Eat Drink Style The Shabu Shabu of Sensuality - Yet Another Cheesy & Sleazy Soundtrack for Valentine's Day

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In approximately two weeks, emotions are going to run high as well as the register count. It's Valentine's Day and I'm here to play Cupid again. After you've dropped $150 on a nice Valentine's prix fixe menu, you need a nice soothing way to end the evening. Thanks to the 17 people that downloaded the Cheesy & Sleazy Volume I album last year, it's now back by (un)popular demand. Regardless, I'm going to put these mixes up anyway because it annoys people like my wife. And while we're dining at somewhere fancy this year, a little of this ear candy wouldn't hurt. If you're able to seal any sort of deal, I'll know I've done my job and continue to provide you with more slimy music. *tears*

(1) Ambrosia - Biggest Part of Me
(2) Atlantic Starr - Masterpiece
(3) Benny Mardones - Into the Night
(4) Berlin - Take My Breath Away
(5) Bill Withers - Just the Two of Us
(6) Bobby Brown - Rock W'cha
(7) Bryan Adams - Everything I Do
(8) Debbie Gibson - Lost In Your Eyes
(9) The Deele - Two Occasions
(10) Hall & Oates - Sara Smile
(11) The Jets - You Got it All
(12) Kenny G - Songbird
(13) Kool and the Gang - Cherish
(14) Leann Rimes - How Do I Live
(15) Peter Cetera - Glory of Love
(16) Phil Collins - Against All Odds
(17) REO Speedwagon - I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore
(18) Roxette - It Must Have Been Love
(19) Steve Perry - Foolish Heart
(20) Taylor Dayne - I'll Always Love You

Download Links
Click on Regular Download and wait for the link to appear:

Cheesy & Sleazy Volume II: The Shabu Shabu of Sensuality
Cheesy & Sleazy Volume I: The Fondue of Love

Eat Drink Style The Echo Park Noodle Mama - A Bowl of Soul

EchoPark NoodleMama01

Last year was a great year for me and J. We traveled to Asia, Central America, Canada and Europe. We photographed some beautiful weddings and contributed some work to notable food and travel publications. I re-ignited my love for cooking because of a butcher shop owned by a husband and wife. We earned our scuba diving certification. I moved on from a painful layoff and discovered the joys of being a freelancer. Jeni left her hell-hole school and found her love for teaching at another institution. But most importantly, we started some friendships with people we would otherwise never meet, simply through the writing of food. I could write a whole posting, and I will one day, on the important people in our lives that continue to inspire us to write our blogs. But for this posting, I'm introducing you to a gentleman known as JD. Some of you may know him through his Twitter handle as Tricerapops – yes, he is a proud father of three adorable triplet girls. Completely decked out in Hello Kitty mafia gear. And he enjoys ranting about football and wine, wine and more wine.

Knowing how much J and I love noodles, we received an email from Tricerapops one day, inviting us to come over to his mom's house for some Vietnamese soup noodles. We didn't know him really nor have we met him in person and due to some conflicting schedules, we ended up postponing. But he continued to send us emails over a few months and finally one day, I gave him a call.

Me: "So your mom makes Vietnamese soup noodles?"
JD: "Yeah, she does it every few months and just opens up her house to anyone."
Me: "Anyone?"
JD: "Yeah, she's been doing this for a long time?"
Me: "For no charge?"
JD: "None. This is what she enjoys doing. And today she has pho."
Me: "We're in there like swimwear."

So on a summer Saturday, J and I headed out to Echo Park to finally meet Tricerapops and eat some soup noodles. Not knowing what his mom likes, we stopped at a Vietnamese bakery and grabbed whatever looked tasty as a pre-thank you. I thought about durian since it's basically a Vietnamese narcotic, but my car would reek. We showed up to the house and we were greeted by JD. From his comments on past postings, we had a pretty good idea of his personality and character and, at that moment, it all came together. Jeni and I knew he was a good guy. Course he is. Who else would invite complete strangers to eat soup noodles at his own mom's place?

For me, there are two categories of pho. The first being the pho most of us will have – which is in a restaurant. We all have our favorite places and pretty much have a set drill on the customization of the perfect bowl of pho. The second being the pho I actually cherish the most – in a kitchen cooked by the hands of a Vietnamese woman. The pho will never taste the same from these categories as expected. At the commercial level, I've seen some kitchens with at least a dozen 3' x 2' stock pots that can serve a good 250-300 bowls. When you're boiling hundreds of pounds of beef bones for 8-10 hours overnight, you're extracting a deeper flavor unachievable at home. I've made pho before a few times and it is a long and arduous process that can still cost around $50-60 for a mere 6-8 bowls. Cough up the $5 elsewhere – it's not worth it if you're going for restaurant quality. But more importantly, the commercial pho will never be as "good" as the home-cooked pho because it misses the one ingredient that varies in every household: a mother's soul.

Growing up, my mom would make soups for us. The most popular being a borscht. Go to any Hong Kong-style cafe and you're likely to be served a watery, tepid version of the Eastern European staple favorite. But my mom added oxtail to it and it was homey. We of course ate it so often it was a staple. But I had a childhood friend that would ask for it every time he came over to our house. My mom never thought twice about making it. I then realized that he had also grown up with no father nor mother – raised only by his old grandma. He saw my mom as his. The last time I talked to him was in high school nearly 15 years ago and he asked if he could have a bowl of my mom's oxtail soup. He left for the Marines and I never heard from him again.

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From the doorway, I could see JD's mom in the background peacefully gliding across the kitchen with her own "moves". Every cook has his "moves". Mine happens to involve crashing, bumping and possible injuries if you get too close to the stove and cutting board. And JD was right about this being a dining room turned cafeteria. The table had settings for eight, wine glasses that commemorated JD's numerous wine tastings and a mound of fresh bean sprouts and herbs. And of course, the usual suspects: Sriracha, hoisin sauce and chili sauce. This was basically a pho restaurant without the restaurant. No bean sprouts garnishing the floor, balled-up napkins or bad Karaoke videos blaring in the background. Which I actually like.

We greeted JD's mom and within a few seconds she did what most Asian mothers do - politely cut out the chit chatting, tell you to sit down and get ready to eat. JD poured us some wine. I looked over at Jeni and whispered to my wife: "J, she's the Noodle Mama!"

Indeed she is. Noodle Mama is Mrs. Dang and she grew up in Saigon cooking soup noodles for family and friends whenever she could. Her mother came from Hanoi and handed down the pho legacy. When she moved to Echo Park with her family, she continued to do her thing. On any given weekend, you would find friends, family, family friends, co-workers and even neighbors. At one point, she had be-friended a few people from the local Dream Center, which houses up to 500 people in need of rehabilitation, counseling and protection from the mean streets. JD told me she once blocked out a whole Saturday for his co-workers and had them make reservations anywhere from 9 am - 6 pm. Ha! I asked her if she wanted me to buy her one of those $150 neon pho signs to place in her window, in which she declined with a laugh. I actually thought about buying one to put in my front window just to see how many people would knock on my door. Jeni killed that dream pretty quickly.

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I loved everything about the way Noodle Mama ran her "shop". She had her cilantro and onions chopped up nicely and stored in one of those Asian cookie buckets.

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A take-out box filled with some beef meatballs (bo vien). One of my fave pho toppings.

EchoPark NoodleMama03

A container of sliced beef brisket and shank (nam and chin) she made from hours of boiling – my go-to pho toppings.

EchoPark NoodleMama09

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I believe she had two large pots of beef broth going, enough to serve a good 18-24 bowls. Look at the color of the broth from nicely roasted bones and yellow onions.

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Versus using a pot of hot water, she dipped the noodles in a separate pot of beef broth for that extra shot of beefiness.

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And the final touch, a large scoop of soulful broth. I loved how she used a clear Pyrex microwave bowl. Made me feel like I was at the underground viewing level of Sea World, face and hands pressed tightly against the window for a closer look. You could see everything happening in the bowl. Jeni, look at the piece of rare beef being cooked – awesome!

EchoPark NoodleMama08

Then she started to compile a bowl in this huge mixing bowl. I looked at the dining table. Okay, JD, JD's dad, JD's brother and sister all have one. Jeni has one. Except for me.

Me: "Mrs. Dang, that's not for me is it?"
Noodle Mama: "Yes! You eat!"
Me: "JD, she's kidding me right?"
JD: "Naw bro, that's all you. It's your first time here. Welcome to our house."

All of a sudden, I'm taken back to a posting I had written on the ridiculous pho challenge up in San Francisco, by a restaurant called Pho Garden. Read if you dare as I get nauseous just looking at the photos. I could wash my face in this mixing bowl if I wanted to. I sat down and Noodle Mama put the finishing touches and carefully walked the bowl over. She set it down and everyone laughed.

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And how was it? Very tasty and homey, exactly the way I imagined it to be. There was no skimping going on as some pho restaurants will do. If you wanted more meat, you knew you could very well help yourself to it. All the fixings were there at your disposal. You know the food is good when everyone around you is busy eating and not saying a word. I had barely dented my noodles when Noodle Mama, as any mother would say, reminded me that I had to eat a second bowl. Jesus. This may be the place I lay to rest. In gluttonous happiness.

EchoPark NoodleMama11

I've been to Noodle Mama's three times and have tried her pho and JD's favorite, bun rieu. She also makes bun bo hue, hu tieu and according to JD, a mean bowl of banh canh. Unfortunately, J and I may be seeing Noodle Mama less now that she is moving elsewhere and closing down her Echo Park "shop". Thank you to JD and Noodle Mama for the warm hospitality, noodles and friendship. It means a lot to us. It's my turn next to offer you a bowl of Chinese beef noodle soup.

Question: What is that one dish that you can't refuse when offered by your mom, aunt or grandma?

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, an Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh the Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

A few hours earlier, Jeni and I were able to sample one of Bourdain's first pit stops in his No Reservations: Vietnam episode – a Vietnamese crepe-like snack called banh xeo that was both fun to eat and somewhat tasty. We got there the hard way and saw first hand how hectic Saigon street traffic was from the perspective of a cyclo transport. No thanks, we were done with that tourist trap. At our guest house, we were able to rent a scooter for only $7 the whole day, which was killer cheap. Jeni didn't like the idea of it, nor would the mother-in-law, but hey, you only live once.

We pulled out our little food itinerary and talked about our next destination. There was just too much to eat but since we were on the Bourdain tip, we might as well have paid a visit to the lunch lady he also visited on the episode. This stall was a bit out off the radar but it only meant more good times on the scooter. Thanks to Cathy's many nice postings on her blog, Gastronomy, we were able to find our lunch lady with ease. It was time to meet Mrs. Thanh Thi Nguyen.

As we were on our way, I prayed to god that Nguyen Thanh Thi would make her bun bo hue. Bun bo hue, is a Central-region soup noodle dish that includes beef slices, pork sausage, fixings in an aromatic lemongrass and chili-oil broth. This is simply my favorite Vietnamese soup noodle dish. When I saw it on the Bourdain episode, I stood up, pointed at the screen and was like, "Goddamn! That looks good". With food flying out of my mouth. To fill the void, I think we got some bun bo hue that same weekend.

Go down a main street, turn left on to a smaller street and go down an alley - the instructions said. We were finally in the vicinity. I slowed down and started to look around what was basically a large courtyard with surrounding buildings. I flared my nostrils wide to detect the smell of sweet lemongrass. To my surprise, there wasn't just one food stall or restaurant, but more like 5-6 others. All with the same set up - a makeshift tent, small blue tables and small red stools. Men sat around on their scooters smoking and drinking. We scanned the courtyard from left to right and it didn't take us long to realize which one Nguyen Thanh Thi ran because out of the 5-6 stalls, there was one stall with a good 15+ customers. I took off my space-ship like helmet, removed my exhaust mask and ducked my head to look around. And there she was, as in the episode, wearing the traditional straw hat and working the control tower. We parked the scooter and she immediately greeted us with a warm smile.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Where's the Lunch Lady? Find her now!

I walked by her 'kitchen' and checked out the broth. YES! It was bun bo hue. I remembered sitting down on that little stool and just grabbing a chunk of towels to wipe my sweat. One of the ladies came over with a bottle of water and I guzzled that thing down. It was super hot and here we were about to eat some soup noodles. I looked over at Nguyen Thanh Thi and she was busting her chops over there, serving up noodles next to a scalding hot cauldron of bun bo hue broth. I know this is gross, but I wouldn't be surprised if her secret is some accidental salt if you know what I mean haha. Sick.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

The color of her broth was a fiery red, a sign of dense chili sauce and probably annatto seeds. The chocolate-like cubes you see are anything but chocolate. Andrew Zimmern would probably spend two whole episodes trying to eat this congealed, pork-blood delicacy. The Vietnamese call it huyet, and its used in pretty much used by every Asian ethnic group including the Chinese, Korean and Thais. It's not for everyone but I like it for the texture. There's not much taste to it.

Also in the cauldron were Vietnamese pork sausage patties called cha. I wish places like Wurstkuche would serve this because I'd for sure order it grilled with a bun. This is basically a beige-colored, Vietnamese version of spam that tastes good with virtually everything. Even pigs like it.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Once Nguyen Thi Thanh adds the hot noodles and toppings in the bowl, her "sous chef" takes over by adding the fragrant, red-colored broth and adding a few pieces of "pig chocolate" and Vietnamese "spam". She walked over to our little table and served us the piping hot bowls. Is it me, or do Asian servers have heat-proof hands made out of silicon? And it's not even like they're traveling a short distance, sometimes they are walking at least 50 paces to bring you your food. Most people couldn't even carry a hot bowl for more than 2 paces!

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

Foreplay was over. It was business time. I had waited for this moment for a long time. To eat one of my favorite soup noodle dishes, in the country of origin, on little red stools, under heat and humidity, with my wife. I took a sip and tasted the soup, which was really nice. I've tasted a lot of bun bo hue, and this would be on the strong flavoring end that some people either like or dislike. There was a good amount of spice but a few slivers of the orange and yellow chilies could only make it better. The beef was tough and wasn't what I expected. She might have pulled out the beef shank an hour too early. But I think the best part was the "Vietnamese spam", cha. That log of goodness took up a good amount of surface area in the bowl and it was just done right – with large bits of black and white peppercorns - just how I like it. Overall, the bowl was very good and for those that may never travel to Vietnam to eat this, you can definitely find a decent bowl in Little Saigon but you won't get that Saigon experience. I still find homemade version of bun bo hue more comforting then any restaurants.

Saigon Bun Bo Hue Lunch Lady

From the scooter ride to finally eating a Bourdain-approved noodle stall run by a sweet lady, it was one awesome experience. Nguyen Thi Thanh is one of thousands of food stalls in Vietnam and in case you happen to visit on her day off, trust me when I say that you will never run out of food options. Thanks to the Gastronomer for a great find and thanks for reading.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Lunch Lady
23 Hoang Sa (Down the alley on the right side)
Cross Street: Nguyen Thi Minh Khai
District Binh Thanh
Everyday from 11 am - 2 pm

Eat Drink Style Dinner For the Newly Engaged

For those that have been through a wedding, not as a guest, but as a bride or groom, you probably remember how difficult it was to devote more than a handshake/hug and 30-second chit chat. You have anywhere from fifty to five hundred fifty people to say hello to and the clock is ticking. At our reception, we seriously had no longer than 15-20 seconds to greet our friends and family. And we felt horrible. We loved everything about our wedding. From having the private ceremony in Las Vegas to the chill, taco-catered reception in a quaint art gallery in Filipino Town. We wanted to be with our loved ones more than anything and it was simply impossible to hangout with our guests without disrespecting someone else. It's the one thing we regret the most but we decided that could at least make an attempt to hang out with our friends before their lives changed for the better as a married couple. We would simply invite them over for dinner and drill them with our wedding questions like they were in a smoky dungeon equipped with a swinging lamp.

In the last few months, three of our friends got engaged and standing on the other side of the fence, we couldn't help but be stoked for them. They are glowing like glow sticks at a warehouse rave. Since cooking for eight people can get a little crazy, we decided to split up the nights. And I apologize to MK & LY and YS & NS for not remembering to take photos. I was hustling and bustling as fast as I could. But I can assure you, you got the wilder, more inebriated D who wasn't afraid of taking bizarre photos. I've known MK and YS since college and it was comforting knowing they had found the one to move on with.

For them, I decided to go with a family style meal. Recently, Jeni and I have been eating weekly at Forage. Such a simple yet smart concept and Lucque's alumnus Jason Kim's cooking is homey and comforting. We also just got back from Fez, Morocco and were stocked up with some of the most amazing spices the world has to offer – for like nothing. I was dying to use these spices. If you haven't been to the Spice Station in Silver Lake or Santa Monica, it's a cook's paradise and you'll find yourself tossing out those spices that were there before you were even born. Here's what we had.

Moroccan Beef Stew with Daikon & Carrots
I got this one spice mix that contained cumin, cinnamon, coriander and all spice. It is amazing and used pre-dominantly in tagine dishes. I learned that cumin is used in Morocco both for flavor enhancement and digestion, so we bought a lot. I slow boiled some chuck roast for 5-6 hours in chicken broth, tons of the Moroccan style spices, a few shots of Maggi sauce (hehe) and a little bit of red wine for color. I used daikon versus potatoes because I like the sweetness daikon gives to a stew/soup. It's the same vegetable used to create that beautiful sweetness in Vietnamese/Chiu Chow noodle broths ("hu tieu"). You have to take out the veggies after 1.5 hours because you don't want them to turn into unrecognizable pulp. Garnish with freshly chopped parsley and serve over rice or cous cous. Everyone liked this but I was pretty annoyed by the beef, as it could've been more tender. I'd use short ribs next time.

Skillet-Killed Smoked Paprika & Rosemary Shrimp
This is a guaranteed shrimp recipe that will make you even eat the shells of the shrimp if you were that hungry. In a mixing bowl, I throw in peeled, headless shrimp (or keep the shell on, but cut the shell over the vein so the marinade can seap through), 2-3 cloves of garlic chopped, generous amount of smoked paprika and the sprigs of 2-3 rosemary leaves. Add olive oil and sea salt and mix it up. Refrigerate for no more than 5-6 hours. I call them "skillet-killed" because I crank the heat on my stove, which happens to have much higher BTU's than the average stove. I keep my cast-iron skillet on until it starts smoking, and then keep it going for at least 5 minutes. By now, your dead shrimp are shivering in fear for the unthinkable... a quick sear. The secret is to keep them cooking on one side and to start looking at flesh of the shrimp. If it's translucent it's not done, If it's white on the outside but the center is slightly grey, take it out. Once you take it out, it's still cooking. Like grilled/cooked meat, you have to let the shrimp's "juice" redistribute. Meaning, don't eat it right away you pig. If all is done right, you should have shrimp that has an unbelievable "crunch" to it. Eat the tail too, mmm.

Curried Cauliflower
This is about the simplest side dish you can make. It's tasty and healthy. Break up a cauliflower into manageable florets. Too small they become crumbs, too big they won't cook through in the middle. In a foiled, baking sheet, add a lot of olive oil over the cauliflower and a generous amount of curry powder – depending on how curried you want it. Add sea salt, mix and throw in 400 degree oven for about 20 mins. Check for your desired doneness. Mix in some chopped parsley or even dried cranberries and toasted almond slivers.

Pedro Ximenez's Lentils
I don't know who Pedro Ximenez is but I do know that he makes a killer sweet sherry vinegar that will set you back a whopping $25. But don't shrivel in cheapness just yet, this stuff is magnificent on salads, fish and probably knife wounds. If you had to invest in two things that would take your cooking to another level, it would be that $35 can of extra virgin olive oil and $25 P.X. sherry vinegar. Again, we ate some great lentils in Morocco and we're all about it right now. I boiled some green lentils and added some pickled red onions and parsley. From here it's about finding the right balance of sea salt and Pedro Ximenez. This was really good. I vote for Pedro.

Saffron, Dried Cranberry & Garbanzo Mint Cous Cous
I love cous cous because (A) a stoned college kid could make this and (B) it's light and healthy. Cous cous are basically larger granules of semolina flour and can be cooked in less than 6 minutes. From there, it's up to you to get creative. I added some really nice $35 olive oil, mint, saffron, dried cranberry and garbanzo beans.

Turkish Oregano Quick Pickles
I bought some Turkish oregano at the Spice Station and decided to make some quick pickles, aka "quickles". I think Josef Centeno of Lazy Ox Canteen does a great job of pickling, as do the Animal guys. You have to have vinegar to cut through your food and cucumbers, radishes and onions are the best pickling vessels. In a bowl of water, I added some white wine vinegar, sugar, a tiny bit of salt, crushed chili arbol and a few tablespoons of the Turkish oregano. I threw them in the fridge for a good 2 hours and they came out really well. This cut through the richness of the Moroccan stewed beef and lentils.

After we ate, the real damage started to happen as we whipped out more wine and desserts from Porto's. And then the absinthe came out. Then the whiskey. Then the rum. Then the impromptu backyard "dance" party and photo shoot. Please do not post those on Facebook, thank you. Good times.

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For the second night, our friends TP and EY came over. After seven years of dating, they decided it was time. For their wedding coming up, they've been doing the Insanity Workout. Just how insane-in-the-membrane is it? TP told me that he burns about 870 calories in 30 minutes. Hey, did you know that's equivalent to one bread stick at Olive Garden?

So for this dinner, we decided to go light and stick with seafood. We couldn't do two nights in Morocco and went with an Asian theme. With great wine from Jill Bernheimer's Domaine LA, we began the dinner party journey.

Salmon Sashimi & Quail Egg over Yam Noodles

Salmon Sashimi & Quail Egg Yam Noodles
Salmon sashimi is about 40 calories per piece and high in Omega 3 fatty acids. But the best part of this dish is the usage of yam noodles made from the konjac plant known as shirataki. They are ZERO calories. Don't me ask how that is possible. They are somewhat bland but with a little bit of soy sauce, Japanese soup stock or ponzu, and you're good to go. I served the shirataki with salmon slices, raw quail egg, pickled cucumbers and a few pinches of powdered Sichuan red peppercorn. For the sauce, I simply bought a bottle of udon/soba soup stock and fixed it up with some water and mirin. If you're really into textures, I'd suggest adding salmon fish eggs (ikura), sea urchin (uni) and Japanese mountain yams (yamaimo). This is one of my favorite quick-fix dishes to eat.

Seared Scallop with Yuzu Edamame Puree

Seared Scallop with Yuzu Edamame Puree and TINY Piece of Nueske Bacon
Scallops are about 200 calories per piece and simply one of the best types of seafood out there. It tastes good pan-seared, "cooked" Ceviche style or simply eaten raw. I can't live without scallops. Versus doing a potato or parsnip puree, I decided to use edamame beans which are super tasty. In a blender, I combined one pack of already-shelled edamame, a few dashes of soy sauce, salt and a tiny pinch of sugar. I added a little bit of water to help the blender out. This will take a few minutes to finish as you have to gradually add water to create the puree. If you are impatient and add too much water right away, you can turn this into a watery soup. Taste as you go along and make sure it has a velvety consistency. I like to heat the puree in a small frying pan over low heat to keep it hot. You have to make sure not to burn the puree so you may need a little water to replace whatever evaporates from the heat. Optional: a tiny slice of butter can be used to give the edamame puree a slight sheen. Before placing the seared scallop over the puree, add a few dashes of Yuzu juice. This adds a nice citrus taste that wakes up the scallop and puree. Yes I know, you see a piece of bacon there. Well I didn't say the WHOLE meal was healthy.

Pan Roasted Black Cod with Bun Shimeji Dashi

Pan-Roasted Black Cod with Bun Shimeji & King Mushroom Dashi
I've made this dish many times for J and my family, it's just a simple comforting dish and its very light. For my picky Chinese parents to ask for seconds, speaks volumes. For details on this dish, click on the previous link. The only thing different about this dish was not having Nathan McCall's usual black cod. So I ended up finding some pretty fresh whole black cod at the new Woori market in Little Tokyo (formerly Yao-han/Mitsuwa). They scaled and quickly filleted the black cod for me. At home, I got to play with my sashimi knife and clean up the fish more as there were still bones and blood lines. FUN FUN FUN. TP & EY ended up with a second round of this and ended up taking whatever I had left home.

Like Friday night, we kept going after the wine. Desserts. Whiskey. Rum. 90s music. It was a great night. To MK & LY, YS & NS and TP & EY, I'm glad we all got to spend 4-5 hours eating and drinking – you guys are great friends. And we look forward to seeing you for 30 seconds on your wedding day! Thanks for reading.

Eat Drink Style Vietnamese Banh Mi Sandwich + Panini Machine = Banhmi-ni

Banhmi-ni

At least once a month, J & I will take her mom down to Little Saigon to go play. Our routine is usually to either eat:

Pork Lemongrass Soup Noodles at Bun Bo Hue So 1 (bun bo hue)
Rice flour crepes stuffed with ground pork at Tay Ho (banh cuon)
Grilled cured-pork spring rolls at Brodard (nem nuong)
Grilled dill & turmeric fish at Hanoi Restaurant (cha ca)
Rice vermicelli soup with tomato & crab at Vien Dong (bun rieu)

Decisions, decisions, decisions. Even when we're full to the brim from the food of Little Saigon, there's always one last stop: vietnamese sandwiches at Banh Mi Che Cali (Garden Grove location by the 22 freeway). The sandwich is decent, as I prefer it much over the ubiquitous Lee Sandwiches, but they do offer the 3 for $5 deal which even makes old frugal, asian people do a double-take and say, "Damn, that's cheap. how do you live?!"

For those new to the Vietnamese sandwich "banh mi", it's a mix of French and Vietnamese. During the French colonization in Vietnam, they brought the bread and pate. The Vietnamese completed the equation with their selection of meats, pickled vegetables and chili. And its a great snacky snack.

Banh Mi Che Cali is an interesting place. J cannot stand going here, so her mom & I do the work. But you know what, if you have the patience, it's actually fun to watch. At least for me. It's kind of like being in a DMV or a post office that dispenses Vietnamese food. The customers AND employees are sometimes irate and within a few seconds away from giving you a fist or elbow stamp. So you have to have patience here. The customers, will sometimes try and cut in the front, carefully watching the workers wrap up the sandwiches like hawks, making sure that they don't mess up an order or give it to the wrong person. 12 types of sandwiches, you're bound to get the same order as someone else. One time I was in line with J's mom and this lady started to nudge in like she was invisible, and I just looked at her. But she turned her head and gave me an "I'm old, hungry and not moving" look. BMCC can resolve all of this by creating something called LINES or offer service numbers. It usually takes about 15 minutes to make a transaction here, but when you get out with the goods, you're happy.

Back at home, I was about to eat my 3-for-$5 sandwich, and to tell you the truth, I immediately became uninterested in it. It looked so boring. Bread. Meat. Cilantro. Zzzz. Boring because I've been eating it for so long.

And then I thought about J's panini machine.

Hmm... I wonder.

I dressed up my sandwich with the usual pickled carrots/daikon, cilantro and jalapeno. Argh. Where's the Maggi sauce? They really skimp on the Maggi dosage so you're better off adding it yourself. As the self-appointed curator of the Maggi Museum in Los Angeles, I happily went to my cabinet and picked out my standard asian Maggi and doused it. *Sigh* The aroma.

I plugged in J's Krups panini machine and threw the sandwich in. Sorry buddy, time to get a tan. Is the panini machine not a monumental step in the culinary world and cure for those with mageirocophobia? The fine-engineered rivets that sink into the bread with a very faint sizzle. The ergonomic handle that allows you to either gently toast the bread or pulverize the sandwich to an unrecognizable pulp. The sweet timer that reminds you that bread can also cause severe house fires. I decided to smash the crap out of it b/c I wanted it thin. And right away, my maggi sauce and liver pate squeezed out of the sandwich and began to caramelize, creating an interesting smell. I held that handle down for a good 1 minute then let Mr. Krups do the rest of the work. After about 3.5 minutes, I had a new product that I proudly named with teary eyes... the "Banhmi-ni".

Banhmi-ni

How did it taste? Quite good. It was all about the warm contents and the texture of the bread. As I bit in, I felt the warm headcheese, pork and pate coat my teeth. The maggi, daikon/carrots and cilantro were also warm which was bleh. Next time around, I'll add the veggies and jalapenos AFTER I've completed the "Banhmi-ni". If you're tired of Lee Sandwiches or any other joint, take it to the next level with a simple panini machine and experience the "Banhmi-ni" for absolutely no extra charge! Plus, you can buy a lifetime supply of sandwiches and pop them in the freezer, and resurrect them with the genius panini machine. You won't be cut off by old ladies or receive an elbow to the ribs any longer.

Thanks for reading. I also recommend the $3 'hu tieu' noodles available for take-out. Good price!

Banh Mi Che Cali Bakery
13838 Brookhurst St.
Garden Grove, CA 92843
(714) 534-6987

Eat Drink Style The Cocktail Revival. A Photographic Essay on the Talented Bartenders of Los Angeles.

Cocktail Revival Joseph Brooke

About a year and a half ago, J and I fell in love with the cocktail scene in Los Angeles and Portland. We loved it so much we built our own bar. We removed dozens of books from the shelves and made room for spirits. How many bottles? At least 50, plus your smaller bottles of aromatic bitters. To most people out there, it's hard to get past the visual of a blue, artificial-sugar liquid topped with a pineapple and cherry. To some people, cocktails are typically for women and not "manly" as say a glass of fine Scotch. I guarantee you that if you paid a visit to any one of Los Angeles cocktail bars such as The Varnish, La Descarga or Rivera, your perception of a cocktail will dissipate the second you take a sip. Bartenders right now, for the last few years, have started up a revival and it is a very fashionable and exciting time in the restaurant industry.

One night as we were at one of the bars, I watched a bartender meticulously construct a drink like a chef working on plating. He never stopped once to think about the recipe but followed through gracefully with exact measurements, numbered stirs and a final taste. It was essentially art in a glass. I decided that I wanted to capture a few of the bartenders during this revival that have really re-introduced the enjoyment and sophistication of drinking a cocktail.

This is the fruit of a laborious 6 months. Would love to hear your thoughts.

www.thecocktailrevival.com

Cocktail Revival Steve Livigni

Steve Livigni

Cocktail Revival Eric Alperin

Eric Alperin

Cocktail Revival Francois Vera

Francois Vera

Cocktail Revival Joseph Brooke

Joseph Brooke

Cocktail Revival Julian Cox

Julian Cox

Cocktail Revival Matt Wallace

Matt Wallace

Cocktail Revival Raul Yrastorza

Raul Yrastorza

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, A Taste of Vietnamese Crepes

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

FYI. The "46A" in the restaurant name refers to the address. Pho restaurants like Pho 54, Pho 79 and Pho 87, contrary to belief, do not indicate the years in which the families emigrated from Vietnam – they are the addresses of their business back in Vietnam. But Pho 69, that could be an entirely different story.

Rewind to the previous day, before the monstrous breakfast I had. When Jeni and I arrived in Saigon, we had already printed out a list of things/places we wanted to eat. Even though there was Vietnam's review site, cleverly named Yup! we were good to go. Three pages of paragraphs detailing exact locations of restaurants or stalls. With the help of our friend MN, we pretty much had a scavenger hunt map in our hands. No photos, but only descriptions that would take us through tight alleys and hair-raising traffic to places we would never have dreamt of finding.

Another bit of inspiration is always Anthony Bourdain. In Season 5, Episode 10, he travels back to Vietnam but with the intention of moving to a country that always wins his heart. For me, this is was one of my Top 5 Bourdain episodes. No bullshit sight-seeing or foreplay, it was pure eating. And that's why we all continue to love this man - just give him the food or he'll get mad. So of course, we wanted to try Banh Xeo 46A, the first place he ate at on the episode. The sight of the cook swirling the batter around in that frying pan immediately got me hot & bothered.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Bourdain's Chomp of Approval

It was 3 pm now. Tired and hungry, we decided to hire two cyclo drivers to take us around. What is a cyclo? If a tricycle and a wheelchair had sex, it would give birth to a cyclo. After the fall of Saigon, anyone that possessed a profession involving intellect was sent to an institution for re-education. The people that were once doctors, lawyers and scholars, sadly started back at square one. According to anonymous-in-law, many resorted to careers of servitude such is the life of a cyclo driver. So we were up for supporting these Centaurs of transportation. They seemed nice and even brought out their guest books filled with testimonials from foreigners.

Cyclo Guys: "Where you guys wanna go?"
Us: "You know Banh Xeo 46A?"

Cyclo Guys: "Yeah! Yeah! You like banh xeo?"

Us: "F-yeah."

Cyclo Guys: "Uh. Okay!"
He smiled at me as I turned away. Under his breath, I could hear him curse in Vietnamese. I would soon find out that the restaurant was like a 45-minute ride away. Oops hahaha!


We hopped in to the cyclo and embarked. I've already seen Saigon traffic from INSIDE a car, with doors and windows to guard my flesh and bone. But now, we were up for the true Saigon street experience FULLY EXPOSED. Here we were in a 3-wheeled rickshaw at the mercy of a skinny guy wearing nothing but slippers for traction on the pedals. He was already unhappy about having to go to another district. Buses, cars and scooters had to swerve past us because we were slowing down traffic. At one point, Mr. Cyclo ran the red light and busted a slow left turn. The opposing traffic was heading towards us at full speed and everybody slowed down for us. I could actually see the pupils of the bus driver. No scratch that, I could see the long nosehairs of the bus driver! All the while, Mr. Cyclo was puffing on his cigarette not giving a damn, going about his day. At 5 mph.

I looked over at the cyclo Jeni was in and we both just shook our heads and laughed. Somehow, after 45 of mins of peddling, the Cyclo Guys got us to our destination. Alive. They smiled, enough to cover up their exhaustion, and told us that they would be waiting for us.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I had watched the Bourdain episode enough to take one look at this place and say "Okay, Bourdain sat right... over... there." Stalker, I know. We didn't sit in the same spot. We parked ourselves on tiny tables and stools and a waiter handed us some menus.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

The setup here at Banh Xeo 46A was really simple and very accommodating for the cook. The cook sat on a wooden stool and around her, she set up her command center. She had stacks of plates on the left. The open fire was directly in front of her, along with the food. And on her right, the banh xeo batter in a large pail. Everything was on the ground and as I've learned, this is probably where the Southeast Asian crouch comes in super handy. Why stand and beat up your feet when you can simply crouch, recline backwards and have the weight of your arms balance you without tipping over. It was good on the legs and you could do anything you want in this position: eat, drink, talk, spit, cuss, cook, play cards, anything! I one saw this gangster in Alhambra crouching and smoking on top of a U.S. mailbox in the middle of the day. He looked like a vulture perching 4 feet above the ground. I expected him to suddenly grow wings and fly away into gangster heaven. I never understood why he did that. Anyway, back to the command center. Everything was within arms reach and very convenient for the cook.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I noticed that a lot of stalls used natural fire to heat/cook their food. A dish like banh xeo did not need the 'breath of a wok' so this would work perfectly. This is a slow-cooked dish that has to be done right. Next to the fire was this pail of what I thought looked like Edward Cinema's finest butter. It was probably a really rich stock or some sort of rendered fat, but whatever it was, it was going to make the banh xeo taste real good. I parked it right next to the cook and asked if I can shoot her while she made the banh xeo. She was more than happy to cook for the eye.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part I
First, she adds some oil and adds a few onions and already cooked pork and shrimp. After a light sauté, she then takes a scoop of her banh xeo batter which consists of rice flour, coconut milk, turmeric powder, water and salt, and adds it to the pan. The coconut milk is key because it gives a nice sweetness and takes away the oily taste of the crepe. She then swirls the pan like an omelette so that the batter is spread throughout the pan in an even form.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Birth of a Banh Xeo Part II
Next, bean sprouts are added and a small lid is placed directly on the bean sprouts for some sauna action. Once the bean sprouts are slightly tender, a scrambled egg mixture is poured over the crepe along with a scoop of that rich stock for extra flavor. A few minutes later, she begins to pry the edges slowly to see that the crepe is browning. And finally when its ready, she takes the banh xeo and carefully folds it in half with the spatula. I remember this folding process vividly from the Bourdain episode. A perfectly cooked banh xeo if you ask me.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Here, banh xeo boy is preparing some veggies for us. A few years back, Jeni and I were in Little Saigon and ordered one. I had never had it and was tired of eating spring rolls and egg rolls. This dish came just as she went to the restroom. This thing was massive – it reminded me of the taco from SNL's "Taco Town" skit. I was so hungry that I just started eating it straight up. Dipping it in fish sauce and gobbling it. About five minutes into it, I was starting to get full and very sick. It was so oily. Never again I thought to myself. Jeni came back and was like "how do you like it?" "It's good but I'm feeling sick." "What? Is it undercooked?" "I don't know, it's just kinda too oily." She looked at the plate of untouched greens and herbs and put her head in her hands. I learned that day that banh xeo tastes much better with herbs and greens, not straight up haha.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

As the cook finished up the order, I went back to my seat. Washed my hands with those handi-wipe napkins and prepared for the long-awaited crispy snack. Or so I thought? It had only been two minutes and already, the banh xeo was starting to get moist and soggy. Sure the edges were crispy but the crepe was actually close to falling apart. I quickly took a small chunk and wrapped it up with the necessary fixings, dipped it in the fish sauce dip and took a bite. Hmm. The crunch is slightly there but now there's another problem. The filling was a bit under-seasoned. I double dipped again in the fish sauce and even then, it was only okay. It became better when I opened the crepe up like the hood of a car and threw in some salt/fish sauce.

I love Anthony Bourdain's show but I knew right then that a bit of entertainment magic was thrown in for well, entertainment. I was hooked on going to Banh Xeo 46A after hearing the crunch of the banh xeo. For sure, sound effects were added for maximum crunch or maybe Bourdain got it 30 seconds faster than I did. Whatever the case, ours wasn't Kettle Chip crispy. Pretty funny when I think about it.

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

I wasn't bummed at all. After all, I was eating in Vietnam which was amazing enough. I knew that if it weren't for Bourdain's visit, this would still do well because its a local favorite. At 90,000 dong, it's on the higher end of the cash spectrum. I'm sure there's way better places out in Saigon. I had a total of 5 days in Vietnam so I had plenty of time to eat great food. Again, this trip wasn't about scouring the streets for the best of the best. For me, it was just about experience. Again, I didn't care, we had a great time!

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

Saigon Banh Xeo 46A

We said bye to everyone and thanked them for letting us take photos. Our cyclo guys were there still and we jumped back in for another wild ride back to District 1. In a few hours, we would be going after another one of Bourdain's pit stops... the bun bo hue Lunch Lady.

To be continued. Thanks for reading.

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Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Finally Meet You and Eat You

Saigon Street Life

Since the first day I was with Jeni, I told her that I wanted to see Vietnam. I had a lot of Vietnamese friends in college and they had introduced me to the Vietnamese culture in Orange County, California. It was one food I enjoyed eating and wanted to know more about it. Both the cities of Westminster and Garden Grove are better known to outsiders as Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese enclave in California. To Vietnamese immigrants, it was a satellite home with many of the attributes of their country, completely intact. To the group I had met in college, Little Saigon meant occasional visitations to tailor shops to make my own slacks, late nights dining at the old Spire's diner, weekend loiterings at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho), karaoke lounges, Vietnamese electronic clubs and of course, a TON of good eating.

In 2007, we had an amazing trip to Yangshuo, China. She was meeting me in Hong Kong via Vietnam, and from there we would take off to Southern China. I was actually more interested in hearing about her trip to Vietnam than introducing her to my motherland of Hong Kong. She promised me that we would go together one day to experience half of her heritage.

It was almost October and we still had not planned our Christmas holiday trip. We had just visited Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay, so we had to stay off the South America track for a little while. If you haven't noticed, our budget has only allowed us to do Central/South America and Asia. We're not at the point where we can get a butt-kicking in places like London, where a burger will cost you nearly $20. $20 in our choice countries goes a long way. So we looked to Asia again. We had the idea of visiting each of our motherlands. She, being Vietnamese and Japanese and me being Chinese and Laotian, we would go for this. I would get to see Vietnam and she and I would see Laos (my father's country) for the first time. We've both been to Hong Kong together and Japan separately, so those were somewhat checked off the list.

A few days before Christmas, we stood at Tom Bradley International wielding our plump backpacks. We said goodbye to her mom and walked into the terminal with a glow on our faces. It was our third Christmas of traveling and time away from Los Angeles – what a feeling that is.

12 hours later, we took a pit stop in Taipei and we found ourselves standing...

Hello Kitty Lounge Taoyuan International Airport, Taiwan

in the Hello Kitty Lounge of the Tao Yuan International airport. What sicko decided to build something like this? Pink chairs, shiny murals and checkered tiles. Look what they did to one of the EVA Air planes! If you ask me, it's cute-overload terrorism. Didn't they know that it was narcotics to Jeni and every Asian girl in the world. And that every one of those doped-up girls would make their brothers, fathers, boyfriends and husbands take photos of them. There I stood, taking photos of my adult-wife in front of murals and waiting for her to shop for things she didn't need in the Hello Kitty store. But I didn't care really, because in a few hours, I was about to have an authentic bowl of pho. I immediately forgot where I was and smiled. I must have looked like a still-living-with-parents pedophile, standing there in that Hello Kitty Lounge. The day will come when Hello Kitty becomes an evil dictator, you'll see.

We were back on the plane in a few hours. You know that interactive map channel in planes? I checked it periodically to see how our little white airplane was doing. I love how the cartoon representation makes you forget that you're flying at 500+ mph. 35,000 feet in the air. Over deep oceans. I watched it pass Korea, Japan, Hong Kong... and finally approach Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. We finally landed and I expected the airline attendant to get on the speaker: "Hello, we are now descending into Ho Chi Minh City. To prepare you for the delectable foods of Vietnam, we've begun to pump fish sauce and pho broth into the vents to whet your appetite. Enjoy your time here and don't drink tap water. Thanks for flying with us."

Jeni looked at me and just shook her head. She knew what I was thinking about.
"Hey! Hold on okay? Be patient." I was ready. To eat.

We picked up our backpacks at the carousel and found a taxi driver. Of all the times I've driven or been in other countries, I was not prepared for the type of traffic Ho Chi Minh City is known for. There was traffic EVERYWHERE. Scooters, motorbikes and trucks came from all directions, even towards us, like the city was one big beehive. Some motorists were so close to the vehicle I could have reached out and given them a high-five. And at times, there were people crossing through this madness with caution, yet they seemed relaxed. Jeni looked at me and laughed, "Welcome to Saigon." I sat back in my seat to give my eyes a break from this visual overload and just soaked it all in.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

After a few minutes, it just seemed to make sense to me. And I couldn't help but laugh to myself. To any foreigner, this was the end of their life. To Vietnamese, this was the theory of yin and yang in action. It was the norm. Saigon has made me appreciate the beauty of LANES. If the game developers of Gran Turismo run out of ideas for their next game, I've got a suggestion. Racing on a track against other people is easy, but what about adding the obstacle of dodging people, animals and vehicles from all directions. Think of it as an updated version of Frogger.

GT Saigon Box





Here's some footage of us zipping through Saigon. Jeni and I ended up renting a scooter anyway because it was the best way to get around and really experience the city. Plus, we didn't have to deal with shady taxi drivers and cyclo drivers that base their rates on your country of origin. I've heard too many stories of people being locked in a car until they paid the driver's amount. Most people would avoid all problems and just give in. Riding around in Saigon was seriously like driving in a video game. Motorists, vehicles and pedestrians came from all over but there was constant visual contact which made everything work. Like ants in a colony, there was a telepathic understanding. If you wanted your way, you were aggressive about it and honked your horn. It was actually more stressful being in a car because you had to give way to scooters. You didn't have to stop for pedestrians but you swerved slightly to the side of them to let them walk. We had an awesome time. After cruising around, we just found something simple to eat and call it a day. Because tomorrow would be a more focused day of eating. I fell asleep shortly after midnight with an English Premier League game on.

Saigon Street Life

The next day I woke up at around 5:45 am. Not to the sound of my alarm or iPhone, but a LOUD rooster. I smiled and thought to myself, "Only in Asia!" I took a look outside of the guesthouse window and spotted the rooster that signaled the beginning of some good eating. He paced back and forth on a small balcony like a military soldier on patrol duty. All around me, I could hear the never-ending cacophony of street life. People chattering and scooters honking. I showered, got dressed and gave the wife a kiss. Without asking me where I was going, she said, "have fun." Of course, she knows. She's my wife.

Saigon Banh Mi Lady

At 6 am, life was happening here in Saigon. District 1 of Saigon to be exact. We stayed in an area called Pham Ngu Lao, an area where most backpackers stay. The whole street of Bui Vien, is lined with backpacker-friendly streets. Guesthouses, bars, laundromats, stores selling photocopied collections of Lonely Planet books and non-Vietnamese food. There were food stalls already serving up breakfast to locals. There were groups of men drinking tea and smoking cigarettes. Little children on their way to school. Other clueless foreigners walking around. Honking scooters. Dogs. Cats. Chickens. All minding their own business.

Saigon Street Life

I saw this wedding car right outside the guesthouse. I looked behind to watch groom and his groomsmen carrying a large roasted pig in front of a small complex. They laughed as they beckoned their way into the bride's home with their crispy dowry. I've seen this done at family gatherings but this was happening at 6 am on a busy street on a Wednesday. It was beautiful.

Saigon Pho Bo

Vietnamese Beef Noodle Soup (Pho Bo)
I walked no more than three blocks before I found my first victim. I had my first bowl of pho in 1987 and 23 years later, I was going to have my first bowl in the country of Vietnam. I hoped it would be as special as eating a real bowl of wontons in Hong Kong. When we were heading to our guesthouse from the airport, I stared at every business that had the word pho in it. From a dictionary, the word pho, with the correct accent marks also means things like "to escort/assist", "a deputy", "to show off" or "snowy". None of these words matter to me. Like any street with heavy competition, the employees at this corner pho restaurant waved me in with their hand gestures and stuck a menu to my chest. It was 6 am and way too early to go running around the city for a convincing bowl of pho. All the food I saw on the street looked convincing.

I was directed by the owner to a stool right in front of the "kitchen". The "kitchen" consisted of a four-wheeled, metal table with a glass display case and shelving. There was also a large steamy pot in the middle of the table for cooking noodles, a chopping board and a folded counter top enough for four patrons to digest their meal. All along the display case were the assorted goodies from the cow you could choose from. At this particular pho stall, they only offered rare beef, brisket, tendon and beef balls. Behind the cook, was the soul of the restaurant: a huge cauldron of pho broth.

The owner came by with a plate of bean sprouts and thinly sliced orange/yellow chilies that were quite fiery - not jalapenos. For condiments, there were two small tin jars with the orange chili sauce we know as Sriracha and brown hoisin sauce. Both of them tasted different than I expected. The "Sriracha" had a sweetness to it and the hoisin was much lighter in strength. I watched the cook as he prepared the bowl of noodles in under one minute. I added a few slices of the chilies and black pepper and first dipped my feet in the water. The broth was very light in color and strong in spices. It was very good and much different than any bowl of pho I had back at home. It was very light and had a homeyness to it that made me finish all the soup - I enjoyed it. I took a taste of the brisket which was excellent, due to low & slow cooking and the usage of free-range cows we pay more money for here in the U.S. This wasn't the best bowl of pho I've eaten but I wouldn't think twice about eating here again at 6 am with locals on a crowded street. It was humbling. Especially when the bowl only cost me $1.25.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Banh Mi


Vietnamese Style Sandwich (Banh Mi)

In Los Angeles, Latino street vendors have their taco tables and shopping carts loaded with Gatorade/Igloo coolers. Here in Vietnam, they've got a luxurious table with glass display case and wheels. This is basically your Subway on wheels - minus Jared. Almost all vendors of banh mi had this set up. You've got your bread, loaves of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha), roasted pork, cheese, dried pork sung, huge block of liver paté and condiments. Underneath, you've got cabinets for storage and a portable gas stove to fry up some eggs for that special banh mi with fried egg. I watched the banh mi lady preparing a dac biet sandwich (literally means special, "the works"). She first smacked on margarine, mayonnaise and a heavy serving of pate. Next she laid out two pieces of the roast pork (i think it was pork butt, rolled up, tied with twine and then roasted) and two pieces of the Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua). Then the pickled veggies and cilantro were added, followed by a nice dosage of Vietnamese soy sauce (aka Maggi Sauce) and chili sauce. This foot-long banh mi set you back $0.75. Some vendors had a coal oven that they warmed the bread in. It tastes so much better when toasted. Jesus.

Saigon Banh Mi

It was now my turn to order and I knew this because the lady gave me a blank look with her hands out. With no knowledge of the Vietnamese language, I employed the point-and-order technique which always works. I ordered the dac biet minus the cheese and chili sauce. But with a fried egg (trung chien), because life is always better with a fried egg! She knelt down with a grunt, opened up the cabinet drawers and flipped on her portable stove. She scrambled the egg, added some margarine and cooked up my eggs rare and juicy. I stopped her while she bagged it, and she gave me a puzzled look. No point in wasting plastic because that banh mi was going to have the lifespan of no more than 5 minutes. I paid her and she and her baby daughter watched as I devoured it. I gave her a thumbs up and she responded with no facial expression. And we both lived happily ever after.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Life12

I saw this lady for the next few days and dubbed her the "Gangster Porkchop Lady" (thit nuong gangster). She always wore that hat, protective glasses and a mask - ready to do some surgery on me. All you needed was some Snoop playing in the background. With the mask I could never tell if she was smiling. She more or less looked like she was dogging me. Probably saying stuff like, "if you don't fucking buy a pork chop, i'm going to kill you." JK, she was really nice. We are now in the same gang and have each other's back.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Vietnamese Beef Stew with Rice Noodles (Hu Tieu Bo Kho)
If you're into food like I am, you try your best to remember the names of each culture's food, as well as know its pronunciation. I learned how to read the phonetic Korean alphabet JUST so I could order food off their menu. With Vietnamese, it's pretty much a romance language with squiggly accent marks. So when I stood in front of this stall like a stranger walking into the Cheers bar, the cooks and patrons all turned around to stare at me. For about three seconds, there was complete silence as people stopped eating. From where I stood, I could see something orange in the soup pot. It smelled like beef, tomatoes and carrots and could only mean one thing. As soon as I said the words "bo kho?" came out of my mouth, everyone smiled and welcomed me. I got the go ahead to join the pack.

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

Saigon Hu Tieu Bo Kho

I sat next to an older woman who was hunched over her bowl of Vietnamese beef stew. She smiled at my cluelessness and probably wondered if I knew what the hell I was doing. If you haven't had this dish, you'll usually see it served in a thicker form with some toasted French bread in Vietnamese restaurants. This is a take on your basic French stew cooked with red wine, but in my opinion, even better. The Vietnamese version omits red wine, and uses fish sauce and a crap load of star anise. I was handed my bowl and the woman next to me (pictured above) immediately pointed to the condiments I had to add in. Some fresh chilies, a scoop of hot chili sauce, some herbs and lastly, a hard squeeze on a lime wedge. I have to say, this was even more appealing to me than the pho I had up the street earlier. The broth was very light in tomato flavor and the beef was done just right. The noodles were fresh and silky and went really well with the fresh herbs. This cost me $1. I drank all the soup and thanked the older woman for helping me eat this the right way.

Saigon Banh Uot

Vietnamese Rice Sheets (Banh Uot)
This is a favorite of mine. I first had this at the Asian Garden Mall (Phuoc Loc Tho) in Westminster when I was 12 years old. To this day, I still go back to the same exact vendor for this dish called banh uot. It's probably not the best, but it's nostalgic. Thin, slightly translucent rice sheets are cut into large segments and served with generous slices of Vietnamese meatloaf (cha lua), a deep-fried cake with mung beans (banh cong), herbs and bean sprouts. All doused with the all-mighty sweet and sour, fish sauce dip, nuoc cham. I call this a happy meal.

Saigon Banh Uot

I never get tired of this dish for its simplicity and lightness. You'll eat it and wonder where it disappeared to. Behind where I was sitting, there were about 4-5 motorists waiting on the side for their "drive-thru" order. The owner wrapped up everything in one plastic bag and tied it up with a rubber band. How fun it must be to eat this straight out of the bag. This was a choice stop for locals and I could see why – it was delicious. The rice sheets were the thinnest I've seen, the meatloaf was great and the fish sauce was tasty enough to swim in. J was sleeping at the time I was eating this and I quickly ran back to get here to try this. She and I used to pick up fresh banh uot sheets at the Thai Son store in Little Saigon, and I knew she would love this. We came back an hour later and the carnival had disappeared, vanished into oblivion.

Saigon Street Life

A few weeks later at an airport in Hanoi, I saw this airport sign letting us know what we could NOT bring back. And to my surprise, I find the lovely Vietnamese meatloaf on the roster. It was too funny. Was it a narcotic? I wouldn't be surprised for its addictive taste.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Street Life

You don't know this, but all the places I ate at this morning were all within 2-3 blocks of each other. As I learned, and you will too, good food is not hard to find in Saigon. Not at all. I told Jeni about the places I ate at and she knew I was very happy. I was very impressed with the food and quality here and loved that I could turn the corner and find a local gem. This was going to be one memorable tasting for us. And So far, Saigon has been good to me.

Thanks for reading. Bourdain's visit with the lunch lady, Vietnamese crepes and a Vietnamese restaurant with a great concept... up next.