Nomnomnom (or what I did pretty much all the time while in Ho Chi Minh)

casual dining, comfort food, food, Ho Chi Minh, Le Jardin, Saigon, travel, Vietnam

As much as I wanted to be the cultured and classy person that you all think I am, the truth is that I grew up watching cable TV.  This affected me in so many ways: at 15 my dream job was to be a MTV VJ (fortunately, this has changed, else I will still be unemployed), I thought Rachel Ray was a genius making 30 minute meals (still do, but still can’t make anything other than fried eggs in 30 minutes!) and “Oh Tokyo” at WINS made my day (seriously, bring it back.  The host was so good at creeping out the Japanese– The Japanese, of all people! She should be given an award).  The cool life as I knew it existed on the tube and people in there seemed to have more fun than I do.  Perhaps the ultimate life-changing TV show for me were the Lonely Planet series shown on Discovery Channel when I was a bright-eyed teen.  It opened my eyes to the wonderful world and all the fun of traveling.  They featured places like Paris, Thailand, New York and Havana and every time I would swoon and wish that I could go there someday.  But no other episode of theirs has stuck in my memory than the one they had of Vietnam.  To be precise, nothing in that episode has struck me more than when they started featuring food: Spring Rolls, Bahn Mi and bowls and bowls of steaming hot and delicious Pho.  Oh. My.  I used those two words way before you met Christian Grey, Ana Steele.  And I am completely PG.

Since then, Vietnam has been etched on my imaginary map as a place I must go to if only for its yummy gustatory delights.  After numerous places that I’ve been to, I finally get to go to Vietnam– you can just imagine all the anticipation building up in my belly.  I, that oily-faced teen, being hypnotized by a steamy bowl of Pho on television is now going to that place where that bowl came from.  Dreams do come true.

 

PHO

Pho Bho (Pho with Beef) at Pho 2000.

Like an ironic Christian teen who abstains from sex until she gets married and do it on her wedding night, I avoided eating Pho here in Manila and wherever I went, for that matter, until I get to taste it on the motherland itself.  I don’t know why exactly have I put such veneration on that steamy broth of noodles to wait this long– I’ve eaten at Vietnamese restaurants in Manila and every time my eyes landed on the Pho, I just go to the next item automatically, like that Pho never existed at all.  My self-control is not even in the sense that I am consciously preventing myself, but it’s the one of confidence and faith that something much better is for me.  Sure, you say, that is all romantic and sweet but was it worth it?  Yes, imaginary reader, it was worth it (and I hope we are still talking about Pho here).

 

WHERE TO GET IT:
Make like a US President and eat at Pho 2000 (1-3 D Phan Chu Trinh, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Near Ben Tanh Market).  Former US President Bill Clinton had a Pho here and since then the restaurant’s slogan has been ‘Pho for the President’.  For sure there are other better Pho restaurants out in the city but I don’t know, this is the first one I’ve ever tried and I must say it is rather good; I mean, I got nothing to compare it to but it sure tasted as what I imagined it to be.  It’s nourishing and delicious and everything seemed fresh and done right.  And it costs about $1.50! How could that not be other than perfect?

 

Bánh mì

Just about right.  The Bahn Mi in all its glory.  (Photo via Poketo.com)

There’s no worse time to have braces on your teeth than when you are about to go to Vietnam.  Why?  Two Words: Banh Mi.  That sandwich of fresh slaw of veggies and pork strips sandwiched between crunchy and chewy baguette makes it some kind of a jaw breaker– definitely bad news for metal mouths like me.  I did not give up without a fight though: one breakfast I grabbed a sliced baguette on the buffet table and tried to tear it off with my teeth and well, the fight stopped there.  I could of course use a knife and cut bite size pieces instead but that is just a complete blasphemy of the Bahn Mi and its street side roots.  So until my chompers have aligned themselves in proper position, I am gonna hold for this tasty treat.  It is quite sad that I couldn’t tell you how it tasted like or if my head spun from biting into its awesomeness, but hopefully you have better luck in getting to eat it (and have no orthodontics in your mouth).

WHERE TO GET IT:
You couldn’t walk into the streets of Ho Chi minh without seeing carts selling Banh Mi on every corner.  This just proves the fact that the Vietnamese themselves cannot miss these sandwiches on their every day so why should you?

Fresh Spring Rolls (gỏi cuốn)

 

Roll up on these. (Taken with instagram)

Is it possible to have enough spring rolls? Is it?  No, I don’t think so.  These harmless looking things have so much flavor in them, like the bountifulness of springtime is all rolled into delicately thin rice papers– you can definitely have more.  Almost all Vietnamese eateries and restaurants serve this and the quality is almost the same whether its a high-end restaurant or an open-air eatery on the streets: vermicelli noodles, shrimps, lettuce and leeks rolled up and ready for you to get high on.

Ca Phe Sua Da

 

I am not a coffee drinker.  Spill a drop of caffeine on my drink and it’s guaranteed to make me annoyingly energetic for a good 24 hours.  Or maybe I am exaggerating. I do eat coffee flavored candies and once in a while I can sip on a mocha frappuccino and not palpitate crazily.  As you can see, I like my coffee tempered with sweetness not so much unlike most people, which probably is why Starbucks coffee mixes are popular almost anywhere in the world.  Almost anywhere yes, but not in Vietnam where a glass of creamy yet strong coffee filled with ice to the brim is the cafe du jour.  They call it Ca Phe Sua Da and no whipped cream with choco sprinkles and bells and whistles is necessary.  It’s that good.

WHERE TO GET IT:
Almost anywhere that is a cafe or a patisserie or really, anywhere they serve food will find you a ca phe sua da listed on their menu.  We had ours at Cafe Kem— an ice cream shop in the corner of Pasteur St.  Of course the Ca Phe Sua Da was good (but their service needs a little bit of fixing.  They charge extra for a shot of condensed milk?!) The drink is usually served in a way that you have to DIY it.  I will explain the process on a later post but my photo above pretty much gives you an idea how it looks like: a slow-drip coffee filter on top of a cup, a glass filled with ice and a shot of condensed milk.  It’s not exactly instant but that is part of the beauty of it– you chat with your friends or people-watch for a while during the dripping process. After all, it is called “coffee break”, isn’t it?

And while we’re at it, you will notice that most cafes in Saigon have their tables outside facing the streets, promoting people-watching and languid voyeurism of life.  Not so much unlike how it is in Paris.  Not that I’ve been there but…

French Pastries

 

I am literally playing “La Vie En Rose” on my PC as I am wiriting this topic.  I don’t know why, but pretty little pastries of french origin will always have an effect on me that I could be in France at that moment.  This is especially true when macarons are involved– oh those dainty and delicate sweet things!  Suddenly you’re Marie Antoinette and you’re having your cake– and eating it too.

WHERE TO GET IT:

Our table spread at Une Journee A Paris (yes, we learned to do table spreads!)
 

Une Journée À Paris (234 Le Thanh Ton St. | Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam) makes me feel like I am in a patisserie somewhere in Paris.  The owners of the shop are French who greets you “Bonjour!” when you come in and says “Merci!” when you leave.  Nostalgic photos of Paris are displayed on the cafe and you can read french fashion magazines while you wait for your macarons that are a slight disappointment if only for I expect it to be Pierre Hermé’s  (but that’s because I got carried away by the atmosphere).  Still, they make a decent Venise cake and you shouldn’t go there without having the classic Paris Brest cake.

FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND YUMMY, DO NOT MISS THESE TWO RESTAURANTS:

Com Nieu Sai gon
19 Tu Xuong Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone: 08 3932 2799

Photo via iamgourmand.wordpress.com

You know it’s legit when Anthony Bourdain ate there and liked it.  Com Nieu Sai Gon has suddenly been on everyone’s radar as a must whenever in Ho Chi Minh after Tony (yeah, we’re tight like that) featured the restaurant on his TV show (ah, the power of television yet again) and has only praises for it.  Praises, people.  Not a polite smile or a curt nod, but praises.  And if you know Anthony Bourdain, then you know that once high recommendations are made, it’s serious. I am going to warn you though that Com Nieu Sai Gon has a lot on their menu.  They surely are not kidding when they call their restaurant “Vietnamese Gastronomy Restaurant”.  It can overwhelm anyone, especially anyone who’s new to Vietnamese cuisine.  Of course we could go with Tony’s recommendation and just “order everything and eat yourselves silly” but we have budget constraints.  We’ve been scanning the pages of the menu for about 15 minutes, trying to figure out what the cryptic English translations mean when a lady (probably a supervisor) came to us and helped us with our choices.  She recommended a lot of food and honestly I don’t remember their names except for a few so forgive me if most sound made-up (because it probably was, by me).  Oh and all photos here were taken with my phone because serious gastronomical adventures like this should involve less distractions as much as possible.  Attack!

Battered shrimp pancakes with crispy rice.

 

I know this one: FRESH SPRING ROLLS!

 

A terribly photographed but actually mouth-watering spareribs cooked in clay pot.

 

The Pièce de résistance: Com Dap.

We also had a couple other things like a soup and a fried rice and a strange-sounding drink served in a coconut that tasted like grass.  They will now remain forever unnamed on this post because I have a “photographic memory” (meaning I forget things I didn’t photograph).  I will say this, though: you must order the Com Dap.  Not only is it unexpectedly good, but it is entertaining as well.  How?  Initially served in a clay pot, a server will smash the pot, then the rice– coming out surprisingly intact and piping hot, will be thrown in the air over your head and be caught by someone on the other end of your table with a clean plate on his hand.  Then they will put scallions and sesame seeds and saucy goodness on it and serve it to you.  It’s the most amazing thing, really.  You. Should. Try. It.

Anthony Bourdain’s words  may have led us there and we cannot complain– the food is amazing, everything is delicious.  But to us, it was more legit when a hotel staff, all prim and proper, suddenly shrieked in delight when she learned that we ate there.  We did good.

Le Jardin
31 Thai Van Lung, Dist. 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam (Inside IDECAF)
Phone: (84-8) 3825 8465
(Not open on Sundays)

Profiteroles, steak, Crème brûlée, salmon– just our usual fare. 🙂

A lot of travel blogs have placed Le Jardin as one of Ho Chi Minh’s best kept secrets– and quite literally so- the French Restaurant and bistro is tucked away behind the bushes of the garden inside The IDECAF building.  There are no signs along the street and most people who are not in the know, obviously hasn’t heard of it.  So here’s the 411: for good, uncomplicated and surprisingly inexpensive french food (the steaks only go for around VND150,000!) go to Le Jardin. We came in at lunch and found lots of French expats chatting in their mother tongue and sipping red wine with their medium rare rump steak.  Quite frankly, we felt a little out of place when we entered but their pleasant service assured us that we were more than welcome to be there.  P and T had steaks (the Tenderloin Steak in Red Wine sauce- Medium Rare was really delicious) and I had a Salmon with thyme cream sauce (also good). We also felt a bit grown-up, having steaks and salmons for lunch and as such we accompanied them with Rosé  (order it on a carafe- 25ml or 75ml,  if a bottle will seem expensive.)  They also serve a mean and winning Crème brûlée and decadent Profiteroles with a twist: vanilla ice cream instead of the usual pastry cream, sandwiched between puffy pastry and drizzled with chocolate syrup. All this for how much? about VND740,000 or Php1,500! A delicious meal on the fancier side and yet doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket? Oui, s’il vous plaît!

 *****

Honestly, this doesn’t cover even half of what I am planning to eat in Vietnam; but because I am all for delayed gratification and I studied the Law of Diminishing Returns (I brag, I know), I will devour the others on my list on my next trip.  And of course there’s going to be a next trip because while I could never be a MTV VJ nor could I cook 30-minute meals (How do you do it, Rachel Ray?) nor could “Oh Tokyo” be ever resurrected again (sob!), in my perfectly imperfect world, I get to slurp the broth of a honest to goodness Pho in central Saigon and everything is alright.

— K

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