promptly opens the door for us and shows us to our table. Before spotting her bright smile, we are greeted by a soothing scent of pinewood and a mellifluous instrumental track. Not needing to be told, every patron, including us, is conscious of our speaking volume, at times, even reducing it to mere murmurs.

Like every staff member of Quán in Da Lat and Saigon, the waitress working during our visit is deaf. Even though I was briefed by a friend about the cafe’s concept, I couldn’t help feeling a bit lost during my first time here. How do I order? How do we ask for their permission to take photographs? The qualms don’t stay in my mind for long, as right after we settle in, the waitress brings over a menu along with detailed instructions: “Please pick your drink from the menu. Choose the corresponding colored stick so our hard-of-hearing staff can understand you. Thank you for supporting Quán!”

Within just five minutes, we experience one surprise after another. Flipping through the menu, we can’t figure out the prices of items. Thanks to another notice placed next to a donation box at the cashier, I realize that Thời Thanh Xuân doesn’t have a set price for its beverages, but patrons can pay to their heart’s content. The only merchandise with price tags is handmade soaps, essential oils and memorabilia that were created by the staff. According to Luân, the business has a five-hectare plantation in Da Lat to grow crops and herbs, and produce handmade crafts. At the moment, Quán is selling nine types of oils, including lavender, geranium, lemongrass, citronella, pine, cinnamon, rosemary, mint, and orange.

This carefully thought-out space is not only a haven for hearing folks seeking a bit of solitude amidst an ever-buzzing town, it’s an important connector for the local community of hard-of-hearing people, those who use sign language. A cute corner here allows visitors to leave a note on the wall. A plethora of heart-warming messages dot the small space — some express fondness for the friendly staff, some jot down their reservations of interacting with deaf people for the first time, and some gush about the feeling of peace while sipping on a cup of joe here. The cafe has more than once been burglarized, and according to the owner, losing money does not hurt as much as losing the heartfelt notes.

For the founders of Quán Của Thời Thanh Xuân, the business is not a charity. They want to pursue a social enterprise model to help the deaf develop personal goals; they can learn while working to create valuable and useful products. “People assume that the hard-of-hearing are ingenuous, simple and somewhat low-tech, but that’s incorrect. They have the same intellect and needs just like everybody else, sometimes even more, they just can’t hear or speak,” Vũ, who’s in charge of the cafe’s marketing, shares.

“Take the example of Khôi, who bakes desserts for Quán. The pastries he creates are very popular thanks to their special flavor that’s not too rich or decadent. He’s also a very impressive painter, has a decent income, and is well-loved by patrons,” he adds. “After working for a while, Khôi saved enough money to build a kickass personal computer. In another case, Hà is well-versed in fixing utility systems and has switched to trading electronic parts.”

Through our paper-based communication with the cafe’s other staff, I find out that they’re all very talented. I get to know Thùy, one of the place’s most sterling drink mixers. Under the tutelage of the senior staff, she only needed six months to master the menu. Mixing wasn’t the only skill she dabbled in: she also studied sign language and the Vietnamese language. Each endeavor unfolded swimmingly thanks to her quick wit and steely resolve. Thùy aspires to be a professional mixologist. Seeing the level of focus she gives to the creation of each drink, I believe she will soon make that dream a reality. Sipping on the warming, bold cup of hot chocolate that she made, I have total trust that it will come true.

When asked about “dream” or “passion,” they don’t quite have a concrete idea, but in general, the staff members are all well-aware of their current career, constantly working on creating values for themselves and their community. There’s no need to proclaim that “I am capable of this or I will become that” — they’re unostentatiously going about their personal journey.

Thùy is very passionate about creating beverages.

Carving one’s own path is not challenging because of the path itself

Quán Của Thời Thanh Xuân is not the first business employing deaf staff. Before, many enterprises have formed and achieved certain levels of success, such as the notable “no word” bánh khoái eatery in Hue, Da Nang’s Bread of Life Bakery, Saigon’s Lặng Cafe, Hanoi’s Tâm Cafe, etc. A common quality to all of these establishments is that they don’t commercialize sympathy, but they attract customers by the merits of goods and services created by deaf people. Each makes their mark due to different qualities, but they all offer a link to connect the hard-of-hearing to one another and to society.

Still, a significant number of companies across every field remain neglectful and reluctant to hire people with disabilities, especially those who are deaf. The most obvious reason is the lack of communication. Most of Vietnam’s hard-of-hearing citizens mainly use sign language and are not used to verbal communication. The latter is not well-established among the hearing, and even translators are few and far between.

According to statistics from the Ministry of Labour - Invalids and Social Affairs, in 2015 seven million Vietnamese had a disability, 15% of whom are deaf. Access to proper education for the hard-of-hearing is still lacking, with just 70 specialized schools and institutions across the country, mostly in major metropolises. Data by the Center for Research and Education of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing (CED) suggests that it takes deaf students from seven to 10 years to finish primary school, and only some graduates move on to secondary and high school. At the finishing line, their average age is 25. They are thrust into life with significant challenges: in communication, in work experience, and in finding sign language interpretation.

Hence, the existence of social enterprises aiming to provide practical skills and knowledge has been of great help in the integration of people with disabilities into society. Compared to previous decades, when most deaf Vietnamese undertook labor-intensive jobs, there are more and more hard-of-hearing youths joining sectors like services, arts, IT, etc. Social campaigns offering assistance are also growing to boost the livelihood of people with disabilities.

“The journey is arduous not because of the rivers and mountains, but because of the mind fearing the rivers and mountains” — a quote by writer Nguyễn Bá Học echoes in my head as I watch the staff at Quán Của Thời Thanh Xuân go through their daily tasks. Suddenly, I am overcome with a new energy to step forward on my own journey.

Quán Của Thời Thanh Xuân is open from 8:30am to 9:30pm. The Da Lat location is at 9 Trieu Viet Vuong.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5 — Both the tea and coffee smell incredible, but the menu is not too diverse.
Price: 6/5
Atmosphere: 5/5
Friendliness: 5/5
Location: 4/5

Quán của Thời Thanh Xuân

1e Truong Quoc Dung, Ward 8, Phu Nhuan, HCMC

]]> (Mầm. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Bars & Cafes Mon, 07 Dec 2020 12:00:00 +0700
Hẻm Gems: A Vietnamese Curry That Makes the Case for Coconut Milkẻm-gems-a-vietnamese-curry-that-makes-the-case-for-coconut-milkẻm-gems-a-vietnamese-curry-that-makes-the-case-for-coconut-milk

If you’re not usually a fan of Vietnamese curry, Cà Ri Gà 3T’s signature dish is a surprisingly well-balanced offering. And If you are indeed a fan, then you’re in luck.

The word “curry” should inspire fear. Not the chilling fright of tiptoeing down the basement at midnight in a blackout, but a heady mix of visceral anticipation and dread before one parachutes out of a plane or goes bungee jumping. Your sweat glands shore up an ample supply of cooling liquid, your taste buds brace for a thorough wash of capsaicin, and your brain gets ready to be thoroughly excited by an intense hit of eclectic spices.

All of these bold sensations are the foundation of my long-standing adoration for Indian, Thai and Japanese curries. In Indian cuisine, the word “curry” is less a dish than a genre of dishes, each with its own ingredient combination, cooking technique and local flair. As different as they are across the three major national cuisines, they share a steadfast resolve to highlight the brightness of local spices and herbs.

Then there’s Vietnamese curry, commonly a one-ingredient show dominated by the unctuous, aggressively rich reign of coconut milk. At the risk of being deemed un-nationalistic, I have to admit that our rendition of curry is my least favorite, because local cooks tend to err on the side of overly rich and sweet notes when it comes to cà ri. Curry in Vietnam hails from the Mekong Delta, where Khmer and Cham cuisines cross paths with a devoted southern love for coconut milk. The base is a sweet and nutty broth, made sweeter by chunks of sweet potato, carrot and eggplant. Its popularity during festive occasions mean that cà ri appears often every đám giỗ, đám hỏi and birthday celebration.

It had been at least half a year since my last experience with cà ri gà before Saigoneer’s visit to Cà Ri Gà 3T a few weeks ago. The restaurant showed up in a popular Facebook group for local food enthusiasts, and something about its setting and bowl of curry piqued my interest. 3T is far from a rustic street stall, as it is a two-floor eatery with an open plan and a decoration style reminiscent of Saigon’s vintage coffee shops. Rusty metallic fans and old-timey televisions line the wall, painted in the stereotypical “Hoi An yellow.” According to Trinh, the owner of 3T, the collection of old knick-knacks has been built over time, one item after another.

There wasn’t any special lore behind the decision to make Vietnamese curry the featured food at 3T, she explains. It’s a well-loved dish that her family makes often at home and one that’s not common on the market. Trinh refuses to take credit for the curry recipe 3T is currently serving, adding that the standard version is a group effort. “It’s a mix from many people, my parents, my mother-in-law and my husband,” she says. “I can’t say that it’s a unique creation by anyone, because it’s created by four, five people modifying and adjusting the taste many times.”

For the moment chicken is the only available protein at 3T, though diners can choose between a drumstick, chicken pieces, chicken offal, or a bit of everything for their main, accompanied by either rice, bánh mì or bún. On the side, a portion also comes with fresh herbs, beansprouts, a small bowl of pickled onion and cucumber, and chili salt for dipping, if they so wish.

“A good bowl of [Vietnamese] curry must first, be aromatic; second, it has to look visually striking; and third, the taste must be balanced,” Trinh shares when asked about her idea of an ideal bowl of curry. “If people want more spiciness, sourness or sweetness, they can add in condiments. The balance must be a priority. The meat must be well-marinated and tender. Some people like chewy chicken, but my family loves meat with the right amount of tenderness. Lastly, when you finish eating, you don’t feel tired or chills, which are symptoms of a dish filled with chemicals.”

The description sums up neatly my experience at 3T and matches her vision of a platonically ideal curry. The chicken meat, braised for long enough in the coconut-y sauce, falls right off the bone. A hidden spicy tinge gives the sauce an edge, and of course, it’s impossible to ignore the ever-present decadence of the golden coconut milk. It coats the meat, the rice, your tongue and your finger as you pick up the drumstick to munch on the tendon. The presence of chili in the sauce helps restrain the richness for me, but if coconut milk tickles your fancy, you’re in for a good time.

It took Trinh and her team three years to make this restaurant a reality. Since as early as 2017, a cà ri eatery has been on her mind because, she admits, of her own pickiness when eating out at other curry places in Saigon. The meat is either too tough or the broth has too much MSG for her palate, so she started developing her family’s recipe, setting the very first foundation for 3T later. The fine-tuning took many a weekend when family and friends were treated to a curry feast with everything from goat to seafood to fish.

Curry has been a constant part of her life for years, but Trinh admitted to me that she’s still not sick of it, and neither is the restaurant’s waitstaff — though 3T has only been operating since late October. So far, the reception has been optimistic: “There were customers who like a richer broth or more spiciness, but the feedback has generally been positive.”

“There’s one lady the other day,” Trinh recalls. “I don’t know if she was serious or teasing me, but she said that my curry is as tasty as her version.”

Cà Ri Gà 3T is open from 10am to 10pm.

To sum up:

Taste: 4/5

Price: 4/5

Atmosphere: 5/5

Friendliness: 5/5

Location: 4/5

Khoi loves curry, is a raging millennial and will write for food.

Vietnamese chicken curry

28 Huynh Tinh Cua, Ward 8, D3

]]> (Khôi Phạm. Photos by Alberto Prieto.) Street Food Sat, 21 Nov 2020 17:24:59 +0700
When Life Gives You Flavorful Vietnamese Cashews, Make Vegan Cheese,-make-vegan-cheese,-make-vegan-cheese

“Firstly, I had to find my calling, but in the end, it all came down to creating something and then seeing others enjoy it."

What does a young Vietnamese woman with a degree in business and international finance do with her life? Well, for Lê Na, it was her decision to start her life again with a clean slate that led her to her interest in nutrition, and eventually down the path to becoming the creative inventor of a vegan cashew-based cheese shop

Lê Na initially graduated from the Foreign Trade University (FTU) in Hanoi with a degree in business and international finance. However, after graduating, she decided to continue her studies online. Little did she know that this choice would change her life completely.

While studying online, she was inspired by one of her professors to find her “calling.” She explained that it wasn’t just his passion for the course, but it was also his mindset about life which inspired her to find her true path: “I felt empty inside, and I had a desire to find something that would make me feel whole. It was a natural urge, which makes it quite hard to describe.”

She explained that by the time she left university, she felt like her physical and emotional well-being were being ignored: “Physically, I didn’t know what I liked! As a young woman, I didn’t feel like I was my own person. Emotionally, I felt like I was a jigsaw puzzle created out of pieces of my family’s, my friends’, and my idols’ lives, aspirations and dreams.”

Ideally, Lê Na wanted to discover who she was, however, in a digitally connected world, it is hard to find the fine line between the self and others. So she decided to wipe her devices clean, put her business and international finance degree aside, and step out into the world with a clean slate.

“I guess I don’t have to explain the lifestyle of a student. Like many, I spent my university years eating junk and street food,” she tells Saigoneer.

Turmeric and cumin cashew cheese. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

After her decision to start from scratch, she decided that one of the first things she needed to do was to invest more time into her nutritional well-being, as this had been something she had previously neglected: “I started having so many questions about food. I started looking at supermarket labels, checking the origin of different types of food and eventually ending up trying an array of diets.”

Nonetheless, it was her love of cooking shows like MasterChef that lured her into shops like Phuong Nam and Annam Gourmet to find new flavors from around the world. By trying out different flavors and dishes, she found she was most intrigued with how vegan products can be used to make typically non-vegan dishes. In the beginning, Lê Na took inspiration from the availability of fresh produce in Vietnam. She used chestnuts grown in the northern regions of the country to make chestnut butter, and the ever abundant milk from Vietnamese coconuts to make yogurt.

“I managed to master all these recipes with ease, though it wasn’t until I started to create vegan cheese that my journey truly started,” she explains.

During her discovery process, Lê Na learned that international vegan cheese producers were buying cashews from Vietnam, however, no one in the country was doing so. Presented with this gap in the market, her inner businesswoman jumped at the opportunity, and she decided to make vegan cashew-based cheese herself.

After mastering the basics of cheese-making, Lê Na started experimenting with adding herbs and spices as flavor boosters. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

It took her more than half a year to make her first edible rind of cheese, and nearly a year of making cheese in her aunt’s kitchen to master the technique, however, this was definitely not the end of her story. Fascinated by the technique, she decided that she would continue to create aged cheese with different flavors, as well as learn the techniques to make fresh and cream cheese.

“I tried ageing the cheese for over a year, but it only caused the cheese to turn as hard as a rock,” Lê Na says.

After a year of making aged cheese, she discovered that the perfect ageing time for a rind is around three weeks, which is comparably short compared to the aging time for normal milk-based aged cheese. In terms of difficulty, it was much easier to learn the technique to create cream cheese and fresh cheese once she had mastered the technique to make aged cheese. Texture-wise, her cashew cream and fresh cheese are more unctuous than the normal milk-based cheese and only take days to make.

Kashew cream cheese and two varieties of fresh cheeses (mozzarella and ricotta). Photo by Michael Tatarski.

“Since cashew nuts are grown here, Vietnamese cashew nuts should have the best quality,” she shares.

Like many vegan alternative products, there are many ingredients which can be used to make vegan cheese. Lê Na revealed that she had previously tried using other ingredients to make her cheese, none of which managed to outshine the taste of her cashew cheese.

“Macadamia nuts don’t have the smooth texture that cashews give to the cheese. Soybeans on the other hand contain more protein than cashew nuts, but they aren’t as sweet and thus are not as tasty. Meanwhile, fermented bean curd gives the cheese a distinctive flavor, though culinarily, these aren’t as diverse as cashew nuts.”

Through experimenting, Lê Na has found that the taste of Vietnamese cashew nuts is far more flavorsome than that of foreign cashew nuts. Surprisingly, she explained that because Vietnam exports most of its cashews, most of the nuts sold at local markets are of foreign origin. Hence, she works with local farmers to ensure the quality of her products. By utilizing the culinary versatility of Vietnamese cashews, Lê Na has managed to promote the firm and bold flavors of one of the country’s native crops to create fresh products which are sold back into the community.

Thanks to the versatility of cashew cheese, even after mastering the technique, Lê Na still has the opportunity to experiment with flavors. In the past few years, she has been on many flavor expeditions, most memorably her expedition to pepper farms around the country.

Lê Na during a trip to a cashew farm. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

Recently, the cheese artisan has created five different pepper-flavored aged cheeses. The flavors include black forest pepper from Phu Quoc, Sichuan pepper from Ha Giang, black pepper from Lao Cai and Kon Tum, red pepper from Phu Quoc, and prickly ash (commonly used as pepper in Vietnam) from Son La, Lao Cai and Kon Tum.

Kashew Cheese's black pepper series in collaboration with the Hồ Tiêu. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

As a chili lover, she is also very proud of her chili-flavored aged cheese. She boasts proudly that the chilies she uses for her cheese come from the central region, where the chilies have more flavor and a hotter taste.

Today, Lê Na is the proud owner of Kashew Cheese, a compact artisan cashew-based cheese shop in Saigon Concept, a tranquil garden and meeting area surrounded by small fashion and artisan shops in District 2.

Although the main ingredients for her cheese include only cashew nuts, water and salt, she says that because of the changing seasonal taste of the cashews nuts, the only way to keep the flavor of the cheese consistent is to regulate the quantity of the ingredients based on experience. This is why she still oversees the quality of the store’s cheese with her husband, Tobias.

Lê Na and Tobias. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

However, by a cruel twist of fate, on the night of the September 15, a terrible fire, said to have been caused an electrical shortcut, spread through the Kashew Cheese deli. Luckily, the fire was prevented from spreading across Saigon Concept and no one was hurt. However, the all of the equipment and cheese inside the deli was destroyed. All the effort that Lê Na put into the shop was ruined, along with most of her cheese stock. Still, she wasn't fazed by the accident and decided to continue cheese sales through delivery from her kitchen, which is located nearby. 

"I am super proud of her," said Tobias. "Although it's sad that we lost all her hard work, at least we got to have a fresh start and can come back even stronger."

Lê Na working hands-on to rebuild the Kashew Cheese deli. Photo by Kashew Cheese.

Thanks to the support of her friends, family and loyal customers, the Kashew Cheese deli managed to re-open again on October 29. As most humbly written on a board outside the deli, Lê Na has truly managed to "rise from the ashes." 

The Kashew Cheese deli after the fire. Photo by Michael Tatarski.

]]> (Juliet Bao Ngoc Doling. Top photo by Michael Tatarski.) Food Culture Fri, 20 Nov 2020 14:00:00 +0700
Sipping Cocktails on Plastic Stools Is a Special Saigon Street Treat

Is there anything more synonymous with Saigon than the humble street cart? With stalls citywide on every corner, it’s our version of the public house — places where people come together and connect, as close as possible to the beating heart of the street.

From your early morning bánh mì, to a syrupy-strong cà phê to get your through the day, all the way to a sunset beer on a blue plastic stool — street carts are the lifeblood of Saigon’s local F&B scene. And as with any metropolis where international influences abound, what’s popular in brick-and-mortar eventually trickles its way down to the back-alleys.

Case in point, the rise of street-side cocktail bars. Our pandemic-weakened economy has created an inspiring breeding ground for the city’s cocktail entrepreneurs, setting up simple bars on rent-free footpaths and bringing drinkers back to the affordable streets. But these aren’t shoddy carts serving questionable mixed drinks: the owners are young and hungry, the drinks often mixology-focused, and the patrons a varying mix of locals and expats.

And among the bars, there’s a dividing line: those that firmly appeal to cocktail aficionados, making waves with a dedication to the craft and no-holds-barred experimentation, such as Ba Street Cocktail in Binh Thanh and Golden Land over in Phu Nhuan. And those more scaled-back spots serving you a good, strong classic cocktail at a fair price, such as HÚT in northern Binh Thanh and Eck in Tan Dinh.

But the grandfather to all quality street cocktail bars is City Beer Station in Da Kao, oft-visited by underground Saigon cocktail fans and a bar that’s had a surprising influence on this fresh crop of street spots. Over its four years of on-and-off existence, the simple cart that once only sold beers (hence its name) has evolved with the times, from classic cocktails to complex craft mixology.

A cocktail at City Beer Station.

“We like to think we offer a similar experience to many cocktail bars around the city, a relaxing evening after the chaos during the day — but on the street,” says Hana Pham, the manager. “Originally, when we opened, there weren’t many cocktail bars around Saigon, but as the scene changed, our drinks have changed as well.”

Bartender Jose Hau is a trained mixologist who tended bar at the now-defunct Bann. His inspired sense of experimentation means he often hand-makes much of what goes into his cocktails; sarsaparilla-infused red wine, for example.

And while the cocktail menu changes every six months or so, you can always count on his two award-winning drinks to be present: the Perfect Day (gin, Campari, rose, ginger, red cinnamon bitter) and the Saigon 1975 (rum, jasmine tea, lychee, egg-lemon).

More than its cocktails though, City Beer created a blueprint of sorts for those wanting to open a street bar, one that’s still being used to this day: a sturdy bar-top and signage set half-indoors, alongside a proliferation of chairs and tables haphazardly spread across a quiet side street, but all of it with its own individual charm. 

Head over to Phu Nhuan to see that influence in action. At Golden Land, the setup feels surprisingly similar, a series of laid-back tables and chairs around a curved corner façade. And the bar, with its bright fairy lights and pumping club tunes, is like a hipper, Gen-Z version of City Beer.

Golden Land's corner spot.

“I was about to go to America to become a chef, but COVID hit and my plans had to change,” says owner/bartender JJ Ng, who opened the bar last December with his sister Julie. “I took my sister out one night and we saw City Beer Station and thought that was exciting. Both my sister and I like to drink, so we thought we’d open our own.”

With no cocktail experience, JJ took over the street-side location outside his family’s Phu Nhuan coffee shop/house and hired a drinks specialist to teach him the basics. He then started experimenting, trying out different concoctions and flavors on quiet nights at home.

The result is a fascinating mix of solid classics (Negroni, Daiquiri, Clover Club, etc.) and fresh fruit-heavy signatures (try the Golden Dream or Bloody Kiss), alongside a notable selection of shooters.  All of them are served strong, and priced at just VND50,000 or less.

“I don’t even know if we make any money on our drinks, I don’t really count,” he says. “We opened the bar just for fun, we try not to take it too seriously. Sometimes we’re busy, sometimes we’re not, and some days I don’t even open if I don’t feel like it.”

That laid-back attitude is a large part of this newfound trend’s appeal, letting those with a lower budget delve into the shared dream of opening a bar, but without the worries of rent or even customers.

BA Street Cocktail, in the shadow of Wilton Tower in Binh Thanh, takes a similar approach. Founded by three fresh graduate friends (the name alludes both to the Vietnamese wor for "three," as well as for the phonetic "bar"), it initially only opens on weekends, as all of them have demanding weekday jobs and studies.

Hanging out at BA.

And again, it’s set in co-owner Ngo Vinh Hien’s family house. By day, his mom runs a coffee shop out of the spot. But by night, Hien and friends shake up almost 50 different cocktail varieties, as well as over a dozen original mocktails. Drinks run an expansive range, from classics (Manhattan, Old Fashioned, Martinis) and Tiki-style (Planter’s Punch, Jungle Bird), through to long-forgotten cocktails such as the Royal Hawaiian and Joe Crow.

“I discovered a passion for cocktails in late 2018 and we opened a few months later. All three of us had no cocktail experience. We all were servers at Cowboy Jack’s for less than a year, but that wasn’t helpful,” says Hien. “We learned how to make drinks online and through books, how to combine flavors and spirits.”

A sizeable menu is often cause for alarm, but every one of BA’s cocktails are solid and well-made, using quality mid-range spirits and fresh ingredients and the price reflects that, at around VND100,000 per drink.

“But we’re not focused on making money — I want to show people the variations in cocktails, and we’re just here to make good drinks and good friends,” says Hien. “Street cocktail bars are a new experience here; they’re more accessible than a regular lounge. And street drinking is a part of Saigon culture.”

Indeed, the local pastime of street-side drinking is literally part of the charm for the next tier of new street cocktail bars. HÚT for example, in Binh Thanh, is as unassuming you can get: nothing more than a couple of stools and a cart with a few bottles.

But décor can be deceiving: owner Danny Nguyen is far and away the most experienced of all the people profiled here, having bartended for six years at such prestigious names as the Hotel des Arts, Qui and Blanchy’s Lounge. He wanted nothing more than to open his own bar, and the simplicity of his space reflects the pared-down appeal of the drinks on offer.

Plastic stools and classic cocktails at HÚT.

“We opened in Binh Thanh because I live here, and because it’s cheap,” says Nguyen. “Our cocktail menu is simple and classic: Whiskey Sour, Margarita, Mojito — I wanted to keep things easy. Most people around here don’t even know about classic cocktails, so we wanted to educate them a bit.”

Having only opened two months ago, Nguyen admits that most people order mocktails and juices, but he has seen an uptick in his quality, affordable cocktails (just VND45,000 each). And more importantly, it’s an exciting break from the norm. “It’s a fresh trend," he says. “It’s not better than a bar, but it’s fresh and exciting, and Vietnamese like to drink on the streets.”

And finally, there’s Eck in Tan Dinh, a place that is, in fact, technically the oldest street cocktail bar in Saigon, at five years, not to mention arguably the most popular. This is where most city folks come for a street cocktail: stools lined up on a wall opposite Tan Dinh Market (its second branch on Nguyen Hue doesn’t serve alcohol) and a relatively safe selection of sweet, fruity drinks, interchangeable between vodka, rum, whiskey and tequila.

We couldn’t talk to the owner, simply because none of the staff knew who the owner was, but a server did tell us a little about the space: “We’re the first street cocktail bar in Saigon,” she said. “We’re more professional than most, we have uniforms, we also train all our staff here, including the bartenders, they learn how to make drinks here.”

In a way, Eck is the street cocktail trend’s fast-food equivalent: drinks are reliably consistent (if far from special) and served in paper cups, the staff all wear bright-yellow bowling shirts, tables are placed evenly in intervals, and you both order and pay at the counter. It’s not exciting, but it serves a purpose, although that might soon change.

Evening entertainment at Eck.

Because as the city’s nightlife scene continues to progress, street cocktail bars feel like an exciting alternative to the endless glitzy lounges, bringing together locals and expats alike in a thoroughly Saigon way. And on a smaller scale, it’s equally as interesting to consider the immediate future of the trend’s current players.

Golden Land’s JJ wants to turn his parents’ coffee shop into a cocktail lounge, “when they retire in a couple years”; Hien at BA is planning to renovate the space to make it “more bar-like.” HUT’s Danny Nguyen is the most ambitious, his dream of opening a rooftop speakeasy is in the works, he says, but for now, he’s happy running his street cocktail bar.

As are they all, it seems. Hien says it best, though, when asked his opinion on the trend. “There are so many cocktail bars opening in Saigon and most don’t understand the product, so it feels like copy-paste. But if it’s a place that’s passionate about the drinks and the bar is a reflection of the owner — even if it’s on the street — that’s where things can get interesting.”


  • City Beer Station: 28ter Mac Dinh Chi, Da Kao, D1
  • Golden Land Street Cocktail: 58 Hoa Su, Ward 7, Phu Nhuan
  • BA Street Cocktail: 71/6 Nguyen Van Thuong, Ward 25, Binh Thanh
  • HÚT Cocktail: 107 Hoang Hoa Tham, Ward 7, Binh Thanh
  • Eck Street Cocktail: 327 Hai Ba Trung, Ward 8, D3
]]> (Pavan Shamdasani. Photos by Rory Gill.) Bars & Cafes Fri, 13 Nov 2020 14:00:00 +0700