Sunday, August 30, 2009

Destination Vietnam #3: Bánh Mì

Bánh Mì from a Bakery in Sa Pa

As you can imagine, I encountered many Vietnamese sandwiches on my journey through the country. I discovered, much to my ordering difficulties, that bánh mì typically refers to only the baguette in Northern Vietnam and not an entire sandwich. I didn't have too many difficulties getting sandwiches in Saigon, but in Hanoi, I typically had to ask for bánh mì thịt nướng for bánh mì with grilled pork, or bánh mì patê for bánh mì with pate mixture.


So how are bánh mì different in Vietnam? Well for one thing, the ingredients vary much more widely. Here in the States, you can find the pate, but more commonly is grilled pork, chicken, or even char-siu, pickled carrots and daikon, cilantro, cucumber, jalepeños, and seasonings, which may include soy sauce, Maggi sauce, mayonnaise, etc. That makes up the sandwich at my all-time favorite bánh mì location in Oakland.

While in Vietnam, you'll commonly see carts on the streets with the Laughing Cow logo, indicating the use of Laughing Cow cheese spread in its sandwiches.

Besides Laughing Cow, I also saw bánh mì ladies (they are always women) use Camembert. Beyond the cheese spread, some sandwiches had sweet chili sauce, grilled chicken, pate, cucumbers, pickles, tomatoes, and other unidentifiable ingredients.

Our resident bánh mì lady

When we were in Hanoi, we actually frequented our bánh mì lady on the street quite often. Her sandwiches were simple, delicious, and satisfying. However, we were in a backpackers' touristy area and so she was selling them for about $1.75 USD. Around town though, they can be found for much less than that. Still, seeing her out on that corner day and night, even in torrential rains, shows just how hard it is to earn a living in that country. As for as sanitation, it's best a topic to try to keep out of your mind when eating on the street. The ingredients aren't refrigerated, she doesn't wash her hands, and you have no idea how old the food is. If this is all a major concern to you, get up early in the morning and buy a sandwich fresh to reduce chance of contamination. But as with all food in Vietnam, you'll miss out if you don't take chances.

Bánh mì from the bánh mì lady

If you're looking for a bánh mì location somewhat more trackable than "the woman on the corner," try Như Lan in District 1 of Saigon, near the river. I would hazard to guess that every taxi driver knows of this restaurant, but it wouldn't hurt to provide the name and address written down, given the difficulties of Vietnamese pronounciation. It's an open-air bakery, deli, and restaurant. There is a wide, relatively easily accessible menu. Given the layout, if you don't know what you'd like, you can always walk up and point to items in the display cases.

Nhu Lan
66 Ham Nghi, Ho Chi Minh City

Anyone know what's the deal with the Star of David?

Cucumbers, ham, tomato, onions, mayo, and spicy peppers


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Destination Vietnam #2: Pho 24

I learned much about myself on this trip to South East Asia. For one thing, I discovered that my personality is just not the backpacking type. On my travels, my friends and I continually encountered teachers, social workers, students, and other free spirits (read: unemployed), youth touring countries on one-way tickets. They showed a bravery of risk, roaming with no set plans, waking up at three in the afternoon. Nope, that kind of guideless meandering isn't for me. Just open my Lonely Planet and point me towards the nearest recommended restaurant.


As far as I could tell, Pho 24 is the largest pho chain in Vietnam. With locations scattered throughout Hanoi and Saigon, it's difficult to explore either of the large cities without running into the green neon sign of glowing bowl and chopsticks. Due to my experience in the States, I was completely accustomed to eating my pho in numerically distinguishable restaurants.

I'll save a big lesson on what pho actually is. Suffice it to say, these noodles have become so common that even those with a cursory exposure to Vietnamese food is familiar with pho. I will make a note on pronounciation though. Pho is easiest pronounced as an approximation of "fuh" rather than "fo" as in "photo."

I tried the pho bo, the most common beef broth pictured above. Impressions? It really is reminiscent of the pho available in the US. I really couldn't distinguish any major differences in flavors. Even the plate of accoutrements consisted of familiar items. I've heard that the difference between Northern and Southern pho is in the purity of the broth in the North. What's purity to one palate, may be blandness to another. However, I couldn't tell any big differences between North and South to be honest.

On another occasion I also tried the pho ga, chicken broth pho. This was actually my first encounter with chicken noodles. I can easily say that my preference is bovine. Pho ga has a much lighter flavor, not really what I look for in pho.

Of course, as a chain, Pho 24 has all the benefits and all the drawbacks of a franchise. Each one I encountered were clean, had an English menu, and helpfully trained staff. There is certainly consistency bowl by bowl. In exchange, you pay a premium compared to the street. Is it worth the extra cost for some comfort and peace of mind? Depending on the circumstances, I'd say so. Just don't rely only on chains for your food experience.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Destination Vietnam #1: Quán Ăn Ngon

My tres amigos and I finished up our four-day adventure in Hong Kong without any major hitches. We had a great time exploring the sites, but we spent more time visiting the tailor for custom-made suits than looking for food. I was determined to change that for Vietnam and Thailand.

Following a personal recommendation from Wandering Chopsticks and additionally reinforced by a encouragement from a local Vietnamese guide, we ate lunch at Quán Ăn Ngon in Saigon/Ho Chi Min City. It's easy to find for the tourists as well, just look across the street from this building:

The Reunification Palace


According to the Gastonomer, the Quán Ăn Ngon restaurant's appeal is that the owner had "scoured the streets of Saigon and recruited the best cooks in town to prepare their own dishes." A collection of Vietnamese street food made accessible to tourists by English menus and friendly staff? This was the perfect place for my first official meal in the country (besides the instant ramen and chả giò fried spring rolls that we received in our hostel).

The interior of the restaurant is surrounded by grill pits

If the owner indeed had scouted out every street offering in the city, he sure was thorough. The menu was page after page of Vietnamese dishes that aren't really pronounced like you think they are. I learned that the hard way after repeatedly being mistaken as Vietnamese during the trip. A little overwhelmed, I chose a few familiar dishes such as the bánh xèo shrimp crepe, bún chả vermicelli with pork balls and fish sauce, and the gỏi cuốn salad rolls of shrimp and pork. Each of the initial dishes were much more flavorful than I was used to in the US, but they were still simple foods. Most of ingredients were familiar for Westminster or Garden Grove, but tasted fresher. Perhaps it was delusional on my part. Perhaps I just wanted to believe it was better. But it tasted pretty similarly to things I've had before.

bánh xèo shrimp crepe

gỏi cuốn salad rolls

I had constantly heard that having salads or other uncooked foods would be dangerous in Vietnam. But if I can't eat gỏi đu đủ tai heo papaya salad with fried pork ears in Quán Ăn Ngon, then I'd probably wouldn't be able to eat it anywhere else. Eventually, I did get sick eating at another restaurant in Hanoi, but that's a much more sinister story for later on...

bánh chuõi nướng banana "cake"

For dessert, I was much more adventurous in ordering the chè hạt sen lotus seed sweet soup which turned out to be more of a ice cold beverage in a tall glass than a soup. It was refreshing though, with a very subtle sweetness. In fact, the che chuoi banana soup turned out to be more like a soup than the chè hạt sen. It had the consistency of Chinese tapioca desserts.

For the convenience of collecting all these varieties of street food, you certainly pay a premium. But if you were like me, just starting out in an alien land and eager to try something a little more familiar, Quán Ăn Ngon is hard to beat.

Quán Ăn Ngon
138 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia Street
(across the street from the Reunification Palace)
District 1, Ho Chi Minh City

(By the way, it takes an excruciating amount of effort to type all the Vietnamese accents and grammar marks)


Thursday, August 13, 2009

Destination Hong Kong #2: Cafe de Coral

It looks like there may only be two Destination Hong Kong posts for now. I realized that my time spent in Hong Kong was spent eating at few memorable places, but the chains we frequented were worth mentioning. My dad had been telling me about HK style Chinese fast food for years, and I made sure I got my fill during my trip. Sure, we went to a Fairwood, but the crown of HK fast food is still Cafe de Coral.


Badly translated as "everybody happy," Cafe de Coral has been a mainstay of Hong Kong for the last forty years. What started as a single restaurant has ballooned to over a hundred franchises within Hong Kong, 24 locations in Mainland China, and eleven other brands totaling more than 500 restaurants. While it might be near impossible to stay in Hong Kong and not see a Cafe de Coral, you might also encounter one of its subsidiaries such as Spaghetti House or Oliver's Super Sandwiches.

Although Hong Kong is now somewhat part of China once again, the local cuisine is much more an amalgam of global influence than purely Cantonese. In part, Victoria Harbor's influx of trade brought influences from Portuguese, Indian, Southeast Asian, and we can't forget the fast food component from America. Therefore, characterize the Cafe de Coral as Western-Chinese, rather than just Cantonese. For the same cost of a regrettable croissanwich and hashbrown at the airport Burger King, I could get a pork chop rice, black bean spare ribs, barbecue plate, or simply a delicious fried rice.

Despite the convenience, price, and general cleanliness of most of the modern stores, Cafe de Coral is still fast food. There is much better Chinese food around town at most local restaurants, but be on the lookout for this famous chain.