Saturday, January 31, 2009

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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