Connecting to Asia culture
#Top5 CHICKEN WINGS IN SAIGON
1. Game On
Probably the most famous of wings hail from Buffalo. These deep fried goodies are as ubiquitous to sports bars as pitchers of cheap beer. There are a bunch of places that do buffalo wings in Ho Chi Minh City. We’ve pretty much had them all and found the wings at Game On the best in town. Crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, the thermonuclear red vinegary Franks Red Hot Sauce clings onto the wings perfectly. Licking your fingers isn’t just optional, it’s a must with these wings. Accompanying the wings is the obligatory celery/carrot/blue cheese garnish. Orders are done via six, 12, or 18 wings.
#Address: 115 Ho Tung Mau, District 1.
2. Banh Xeo 46A
Oddly enough, we find the best Canh Ga Nuoc Mam in town at a place that is known in the Lonely Planet for a completely different dish. Yes, we know, Banh Xeo 46A is a bit of a tourist trap but do yourself a favour and order these wings the next time you are entertaining out of town friends. The smell of potent fish sauce based glaze can be offputting but take a bite and you will be converted. The perfect amount of sweet and savoury with little flecks of finely chopped garlic in the mix makes for a heady combination. The portion is quite large, even with the inclusion of the most useless of the useless, the wing tip.
#Address: 46 Dinh Cong Trang, District 1.
One doesn’t usually put tom yum and chicken wings in the same breath. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad combination as B.O.C. has shown us. The Thai-inspired dish is a deal at VND 55,000 for a portion of six wings with a refreshing side salad. The skin of the wings were the crunchiest we had in the bunch with B.O.C.’s special flour mixture. Thankfully, the meat managed to stay moist and tender. The punchy tom yum sauce wasn’t too spicy as one might expect with hints of ginger and lemongrass with each bite.
#Address: 43 Nguyen Van Giai, District 1.
4. Quan Ga Nuong Anh Tuyet
It might seem wrong that we’ve mentioned this hole in the wall in a previous issue but if wrong tastes this good, I don’t want to be right. Walking up to the joint, one can see that grilling is king here. And the wings reflect that. The crisp, slightly charred skin belies the tender juicy meat on the inside. The chicken is marinated in a fish sauce/ sugar concoction that most Vietnamese restaurants use. And it’s used to good effect as the flavour punches through the smoky skin to complement the wings.
#Address: 71 Ngo Tat To, District 1.
For those that live in the far¬-flung outpost that is Phu My Hung in District 7, there is still salvation for wing lovers. At this venerable watering hole they serve up deep¬fried buffalo¬style wings but with a selection of six different sauces. You can go hot or mild, zingy Asian, spicy garlic, spicy BBQ (a personal favourite), Caribbean jerk, or just plain old plain. Orders come in half¬-dozen, 12 or 24, while a platter of crudites with ranch dressing is an optional extra.
#Address: R224 Bui Bang Doan, District 7.
A time-tested French restaurant that continues to shine
TY COZ French Restaurant
#Address: 178/4 Pasteur, District 1, Ho Chi Minh City.
#Tel: 08 38 22 24 57
#Open: 11am-1.30pm and 6-9.30pm, Tuesday to Saturday
11am-2pm and 6-9pm, Sunday
There is no shortage of French restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, but few have been around for as long as Ty Coz. That’s why I’m always surprised when expats say they have never eaten here. Now in its ninth year, this restaurant remains one of the best in town. Run by two French brothers, Richard in the kitchen and Philippe in the dining room, the restaurant hasn’t changed its formula since opening. Because it clearly works.
Each day the offerings, chosen based on what is fresh in the market that morning, are hand-written on a large blackboard. The main dishes change daily and Philippe says since opening, they have created more than 600.
On our most recent visit, that included an imported grilled sea bass (shipped in every Friday). This dish was the most expensive on the menu (VND 850,000) and was served whole with an assortment of stewed vegetable julienne. Here, only the mains are priced, but each comes with an appetiser and dessert. Appetisers include the popular oysters, which have four pieces, each one prepared in a different way — raw or cooked with cheese, for instance.
We also tried the les pétoncles (scallops with pasta for VND 340,000), which was one of the cheaper mains on this day’s menu. The pasta was served in a mound in the centre of the plate and was surrounded by nine fresh scallops, prepared in several different ways.
As if scallops and oysters weren’t rich enough, we ended the meal with a mousse-like homemade brownie and homemade coffee ice cream, served with a shot of espresso.
Located down an alley off of Pasteur Street in District 1, the restaurant primarily uses its third-floor dining room and fourth-floor patio, which gives a stunning view of the spires of the Notre Dame cathedral. But starting this month, they will open the ground floor to serve lunch specials for around VND 195,000, which are designed as quick meals for working professionals. Also this month they will begin serving cheese fondue and raclette on the first floor.
Probably the most alluring aspect of this restaurant is how unpretentious it is. Despite a complex menu, Philippe works hard to explain it in great detail so that even the uninitiated will feel right at home — something I can’t say about most French restaurants around town.
XÔI GÀ – Sai Gon
#Location: Ba Chieu Market, Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City.
Stand outside a market at closing time and you'll bear witness to the daily routines of its swift, unceremonious demise. After sunset, Binh Thanh District's Ba Chieu Market transforms before your eyes from a vibrant center of activity to a ghost town of empty street stalls, rubbish and unusual smells. Like turning on the lights after a wild Saturday night, it ain't pretty.
But located in one of the most questionable areas of Ba Chieu is a famous sticky rice place that is worth braving the eerie phenomenon of a market after hours. The streetside spot has long been a part of my childhood, thanks to its unique location and signature xá xíu, that most heavenly Chinese roast pork. I'm not sure exactly how old the place is, but it's been on this earth at least as long as I have – 25 years.
Surprise, surprise: like any good street food haunt, the place has no address. But if you look for the intersection of Bui Huu Nghia and Vu Tung Streets, you shall be rewarded in the form of a fluorescent-lit roadside paradise on the side of the big market building.
While it's a not-so-glamorous aspect of the spot, I feel the need to point out that there is a constant foul odor which, for me, ties in with the identity of the place. I'm not sugar-coating it: the smell is bad. But besides the odor, there's plenty going on at this xôi gà eatery everyday from 3pm to 12 midnight.
As the name suggests, one order of xôi gà includes sticky rice and a fried chicken drumstick, but you can also opt for one of two twists on the original: xá xíu or shredded chicken. The recipe is simple: put xôi in a banana leaf, add chicken (or your preferred meat) and top with ground shrimp, soy sauce and mỡ hành – a delicious combination of oil and onions – for flavor.
If you look closely at this particular place's setup, you'll see the secret sauce. It should be noted that any street food establishment worth your dong should have a secret sauce. If the surest way to a person's heart is through their stomach, condiments are the vehicle that'll get you there.
Before adding anything else, the xôi gà ladies will apply this strange concoction to the sticky rice. If I had to guess, I'd say the mystery sauce comes from making xá xíu. It’s a delicate and time-consuming process to combine five different kinds of spices with pork. Once complete, you can cook raw xá xíu in many different ways, but for the secret gravy it seems they put it on a stove and let the heat do the work.
Despite being the headliner of the place, their chicken drumsticks aren't my top choice, but I love the xá xíu. That said, though, the rest of my family really loves the chicken, so I suppose that makes it worth an endorsement. No matter what you get, don't underestimate the ground shrimp. There's a subtle magic in there; somehow, you don't crave them until after they're gone.
Finally, note the packaging in which you receive the xôi gà: there aren't many places that use banana leaves and newspaper wraps anymore. These days, they just don't make street food like they used to.
Bánh Căn and the Elixir of Life
#Address: 106 Truong Dinh, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
The more battered the tables, the more precarious the seating, the more dubious the location, the more we feel at one with the chaos of Saigon street life.
But even though nothing beats a good street food stall, everyone needs to be pampered now and again. Sometimes, the best cure for stress and hanger is to escape from work, eat your feelings and pass out in the temperature-controlled glory of a restaurant that has windows and an indoor toilet.
This is the mindset with which we arrived at Quan Dat, a popular local spot at the end of Truong Dinh on the Thi Nghe-Nhieu Loc Canal. Featuring four walls, air-con and a framed photo of George W. Bush, this place is hẻm gem haute cuisine. There are chairs that don't fold and wooden tables, and when you ask for the bill, it comes in a check book. What can we say? Luxury.
Apart from the high-end accoutrements, there are three main reasons to visit Quan Dat and they're all on the first page of the menu (yes, there is a menu). Whatever you do, be sure to order the following: gỏi cá mai, a Vietnamese salad of fish and fresh veggies; bánh xèo Phan Rang, a smaller rendition of the Vietnamese pancake featuring seafood and bean sprouts; and bánh căn, or steamed egg-and-rice-flour cakes topped with shrimp, squid or meat.
The gỏi cá mai comes first. There is a soft spot in my heart for Vietnamese salads, mostly because they usually turn out to be far more substantial and far less disappointing than their western counterparts. This one comes with a pile of fresh young mango, coconut, greens and crispy fried onion bits in the middle, ringed by small sections of raw cá mai. Grab a sheet of rice paper, wet it and add a healthy balance of veggies and raw fish to your DIY spring roll. You can throw in a few additional greens from the share plates on the table, wrap and eat with its accompanying reddish-gold sauce. Alone, the flavors and textures of gỏi cá mai complement one another nicely, but when combined with this particularly amazing condiment, this dish is damn near perfect.
It should be noted here how much I love sauce. As any former child can attest, there is no better way to transform a meal from average to delicious than by drowning it in condiments. You name it – barbecue, ketchup, nước mắm, salad dressing – each and every one is a meal-maker. In the noble canon of sauces, however, Quan Dat's is at the top. I'm no scientist but when combined with a good peanut sauce, nước mắm may, in fact, be the elixir of life.
By the time the bánh xèo comes, it's your turn to concoct a customized version of this magical condiment. Personally, I prefer a one-to-one ratio of the two condiments but feel free to mix as you see fit. The purple nonsense in the third bowl – mắm nêm – may be appropriate for other occasions, but this dish is not one of them. Whatever you do, be generous: you can always get free top-ups on the sauce bowls.
For the main event, pick your favorite lettuce leaf and add in some greens alongside the bánh xèo. These pancakes are particularly delicious for a few reasons: they're not too oily, the consistency of the rice flour is just right – neither too doughy nor too crispy – and the combination of fried goodness, seafood, fresh greens and, of course, sauce creates an excellent range of flavors.
The same goes for bánh căn, a slightly healthier, bite-sized version of Phan Rang's bánh xèo. If you've ever seen someone make bánh khọt, the Vung Tau specialty that's basically a fried bánh xèo nugget, this dish is the same idea, only steamed and with a little more egg. Before you even walk in, you'll happen upon a team of masked ladies out front manning a large outdoor stove covered with clay bánh căn molds. By the time it reaches your table, these tasty morsels are piping hot, and one taste is all it takes to appreciate the skill of Quan Dat's bánh căn team. Given the fact that they go through 10 kilos of rice flour a day on this dish alone, it's safe to say these ladies know what they're doing.
While Quan Dat makes for an incredible midday feast, lunch isn't necessarily the best time to turn up, as the deep, coma-inducing power of its dishes will put a wrap on your day. Dinnertime is a little better, as you can sit out front on the street, but also a little livelier, so be prepared to wait for a table if you prefer to be outdoors.
Eat Your Way Through Nguyen Hue's Secret Street Food Alley
Nguyen Hue's heritage has been badly degraded over the years. Thanks to the city's neverending development, its older buildings have either been torn down, used as air-conditioning unit pedestals or turned into fast food joints. Beyond the ornate lost facades, these architectural changes impact locals who, like the old buildings, are swept away, never to return to the place they have called home for generations.
However, there is still a sliver of old Saigon hidden away in what, from the street, appears to be an unremarkable hẻm.
Birds chirp, traditional Buddhist ballads play over antiquated speakers and decaying – but still charming – colonial-era row houses line Nguyen Hue's hẻm 53. Many of these structures sport handsome wooden doors locked in place by slats. If not for the rows of motorbikes and a handful of neon signs, you could easily be convinced that you had traveled back in time, or at least to the more traditional enclaves of District 6.
The hẻm is occupied primarily by long-term residents who, according to one vendor, are unable to make alterations or improvements to their homes, as redevelopment plans have been in the works for decades. That suits us just fine: these plans have conserved the neighborhood, both in terms of the hẻm's architecture and its businesses.
With too many options to try, we limited ourselves to the hẻm's premier chè spot. The place has been in business for over two decades, and unlike many of its counterparts, who keep their ingredients in plastic jars for days, the folks at 53/2 keep things fresh, even cooking up different jelly flavors each day.
We first sampled the thạch yogurt, an orange and yogurt-based drink with plenty of goodies, ranging from passion fruit to generous chunks of cantalope. Akin to a parfait, the ingredients were stacked in layers though a quick swirl of the spoon mixed the half-dozen ingredients together. Drink this one fast, as warm yogurt is a no-go and the melting ice cubes detract from its flavor.
Next up was their own invention, a cooling dessert called chè thạch. The glass has condensed droplets around its interior and is filled with colorful layers of brown sugar longan, milky beads of thốt nốt, or palm fruit, and white, pudding-like cubes made from soya bean and pandan leaf. It might look no different from other chè thạch, but the balanced sweetness and creative mix of ingredients are key. The soya pudding's mild flavor blended into the tender sugarcane syrup fused with sweetness from the longan and the fragrant pandan leaf jelly. Visually speaking, a little bit of every taste and color in one small glass embodies the feel of this town, not just in our minds but in our mouths.
“You won’t find a second glass of this chè anywhere in Saigon,” the owner told us.
Happy with our drinks, we ordered some of the hẻm's other specialties from a neighboring eatery – moist fried chicken rice and a fried hủ tiếu thập cảm laden with an assortment of meat and seafood. Both were distinctly Chinese in flavor, cheap and delicious.
OP LA LA!!
#Address: Hoa Ma Quan, 53 Cao Thang, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City.
#Open: 6am-12pm (officially -- they close up shop when the run out of supplies, which can be as early as 1030am).
Every morning on the pavement just outside our house in Saigon's District 1 a vendor arranged eight tiny plastic stools around a makeshift cooker. There, from about 630 until 10 in the morning, she served order after order of op la (fried eggs cooked with various sausages).
Back then Dave worked a different sort of job, one that required a shirt and tie and his presence at an office from an early hour, so we didn't partake often. But when we did, we marveled at the perfectection of her sunny-side-up eggs: lightly crispy on the bottom, whites just past the point of jiggly, and yolks runny enough to generously stain the baguette we ate alongside.
After we left Saigon in 2005 that op la served as our fried eggs gold standard -- until, on this last trip back, we were introduced to the op la at Hoa Ma Quan.
This 40-year-old establishment occupies a typically long, narrow corner shop in District 3. Tables overflow its small space onto the alley outside. And on Saturdays and Sundays and before office hours on weekdays, they're filled with folks digging into op la.
Hoa Ma Quan opened as a banh mi shop (we'll have more to say on that specialty later). The proprietress, who moved with her family from Hanoi, can still be found behind the counter taking money and making change while her daughters split and stuff baguettes.
At Hoa Ma Quan they do things the old-fashioned way, which means that most banh mi and op la ingredients -- mayonnaise, pate, and many of the sausages -- are made in house. Baguettes are kept warm in an oven heated with charcoal.
All of this attention to detail makes for an op la that is a cut above the average.
Think Western-style bacon and eggs given a twist and a leg up courtesy of Vietnamese culinary ingenuity.The eggs arrive in individual pans, yolks done just so and bottoms browned and crackly. Nestled in the egg whites are slices of pork sausage and a few chunks of a bacon-ish meat that, unlike many lesser pork products, really taste of the pig. Triangles of chewy gluten browned in pork fat add an intriguing textural dimension.
The op la is served with a plate of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers and a bit of bracing carrot pickle. And, of course, a big warm, crusty baguette.
There's only one way to improve upon Hoa Ma Quan's op la, and that is to order it with a side of pate (smooth, mild, and very porky) and mayonnaise (impossibly rich and eggy). We allternated bites of egg and sausage and baguette dipped in runny yolk with bits of bread spread smeared with pate and freshly made mayonnaise. I thought I'd died and gone to heaven.
A couple of weeks ago, this was my birthday breakfast. And I couldn't help but imagine that starting the day with pate must be an auspicious way to start a new year.
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