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Pho and Coke, a winning combination

Oh God, where to begin? I’ve loved Vietnamese food pretty much forever. Near where I grew up there’s a restaurant called La Dalat (Yelp informs me it’s still there, but it’s now more “Asian fusion” than Vietnamese. Having now gotten used to the culinary hyper-specialization of Singapore – where one person serves one dish from the same stall for 50 years – I’m sort of horrified by “pan-Asian” menus that feature everything from sushi to pad thai. I sound kind of douchey¬† but I feel like it also reflects poorly on us customers who don’t have a sophisticated enough palate to recognize that those cuisines feature completely different flavors, ingredients and cooking techniques. Per usual I digress…)

So anyway, growing up La Dalat served Vietnamese-specific food, and it was always a huge treat getting to go there. I remember in particular making special trips with my Mom as a reward for doing well on a test, or maybe celebrating my birthday. The fried spring rolls were my favorite (though by high school I grew up enough to become a devotee of Pho Pasteur in Harvard Square, I swear!). I’ve always loved Vietnamese food for being so flavorful but also lighter than a lot of other Asian cuisines. Needless to say, I spent much of my 40-or-so hours in Ho Chi Minh City stuffing my face. I’ll shut up and let the photos do most of the talking.

Vietnamese Iced Coffee (with condensed milk, YUM!) at a lovely outdoor cafe overlooking Dong Khoi:

Lovely outdoor seating at said cafe:

The first of many, many fresh summer rolls (goi cuon) at a great restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet, Quan An Ngon. I usually try to steer clear of guidebook recommendations, but this place was equally filled with locals, which seemed like a good sign:

And seriously, you can’t beat a setting like this (or prices that add up to about $7 for what amounts to two full lunches’ worth of food):

Maybe the best spring rolls of all: pork, garlic and fresh ginger. YUMMO!

Whenever I travel to a new place, it’s sort of a ritual to download and watch the Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations episode if one exists for it (either he’s been everywhere by now or I just go a lot of places he’s been, I guess). No Reservations is one of my favorite shows and I always try to hit up at least one of the places Bourdain visits if I can help it. Fortunately, Vietnam happens to be his favorite country on earth and he’s actually done three episodes there; “Vietnam 2” is devoted almost entirely to HCMC.

So for dinner on Saturday night I took a cab to Banh Xeo 46A, which Bourdain not only visited, but also gets raves from both Lonely Planet and The Luxe Guide to Ho Chi Minh City (i.e. all three of my sources). I knew this would also make it crowded and full of tourists like me, but it seemed worth it.

Banh Xeo is a fried pancake that comes with different fillings. From I can gather the standard one is pork and prawns (that’s what they brought me). It’s golden and crispy, and you then mash it up to eat with lettuce and a plethora of delicious fresh, local herbs:

According to Lonely Planet, the nearby Mekong Delta river valley is the “salad bowl of Southeast Asia,” meaning all sorts of veggies and herbs are readily available and used liberally in South Vietnamese cooking. I couldn’t get enough of all the mint, lemongrass, basil, and coriander that seemed to come with virtually every dish. When eating banh xeo, you mash up some bits of pancake, wrap them in a giant lettuce leaf, and pile it high with herbs. Is this the most gorgeous plate of lettuce you’ve ever seen or what?

As an added bonus, the couple that seemed to run the restaurant were super friendly and spoke really good English (which I found to be less common than I’d expected, and certainly a lot less widespread than in Thailand or Cambodia. Maybe about on par with Laos). They called me a cab after I paid my bill and as I was waiting they asked me questions about the U.S. and showed off their geographic knowledge (“Boston? That’s sort of by Washington, right?”) which was of course vastly superior to probably anything that Americans (myself included) could you tell you about Vietnam. It’s little moments like that can make you (or at least me) think about our place in the world, American arrogance, and all of that stuff. I guess I’d maybe call it pleasantly humbling? Anyway, given the restaurant’s sterling reputation in like every mainstream media outlet, they clearly know what they’re doing, and I’d definitely give it two thumbs up.

Suffice it to say, I was extremely full that night. And yet knowing that my time in Vietnam was limited, I felt compelled to get some dessert. After conferring with the hotel concierge, I set out on foot for Le Loi. They told me to head toward the night market, but before I could get there I came across an ice cream parlour that was totally jumping. It was like the Vietnamese Friendlys or something:

After being given a great table on the sidewalk to take in the evening scene, I marveled at the cabloads of multi-generational families that seemed to continuously pour in at, like, 11:00pm. Where were the ice cream parlours that stayed open that late on the South Shore, and why didn’t I ever get to go to them when I was a little kid?! Anyway, I enjoyed a wonderful coconut milkshake (a whopping $1.50 or so) while watching hordes of scooters zoom past:

The next morning I headed out to Benh Thanh Market where, after getting the obligatory souvenir shopping out of the way, I wandered in a drooling daze around the massive food hall. I was fairly entranced by the signs that seemed to jostle for ad space:

After sampling yet more fresh summer rolls, I made a beeline for che, a tapioca dessert I’d read about on the food blog Saigon Top 10 (of course recommended by Anthony Bourdain). I think I maybe tried something similar when I was in Cambodia, but the version of che troi nuoc that I ate in HCMC was to die for. According to Saigon Top 10, che troi nuoc are “tapioca orbs filled with mung bean paste and served soaked in coconut milk with a sprinkling of toasted sesame seeds.” Perhaps that sounds a little gross, and maybe it doesn’t even look that good, but it’s just so much sweet, gooey goodness (so vastly superior to the savory corn-and-bean chendol thing so popular here that I just can’t abide):

I got this at a stand called Be Che, where a small army of women wearing cute purple outfits worked behind the counter with assembly-line efficiency. Every stool but one was occupied (a good indication of a popular place), and I certainly had no complaints. Even looking at this photo I’m starting to drool a little bit just recalling it.

After my trip around Benh Thanh I was pretty full and probably could have gone the rest of my time without eating anything else, but one iconic Vietnamese food item was markedly absent and I was determined to find it: Banh Mi. The famous Vietnamese sandwich – a baguette loaded with meats, perhaps fish sauce or vinegar, and local herbs – unfortunately eluded me on this trip. There were plenty of stands for it at the market, but I foolishly assumed I’d find more walking back along Dong Khoi, and sadly didn’t. It’s just one more reason that I’ll have to go back, I guess!

Earlier in the trip (in fact on my very first night) I did snag a wonderful bowl of pho noodles:

Look at that gorgeous broth! This was just as tasty and satisfying as I could have imagined.

Having failed in my attempt to track down a banh mi but determined to get in one more local dish, I happened upon a goi cuon (summer rolls)-only place somewhat near my hotel. After walking in the door I was slightly disappointed to realize that there was no AC (as things were a bit stuffy with the door closed), but the man and his two daughters at the counter seemed so delighted to have a customer that I didn’t have the heart to leave. I’m so glad that I didn’t, as I thoroughly enjoyed the steamed rolls filled with delicious minced pork, plump mushrooms, and perfectly crispy shallots:

Until it’s proven otherwise, I shall henceforth operate under the assumption that everyone in Vietnam is a fantastic cook. The abundance of ingredients and flavors, combined with the simplicity of presentation, is just so delightful (and mind-blowing).

A few other random pictures:

I don’t know what these moist little nuggets are called, but I think they’re made from pandan and coconut, and I bought them from a street vendor who was making them with a waffle iron. Deeelish.

Rambutans being hawked from a motorbike basket. Such a fun fruit to photograph, though I preferred the taste of mangosteens (the friendly vendor insisted that I try both).

This ad cracked me up because at first I was like, “It’s great that they take so much pride in their iced coffee!” (not so different from how we are with Dunkin Donuts in Boston). But then I was like, “Wait a minute, if it’s sooooo Vietnamese, why is this ad in English? Needless to say, I did not go to this place.

So once again, the food was incredible, and I can’t wait to explore the country further and sample more regional cuisine (from what I’ve heard Hue, Hoi An and Hanoi are all completely different, and of course I need to make it to Dalat). I never got sick of the pervasiveness of pho and how it’s basically their fast food (and yet, soooo much healthier than ours). Like, there are chains called Pho 24 and Pho 2000 that are equivalent to McDonalds and Burger King (neither of which I saw, by the way, though I did see a Pizza Hut). And I just loved that billboard at the top, where a bowl of noodles seems to stand in for a burger and fries.

I continue to marvel at this part of the world and its rich culinary traditions. On the one hand, I think about restaurants in my hometown – the one Thai restaurant, the one sushi place, “Asian Fusion” La Dalat – and I think about how bland and overpriced they now seem compared to the real thing. On the other hand, thank goodness for those restaurants, and to my parents for exposing me to those cuisines from an early age. Eating spring rolls with my mom at La Dalat in the early 90s, I don’t think I ever could have imagined exploring Vietnam on my own. But it’s all the more exciting looking back on how far I’ve come.