Saturday, January 31, 2009

Ho Chi Minh City (Part 6)

Day 11

I dreamed about fruit last night. I don't remember the dreams, only that fruit featured in them. Tropical fruit, mostly, such as what you come across in any of Saigon's many sidewalk stands. I'm not making this up, but I also remember monkeys. They were hanging from telephone wires above the street and, I think, trying to find employment at the fruit stands. Some of them were smoking cigarettes, which later became miniature bananas, which then became cookies. It was all very strange, and now it's just a bunch of fuzzy, unconnected images in my mind.

Anyway, when I woke up I was hungry for fruit, so I headed down the street to Sozo Cafe and ordered a fruit plate. It cost about $1.50 and was delicious. So much fruit -- a great way to start a morning.

Breakfast at Sozo Cafe

But I didn't get my daily coffee at Sozo. Instead, I headed across town to Binh An Cafe, which is on an island in the Saigon River called Thanh Da. It's an interesting part of the city, but a pain to reach. The only reason I went all that way is because Binh An is one of my favorite cafes in all of Vietnam.

Jazz performance area at Binh An Cafe

It's not your normal cafe, not by any stretch. It's better described, I think, as a large estate full of gorgeous antiques and tropical landscaping, owned and managed by two older Vietnamese-Chinese women who obviously have a lot of money -- and a wonderful vision of what a riverside cafe can be like. (They also own Binh An Resort in Vung Tau, which is unbelievably gorgeous, too.)

Except on the weekends, Binh An is generally a quiet, serene getaway from the city, where all you can hear is a chorus of frogs, crickets, and birds. White cranes are frequent visitors to the cafe's ponds, and they can often be seen flying between both banks of the river. And the river really makes this cafe special. I can sit here for hours with a book, or my computer -- and a cup of Binh An's excellent coffee (too bad it's $4.50 for an iced black coffee) -- and just let the day melt away.

View from my table at Binh An. That long, red and blue object to the left of the thatched hut is a fishing boat that's been placed there for ambience.

Binh An is expensive. Their food is decent but not great, and overpriced (just like at Binh An Resort). I'd recommend eating elsewhere before coming here, to be honest, and then giving yourself a lot of time to sit back with a nice cold drink and just enjoy the scenery and peacefulness.

Binh An is located at 1163 Xo Viet Nghe Tinh Street, Binh Thanh District. Their phone number is (08) 898-7770.

I got back from Binh An in time to grab a quick lunch at an old "bun thit nuong" favorite -- Nam An Restaurant in Phu My Hung (District 7). This trip started and ended with disappointment.

In front of Nam An Restaurant

First of all, my favorite dish, rice vermicelli noodles with grilled pork skewers, veggies, peanuts, and fish sauce, wasn't available. However, they still had grilled pork chops (suon), and they cut these up into strips and scattered them nicely over the same dish I'd come all that way to have. It was all very good -- their grilled pork is as good as I've ever found in Vietnam -- except for the noodles, which were all clumped together.

The second problem is a problem common to all of Vietnam: the people at the table beside mine stared at me the whole time that I was eating and commented to each other about my taking two photos of the meal. The comment about my photographing the food is fine; I don't care. But who likes to be stared at while they're eating? Am I a zoo animal? The thing is, Phu My Hung is home to a great many foreigners, so it's nothing new for a white guy to eat in the same place that they're eating. If I were to stare at them while they ate, they'd get angry. I'm sure of it, because I used to do this in the past and that was always what happened. Oh well. Like I said, at least the food was good.

They were out of my favorite "thit nuong" skewers, but this nearly made up for it

Nam An is located at S6-1, Hung Vuong 2, Phu My Hung, District 7. Their phone number is (08) 5410-0286.

I needed more coffee after lunch, so I headed down Tran Hung Dao Street, toward Chinatown, to my favorite Trung Nguyen Cafe. It wasn't all that busy, but I headed to the third floor with my computer to make use of the free wifi. I found the place pleasantly empty, and the waitresses there wasted no time in giving me their coffee menu. I went there for one thing and one thing only, and I found it on page two of the menu: ca phe chon.

The third floor of Trung Nguyen Cafe

Ca phe chon is purported to be made from Arabica coffee beans eaten by civets and either shat or puked out. That's right: civet coffee! Or, as I've heard it more poetically called, civet-puke or civet-shit coffee. It's relatively expensive, as most foods are that are: 1) disgusting in concept, 2) labor intensive to produce, and 3) deliciously successful.

The civet coffee is bitterer than other coffees, and people often drink it with sweetened condensed milk, as pictured below. Mine was fantastic. I could have drunk about five of them, but had I done so I would have exploded from all the caffeine and sugar. My ca phe (chon) sua da cost 34,000 dong, or just under US$2. I also got complementary iced jasmine tea (to cleanse the palate -- brilliant) and free refills.

Nothing like a fresh brewed cup of civet java

This Trung Nguyen Cafe is located on the corner of Tran Hung Dao and Nguyen Van Cu in District 1. Their coffee is awesome. Starbucks can't hold a candle to these guys.

Dinnertime rolled around, and after walking around for about an hour looking for something interesting, I settled, inexplicably, on a small food cart parked inside a local-looking eatery in the backpacker district. I think it was the "pho bo" sign that appealed to me. Even more inexplicably, however, I ordered "bo kho," a kind of hearty beef stew that's usually eaten with a baguette. It cost 25,000 dong ($1.43) and as I sat down I began to get excited about my first bo kho in perhaps three years.

Dinner cart on Bui Vien Street

To my surprise, the bo kho came with noodles rather than bread, and the meat was not meat at all, but rather beef fat and what appeared to be boiled skin (of the cow, I'm guessing). The stew was also quite greasy, and all I could really deal with were the noodles. So I ate them and ordered a Chinese steamed bun (banh bao) from a hot display case in front of the food cart.

Bo kho...or is it?

The banh bao was huge and quite good, and only cost 10,000 dong (57 cents). It was filled with two different types of pork, a ball of egg yolk, and something crunchy that I think was a bit of onion.

Steamed Chinese bun

I'm not sure what the exact address of this place is. It's probably around 120 Bui Vien Street, but I have a hard time recommending it.

Day 12

Although I didn't dream about fruit-smoking monkeys last night, I was again awakened much earlier than I would have liked by at least one rooster. I tried to stuff pillows over my head to block the sound out, but the crowing penetrated them and I found myself rolling out of bed to get a start on the day...which of course means breakfast.

I headed back to Lam's Cafe for a banana pancake with chocolate syrup and a tall glass of iced black coffee. Since today is my last full day in Saigon, and because I was planning to move to a hotel in a different part of the city, I said goodbye to Lam, or the young man I always assumed was Lam, and his family. I'm going to miss their breakfasts...

At noon I moved to a hotel on Dong Du Street, closer to the river. After getting settled in, I went looking for my favorite rice porridge (chao) restaurant, but it was packed and the people at the door were annoyingly persistent in trying to seat me at the end of a table that actually had a party going on there already. ("Here, just join them!")

After wandering around the area I noticed an old Saigon standby, Bo Gia ("Godfather") Cafe, in a different location than where it had been two years ago. I used to think this place was impervious to the changes happening all around it, but it eventually succumbed to the pressure to fancy itself up, and when I left Saigon in 2007 I was sorry I'd been around to see it change. But now it's changed again, and it's even moved to a different street. (It also now has four Bo Gia's scattered around Saigon.)

Entrance to Bo Gia Cafe

They didn't use to sell food, other than ice cream, but as I passed by I noticed several people eating lunch at their tables. Since I was having a hell of a time finding a place that passed for "local grub," I stopped to look at their menu. I was happy to find "bo luc lac," a peppery, wok-seared beef dish (it literally means "shaking beef," a name that evokes the way the beef gets slung around in the wok) that I hadn't tried yet during my trip, so I went inside, grabbed a table, and ordered the dish along with an iced tea.

Bo luc lac and french fries

My bo luc lac was good -- well cooked cubes of salty, peppery beef -- but the portion was small (that "salad" in the photo above takes up a lot of room on the plate), and I knew I'd be hungry again soon.

I finished my meal and ordered what I'd always associated with Bo Gia -- coffee! I generally don't like coffee after a meal in which meat predominates, but I couldn't pass this up, especially since I was leaving Vietnam the next day and probably wouldn't have a chance to come back here before then. The coffee was excellent, though it must be said that the more modern version of their cafe lacks the character of the original, and to me that affected my enjoyment of Bo Gia. ("This is the original Bo Gia Cafe," I was told, "only the location is different, we've modernized, and we now serve food.") If you don't have that point of comparison, however, you may like Bo Gia just fine. To me, it's just another in the long line of places that have been relegated to an older, more interesting Saigon. But I guess it's inevitable.

Bo Gia can be found at 29 Ngo Duc Ke Street, District One. Their telephone number is (08) 3913-0848.

As predicted, I got hungry again in the midafternoon. Without wanting to order a big meal, I decided to hit Pat A Chou, a bakery around the corner from my hotel. It's a small place, but it's been here for years, and I knew it would satisfy my craving for something bready. I had a long look at the pastry rack, switched over to their sandwich display, and placed my order -- more food than I needed, but oh well.

Pastries rack at Pat A Chou

I ordered a sandwich made from grilled pork patties mixed with herbs (banh mi nem nuong) and, against my better judgment, a pear danish.

Nem nuong sandwich

The sandwich was decent, but nothing I'd rush back to have. The nem nuong had a nice garlic kick to it, and the bread tasted freshly baked, but what it really needed was a bit of fresh vegetables. For just over a dollar, however, it IS worth going back for. Just not right away.

Pear danish

The danish was pretty rich, but somehow without the sweetness I was expecting. Eating it, I knew it would show up as love handles the next morning, but once I started it I couldn't stop myself from finishing it.

Just a little tip from me to you: Vietnamese pastries may often LOOK like western pastries, but they tend to be rather flavorless (or else they manage to sneak some kind of meat inside, horror of horrors). Pat A Chou has a decent selection of pastries that more or less meet expectations. Anyway, for just under a dollar this danish is worth including here.

Pat A Chou is on 65 Hai Ba Trung Street, in District One. Their telephone number is (08) 824-5873. They have four other locations around Saigon, too.

Dinner meant taking a taxi through the insane -- the completely and totally stupid-insane -- Tet holiday traffic into District Seven again. Tonight I was meeting two old friends, a Korean and Japanese couple who'd just had a son, at an Australian restaurant called Al Fresco's. It's always interesting to go back to my old neighborhood, as I always notice changes I'd somehow overlooked during previous visits. Al Fresco's is new. So are about 50% of the other area businesses. And the roads are filled with more traffic than ever, too, which means it's much louder and the air quality is surely worse. I guess it's good I'm no longer living here...

Al Fresco's in Phu My Hung

My friends and I soon got to gabbing, but we paused just long enough to order a large salad and a jumbo platter of various kinds of meat selections: pork sausages, skewered chicken, beef, and shrimp and vegetables, barbecued ribs, french fries, a cooked tomato, and coleslaw that nobody touched. And of course Tiger draft beer.

Mixed green salad. Nothing special, but it was necessary with all that meat we ordered.

The food was fine -- the barbecued ribs were excellent, and only a shaky sense of manners prevented me from licking the plate clean of that delicious barbecue sauce -- but the price was a little steep for Vietnam: 465,000 dong ($26.60), including two beers and an orange juice. But it was nothing compared to being able to see my friends and their first kid. It was a good night in Phu My Hung. Noisy and mosquito-filled, but good.

Jumbo combo platter. Admittedly, that's not the best angle for the platter. It looks downright bloody in front, whereas in fact those were some damn good, finger-licking ribs.

There are a number of Al Fresco's in Hanoi and Saigon, but this one, perhaps the newest at the moment, is located at D1-23 My Toan 3, Phu My Hung, District 7. Their telephone number is (08) 3410-1093.

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Ho Chi Minh City (Part 5)

Day 9

The bus ride from Mui Ne to Saigon was like spending five hours on a broken-down carnival ride with exhaust blown into our faces the whole time from an old coal fired engine. The bus I paid for failed to pick me up, so I was stuffed into another bus in which all the choice seats had been taken before I could board. People all around me had hacking coughs, I sat in a seat with my elbows pinched between the calloused, smelly feet of passengers sitting behind me, and being in the back of the bus I was subject to the worst of the bumps in the road -- I spent long periods of time watching my flesh rattle around, until the sight of it started making me queasy. Then I took out my book and read the best I could; the words were dancing around the pages like excited flies.

By the time we got in to Saigon it was well after seven p.m. I decided to treat myself to something greasy and comforting, and what came to mind, by way of my stomach, was Vietnamese-style beefsteak (bit tet). Once I checked into my hotel and deposited all my sandy belongings in my room, I grabbed a taxi and had the driver thread his way through Saigon's terrible, pointless traffic. I had him take me to a restaurant called Nam Son, where I met my friend, Aryeh.

Entrance to Nam Son, a beefsteak (bit tet) restaurant

It was busy this night, but we managed to get a decent table beside two young women and a boy who seemed almost frightened to have us eating beside them. We ordered the mixed beefsteak plate (bit tet thap cam), which came with a slice of steak (think thick chewy Steak-Um), a meatball, a fried egg, a plate of french fries, a French baguette, and negligible sides of salad and pickled vegetables. It usually comes with pate, but, according to a waitress who walked by when we noticed it missing, she said they'd run out. We were almost crushed. Vietnamese pate is almost always good, and it really makes a meal like this.

As I said before, the meal itself is simply comfort food. The steak, really, is steak in name only, and the meatball was nothing to speak of. But mixed with the fried egg, french fries, and baguette, it's a great once-in-a-while meal. And for 35,000 dong ($2), this is a real deal in Saigon.

Another plus about the restaurant: the floors are nice and greasy from years of serving beefsteak, so walking is a bit like making your way across an ice rink in your shoes. I also love the black, cow-shaped dishes in which the beefsteak is served.

Beefsteak, meatball, and fried egg, with french fries and a french baguette

My only problem with this place is that a couple of the waiters brought attitude to our table. One waiter, when I asked, told me the restaurant didn't have change for a 100,000 dong bill (less than $6), and then he hurried off laughing. I had to get out of my seat and walk to the cashier, where the man there happily gave me the change I asked for. As I passed by the waiter who enjoyed dissing me so much, I kind of cornered him, showed him the wad of bills I got myself, and told him there was plenty of small change. He ignored me and slipped past, so I followed him to his next table, cornered him again, and did the same thing. I could have followed him around all night, it was so much fun to terrorize him like that, but we needed to get going. I guess that was stupid of me, but I persisted because I was pretty sure he wouldn't have done that to a Vietnamese customer. The funny thing is, I wouldn't have let that bother me when I was living here two years ago. Maybe because I was leaving in just a few days I decided it was worth trying to make a point. Or maybe that awful bus ride had gotten to me more than I'd realized...

Nam Son is at 200B Nguyen Thi Minh Khai. They're open from 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. Although they specialize in beefsteak, they have other entrees as well.

After dinner, Aryeh and headed for a rotating restaurant atop a building near the New World Hotel. We decided to take the elevator up and have a couple beers, which was a nice way to put the madness of the night's traffic at a distance. The photo below doesn't look that bad -- try to imagine all that empty pavement filled with honking, bottlenecked cars and motorbikes, and that's what we had to walk through to escape to our rotating perch in the sky.

I forget the name of the hotel and rotating restaurant, but if I can locate their names later I'll include them here.

A Saigon roundabout seen from a rotating restaurant in District One

Day 10

This morning I got up early -- I was awakened by a crowing rooster -- and decided I wanted a breakfast with no eggs or meat. And I didn't want noodles, because I don't do well with noodles too early in the morning. And coffee, to me, doesn't go well with noodles. But it's hardly like I was short on choices. I decided to head back down the street to Lam's Cafe, where I ordered a fantastic "chocolate banana pancake" and a glass of iced coffee. The banana pancake was excellent by itself, but the chocolate really added an extra dimension to it. (Chocolate usually does.) The crepe wasn't the least bit greasy, and the bananas were browned just the slightest bit, giving them a deeper sweetness. I love this stuff. And for 25,000 dong ($1.43), including the coffee, it's worth chasing down if you're anywhere near Bui Vien Street in the morning.

Amazing banana pancake (more like a crepe) with chocolate sauce and an iced coffee

Lam Cafe is at 175 Bui Vien Street. Although they're small, they have an extensive menu. They open at 7 a.m., but you can probably get them to serve you before that if you're in a hurry to eat and catch an early departing tour bus.

For lunch, I had a hankering to get out of the city and retreat to a peaceful riverside restaurant I used to eat at with a Slovenian friend of mine named Damian. (Where are you, Damian?) I grabbed a taxi for District Two, but we quickly got stuck in ridiculous traffic. It took me well over an hour to cross the city, which in retrospect probably wasn't worth the time or effort.

Unassuming entrance to Restaurant 13

We finally made it to Restaurant 13. The day was hot, I was hungry, and as I walked through the "garage" and into the restaurant's courtyard I was happy to find a nice breeze blowing off the river. As always, the courtyard was beautifully maintained, and they had even more flowers than I remembered, almost certainly because Tet, the Lunar New Year, is only a few days away.

Restaurant 13 courtyard

It was a bit early yet, and I pretty much had my pick of tables. I took a corner seat, leaned my arm against the cool cement wall, and watched boats of differing sizes and functions putter down the river, a branch of the Saigon, along with drifting islands of duckweed. It was almost possible to ignore the bags of trash and other refuse floating by. The fish didn't seem to mind the garbage. Or maybe that was why they were jumping so frequently -- to get some clean air through their gills.

View from my table

A waiter came by with a menu, and the first thing I did was to order a fresh young coconut. It was 15,000 dong, which is about 10-12,000 more than I'd pay for it off the street, but I didn't care. I wouldn't be surprised if it had been hacked from a tree in the restaurant's garden early that morning, and it was seriously refreshing.

Fresh coconut juice

The waiter went to get my coconut while I continued to peruse the menu. The restaurant specializes in seafood, but after Mui Ne I sort of wanted a break. So I ordered sauteed beef with vegetables and pineapple (bo xao thom), and a dish of steamed rice to accompany it.

Sauteed beef, veggies, and pineapple

I have to say, I've had much better at Restaurant 13. The sauce for this dish was so thick I almost had to chew it. Had it been given a chance to cool down just a bit, the whole dish would have surely congealed into some freakish, scary aspic. All the same, I ate it, as I eat most everything that's placed before me, but it wasn't satisfying. There was too much garlic as well (and I love garlic), and the beef had no "spring" to it (it was dry and kind of mushy), but I do admit to having liked the pineapple and vegetables.

The meal came to a total of 100,000 dong ($5.72), which was more than the meal was worth. But the setting was lovely, and I was left alone to be nostalgic there, which made up for the bad lunch -- the first bad meal I ever had there.

Restaurant 13 is down a long narrow driveway at 23 Nguyen U Di Street, Thao Dien Ward, District 2. Their phone number is 281-9970, and they are open from 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. every day except during Tet.

For dinner I went with two friends to a restaurant in Thu Duc that came highly recommended. It took a while to get there, as we had to travel over the Saigon River and nearly into Dong Nai province. But Thu Duc, which I hadn't actually stopped in for over 10 years, proved to be quite charming. I don't believe it gets a lot of foreigners, but the restaurants there, which were legion on a road set just back from Highway One, were all new, brightly lit, and beautiful.

We pulled up to one of the nicer restaurants, which is called Lang Mong Nam Bo. It was rather late when we arrived, and the restaurant seemed to have more waiters and "Budweiser Girls" than customers. We took a seat beneath a large tree and had a look at the menu.

This is the entrance to the restaurant we went to in Thu Duc. They sold misspelled beer, apparently, and had "Budweiser Girls" dressed in car model outfits trying to get customers to order this awful American swill.

The first thing we had to do was wave off the Bud Girl's sales pitch and order some real swill, which ended up being Tiger Beer. That came quickly enough, along with a dish of peanuts. We then ordered grilled fish on a bed of mango salad (goi xoai ca sac), which was amazingly good -- sweet, sour, spicy, and with an umami flavor that comes from perfectly cooked fish. It was also crunchy. This was a definite winner.

Grilled fish on a bed of mango salad with fish sauce

We also ordered grilled goat meat with okra (a dish of breast as well as a dish, I think, of the hindquarters), but rather than making it at a grill set up at our table, and getting smothered with its greasy smoke, we had the cooks do it in the kitchen for us. They knew how to do it better than us anyway, and both dishes came out perfectly grilled. We grabbed some circular rice papers, wetted them down with a bit of water from a bowl we were given, then added cucumber, star fruit, banana flower, and various herbs, followed by a piece of okra and a piece of goat meat.

Grilled goat meat and okra

All of that got wrapped up (not very successfully in my case) and dipped into either of two dipping sauces: a very spicy one made from fermented tofu, chili oil, and sweet chili sauce, and a thin, sweet one made from goat milk, crushed dried basil, red chilies, and sugar.

Fermented tofu, chili oil, and sweet chili sauce

Sweetened goat milk with red chilies, crushed basil, and sugar

We were fairly full by this point, but we thought we could put away a little more. So we ordered a dish of steamed clams in a Thai style broth (ngheu hap thai) and another dish of "oil snails" (oc mo) in sweet chili sauce.

Thai style clams in a spicy broth

As the photo above might tell you, all that red made for some very spicy clams. I, for one, was sweating afterward, though it could have been from the humidity. But I think it was the spicy food. The clams were excellent, incidentally, flavored nicely by quite a bit of freshly chopped lemongrass.

The snails, too, were a great choice. They were light, and the sauce was refreshingly sweet. We popped the snails into our mouths to get the flavor of the chili sauce, then pried off the "doors" to the shells (I assume it was calcium), pulled the snail out with a tiny fork, slipped the poop sac off the end of the meat, and ate the little buggers. They were crunchy and yummy and went great with beer.

Oil snails in a sweet chili sauce

For three people the entire meal cost 266,000 dong ($15.22), which included 62,000 for drinks, 3000 for the peanuts, and 6000 for wet napkins. Really, then, the five dishes by themselves only cost 195,000 dong ($11.22), which is an outrageously good deal.

Lang Mong Nam Bo is at 26 Thong Nhat Street, Binh Tho Ward, Thu Duc District. Their telephone number is (08) 272-1748.

The location is far from District 1, but the trip here is worth it. It's an interesting drive, and the immediate area where the restaurant is located is fun. You could easily follow up dinner with a drink at a funky little cafe nearby.

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Ho Chi Minh City (Part 4)

Day 7

I got back from Vung Tau right in time for lunch. I'd only eaten a couple of croissants for breakfast at the hotel in Vung Tau and was pretty hungry by the time my ferry pulled into the terminal downtown. I knew where I wanted to eat, so after I returned to my old hotel and threw my luggage on the floor of my room, I hurried back outside, flagged down a taxi, and directed the driver to Nhu Lan Restaurant.

Nhu Lan Restaurant

I used to come to Nhu Lan all the time. When I was planning my trip to Vietnam, Nhu Lan was one of the first restaurants I jotted down on my list of where to eat. (Yes, I actually made such a list.)

They sell all kinds of food products, including specialty items for the Vietnamese New Year

I didn't even need to look at their menu when I walked in. I sat down in the only seat available in the whole restaurant, got the attention of a harried looking waitress, and asked for a bowl of bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup).

Bun rieu cua (crab noodle soup)

The soup was just as good as I remembered it. It may not be the best, but it's consistently good and the location is convenient for anyone working in or passing through downtown. The broth is sour and tomatoey, with a just a hint of heat, and the crab, tofu, reconstituted meat cake, and fried tofu skin are the perfect foursome for this noodle soup. Add items from the dish of herbs and vegetables below, and this is a healthy, flavorful, and wonderfully satisfying meal.

A mini-garden to add to one's soup

When I glanced at the menu one of the first items I saw was a sapuche-orange-pineapple fruit shake. I had to have one immediately, so I started screaming at a waiter and he hurried off to have it made for me.

Sinh to sapuche-cam-dua (sapuche, orange, and pineapple fruit shake)

The bun rieu cua cost 25,000 dong ($1.43) and the fruit shake 12,000 (69 cents). Both are more expensive than what can be found in other local eateries, but Nhu Lan's reputation is unassailable and so you pay a little more for their food. Not much, but a little. Anyway, it's worth it. Nhu Lan is close to being a Saigon institution.

Nhu Lan can be found at 50 Ham Nghi Street, not far from the Saigon River, in District 1. They are usually open before 7 a.m. and sometimes close after midnight. They have three telephone numbers: 829-2970; 821-4239; and 914-1317.

At dinnertime, I suddenly remembered a restaurant in the backpacker district from which my wife and I always used to order delivery. The place was called Margherita's. We only ever ordered their chicken quesadilla, which was out of this world, and cheap, and we were happy that their delivery area knew no bounds. We almost never ate there, as we tried to avoid the area unless it was to buy something we couldn't get anywhere else. From what I could tell, Margherita's hasn't changed much, although their menu has gotten more expensive.

Margherita's Restaurant

What I recall about Margherita's is that it had more or less perfected the cheap Western menu. Unfortunately, that wasn't quite the case tonight, though it partly had to do with my friendly but bumbling waiter.

We used to order one dish here all the time -- the chicken quesadilla. This, however, is their enchilada.

On this night I ordered my old favorite, the chicken quesadilla, but was served a chicken enchilada. No worries. It tasted just the same, which was sublime, and the orange and white Mexican rice was still as greasy and good as I remembered it being. I also ordered "pumkin soup," but what I got was definitely not pumpkin. My waiter went back and forth on this for a while, and then finally I conceded, even though I thought I was looking at a bowl of taro soup. "It doesn't matter," I said. "I'll eat whatever you brought me."

I ordered pumpkin soup. I was surprised when I saw it, as I've never seen a purple pumpkin.

I also asked to see the menu again. When I looked at the Vietnamese beneath "pumkin soup" I realized that somehow they had confused the English word "pumpkin" with the Vietnamese word for purple yam, khoai mo. (I still think it looked and tasted a lot like taro.) It wasn't bad, but if you're in the mood for pumpkin soup, and you ORDER pumpkin soup, then you're certain to be disappointed when a steaming bowl of purple yam soup is plopped in front of you instead.

Still not pumpkin. In fact, even less like pumpkin than ever...

Overall the meal was fine. I'd never had canh khoai mo before, so in a way I'm glad I got to eat it. In addition to the purple yam, the soup also had pork, chopped green onions, cilantro, and pepper. The soup cost 25,000 dong ($1.43) and the enchiladas 48,000 dong ($2.75). By U.S. standards that's still a steal, but in Vietnam it was a little pricy. It would have been nice, too, if either dish I ordered had actually appeared on my table.

Day 8

Last night I went looking for mi quang, a Chinese dish that the Vietnamese long ago adapted to their own tastes. Da Nang is said to make the very best mi quang in Vietnam, perhaps because the ingredients they use are unique to the central coast.

Entrance to Canteen 175. For some reason, Vietnamese restaurants are the worst named in the world. I guess it's a product of an older, more sclerotic form of communism. There probably wasn't a single restaurant with some happy-sounding name after the war. But surely now they can do better than Canteen 175?

In any case, I came across Canteen 175 last night while looking around for some place to have dinner, but the owner told me that they only served mi quang for breakfast. He told me to come back in the morning between 7 and 10 a.m. I got there at 7:30 and ordered a large bowl of mi quang suon.

Sidewalk prep area

I was surprised by how meaty the mi quang served here was. Looking down into that red, annatto-colored broth, I spotted generous portions of shrimp, shrimp sausage (cha tom), pork chop (suon), a ball of reconstituted pork (moc), and a boiled egg (trung cuoc). There was also fresh water mint (hung nhui), green onions, peanuts, and pepper, as well as the flat yellow "mi" (wheat flour) noodles.

The best mi quang I've ever had

As with all soups in Vietnam, I was given a plate full of various "add-ons." In this case I added a handful of bean sprouts, lettuce, banana flower, and a "banh trang" cracker with black sesame seeds. By the time I'd prepared it to my liking, I was staring at a masterpiece of mi quang. But the test isn't in how it looks; it's in the taste. It was time to dig in.

Add-ons for mi quang: bean sprouts, lettuce, banana flower, and banh trang cracker with black sesame seeds

The dish was heartier than I'd expected, and the mint and peanuts mixed wonderfully with the various types of meat and egg. The noodles were firm but not chewy, and the broth, which is typically a little greasy from the annatto oil, absorbed the various flavors beautifully. What came through most of all were the tastes of pork, shrimp, water mint, and peanuts. The other ingredients weren't exactly secondary, but I appreciated them mostly for their textures and the extra complexity they provided to my eating experience.

Mi quang is a truly unique noodle soup, if I can label it as such, and when it's made properly you'll find yourself wanting to eat it all the time. The large serving I ordered here was only 20,000 dong ($1.14), which makes it appealingly affordable, too.

Canteen 175 can be found at 175 Ham Nghi Street, not far from the corner of Tran Hung Dao Street. Their telephone number is 0903718702. Remember, though, that they're only open from 7 to 10 a.m.

In my quest to try as many goat meat restaurants in Saigon that I can, all for the sake of what I'm now questionably calling research, I decided to go to a place that I just happened to see while riding in the back seat of a taxi. It was within walking distance of where I'm staying, so I thought, sure, I'll give it a shot.

Restaurant specializing in curried goat

I went there a bit early for lunch, getting there just before 11:30, as the streets were beginning to swell with hungry people on motorbikes. Once I'd stepped inside the restaurant, which appears to be named Quan An Hong Son, I wondered if I might have made the wrong decision by coming here. There was nothing in particular to set my antennae wondering, other than the fact that no one else was inside, and no one passing by, either on foot or on two wheels, gave the restaurant a passing glance.

Not the most beautiful view, but I've seen worse

In any event, I reminded myself that I was here to eat goat, so I ordered a dish of ca ri de (curried goat) and a glass of iced tea. Or rather I tried to order, but my waitress made gestures about her face as if she were deaf. Later, upon reflection, I think she just didn't want to deal with a foreigner. I spoke Vietnamese to her, but she ran away making those hand-waving gestures that foreigners quickly become accustomed to here. She was replaced by a woman who'd walked into the restaurant only a moment before and was still wearing her driving face mask as she asked what I wanted to eat.

Curried goat with eggplant, taro, and tomato

I have to say, I was disappointed in the food. The taste was good, but all the dish consisted of were small hunks of eggplant, taro (khoai mon), tomato, and a very fatty, full-skinned piece of goat attached to part of a leg bone. What meat I could find was delicious, and the curry was flavorful and not too spicy for me. But it was a rather poor dish, and to my surprise I wasn't given a bowl from which to eat my rice. I just scooped it off the plate and ate it with the main dish.

The curried goat cost 65,000 dong ($3.72), which in Vietnam is kind of a lot. I'm sure that the veggies she used didn't even cost 5000 dong, and the goat probably wasn't very expensive either. I can't really recommend this place, though I'll include the information below if this sounds like a great meal to you.

Hong Son is located at 69 Nguyen Cu Trinh Street. They're open from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. every day. Their telephone number is 836-7187.

Unlike lunch, dinner proved to be a big winner. Two friends and I decided to have cha ca, a dish made famous in the north, and which I have pleasant memories of eating in a well preserved cha restaurant, full of old polished wood tables and walls, in the Old Quarter of Hanoi many years ago. Cha ca is found but rarely in the south, and the restaurant we went to this evening, Cha Ca Ha Noi, is maybe the only one really worth going to in Saigon. The restaurant was featured in Saveur several years ago, and the author of that piece rightfully lauded the dish.

The first item we ordered was Steamed Escargot with Ginger. The escargot was mixed with pork, mushroom, and ginger, stuffed in a snail's shell along with a ribbon of banana leaf to pull it out, and was served with a ginger infused fish sauce (nuoc mam gung) for dipping.


We also ordered fish soup, which was made from whitefish (I believe it was striped bass), white rice, black pepper, slivers of ginger, and scallions. The soup was much like a porridge, or chao in Vietnamese, only less thick.

A whitefish soup

The waitresses started bringing out various dishes full of the ingredients with which we'd be eating cha ca. As you can see in the photo below, it ended up being quite a spread. We were given little wheels of rice vermicelli, which were the first things we put into our bowls, followed by shaved scallions, peanuts, broken rice cracker with sesame seeds, perilla leaves, cilantro, basil, Vietnamese mint (kinh gioi), and then the fish (mullet, or ca qua in Vietnamese) that we'd been cooking with dill and scallions.

The spread

Once our bowls were stacked with these items, we squeezed a bit of lemon on the fish and spooned in some of our fish sauce, to which had been added ca cuong, a liquid pheromone from a perfume gland in a water beetle found in Vietnamese rice fields. At least that's where they say it comes from. But Vietnam is full of bizarre foods, and I have no reason to doubt the origins of the ca cuong.

Adding ca cuong drops -- essence of water beetle -- to our fish sauce

Amazingly, the liquid smelled exactly like a concentrated form of a type of candy I used to eat as a kid. Unfortunately, the candy escapes my mind right now. Aryeh, the American friend I was with, agreed with me, but he couldn't remember the candy either. Needless to say, its smell was incredibly sweet. (Maybe it was Juicy Fruit gum?)

Cha ca cooking atop our table

The cooking took very little time, and as you can see, the meal is very healthy. Rather than cook the vegetables separately from the fish, they were cooked together, which meant that their flavors fused, and the fish, which had a perfect firmness, ended up tasting wonderfully, that is subtly, like the dill and scallions.

Cha ca nearly ready to eat

When spooned over the other ingredients we'd already prepared in our bowls, and then dousing it with the fish sauce, the mix was incredibly delicious. Dill isn't commonly used in Vietnamese cooking, or at least not in the dishes I tend to eat, but here it went perfectly with everything else we were eating. Even the sauce at the bottom of the bowl was delicious enough to be savored after the real food was gone.

Cha ca is one of the most impressive and satisfying of Vietnamese dishes, and it's also quite simple to prepare (not counting whatever labor is necessary to extract pheromones from the perfume gland of a beetle). Cha Ca Hanoi isn't exactly off the beaten track, but it's on the outer edge of District 1. By taxi it takes about 15 minutes in evening traffic, and it's worth the effort to get here.

Per person, cha ca costs only 89,000 dong ($5.09). The ca cuong goes for an extra 18,900 dong ($1.08) per drop. Is it worth the extra dollar from the ca cuong? It is if you expect this to be your only chance to eat it. I'm not sure how much it influenced the flavor of the fish sauce, but I do think it added some sweetness to it.

Cha Ca Ha Noi is located at 5A Tran Nhat Duat Street, District 1. Their telephone number is (08) 848-4240.

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