Saturday, January 31, 2009

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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