Showing posts with label vietnam. Show all posts
Showing posts with label vietnam. Show all posts

Eat Drink Style Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

When I was commuting for the nearly 2 years to work in the Marina area, I made a point to stop over Chinatown for the Phu Huong roach coach (Alpine & Spring), a standard catering truck run by three very nice siblings – two brothers and a sister. They offered goodies such as Vietnamese sandwiches (banh mi), charbroiled pork noodles (bun thit nuong), dried shrimp steamed rice cakes (banh beo), egg rolls (cha gio), charbroiled cured pork meatballs (nem nuong) and my favorite, fried Vietnamese sausage (cha chien). Though not the best representation of Vietnamese food, I loved the concept of one of my favorite foods served from a truck – just like tacos and Kogi BBQ. I know sooner or later, someone will be taking it back to Vietnam's true roots by setting up tiny plastic chairs and wooden tables and serving piping hot pho right out of a roach coach. What a beautiful thing.

I had come here so often that I had the guy's number on my phone. If I wanted a banh mi, I would simply call him 10 minutes before and do a drive by transaction. "Extra Maggi please, com ung!" But what I enjoyed most out of here was something my father first introduced banh cuon to me back in the late 80s, when the same truck was owned by another generation of Vietnamese people. I gladly chose this over a gross Happy Meal.

I had also come here so often that I knew that the purveyor of the banh cuon was always late or super lazy. Sometimes they'd be there at 8:45 am. Sometimes 9:45 am. Sometimes, not at all. This inconsistency drove me nuts as it STILL continues after 6 years. You would think this manufacturer gets the idea by now. NOPE. It was time to make it at home.

The recipes are adapted from Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen, a book I really enjoy reading. Nguyen's recipe calls for prepartion in a skillet or pan. The best way to have these is through steaming, but not everyone has that equipment or the BTU's to do this. Watch it being made.



Banh Cuon - Vietnamese Rolled Rice Crepes

(1) Put the dried wood ear mushrooms in a bowl of warm water. If you can find fresh mushrooms, then avoid this process of reconstituting the dried version. Should take under 7 minutes. Dry and mince it up. Same with shallots. If you like garlic, feel free to add a clove.

(2) Sauté the shallots for a minute or two, then add ground pork with a little S&P. Add fish sauce to taste and sugar to balance out the salinity. This should take no longer than 5 mins. You don't want to overcook this as you will be letting it sit out to rest.

(3) Make a well in a bowl with all the flour and starches. Pour the water into the well slowly, using your other hand to slowly mix in the flour starting from the center, then outwards. You should get a mixture that is watery – it should not be goopy like pancake batter.

(4) In order to make this less frustrating, have a separate chopping board glazed lightly with oil on it ready. This is a lot of work as it took me at least 8 crepes to get it somewhat 'right'. Add a little oil into your pan on low-medium heat, and add about 2 tbsp. of the batter. Slowly swirl the batter around in a circle so that all of the mixture is being cooked. When it stops moving around in the pan, they are being cooked. Then cover the pan with a lid and let it steam for about 1-2 mins. You know you're ready when you can peel the edges of the crepe off, and you don't want to overfry this – it's supposed to be smooth in texture and resemble something steamed. Here's a trick to make your life a little easier. Using the end of a wooden spatula, bang the sides of the pot from the outside and see if the crepe shifts easily. This method prevents any tearing that may happen from using your fingers to grab the crepe.

(5) This is the hardest part. If you watched the video, you saw the lady geniusly use chopsticks to hoist the crepe over to a cutting board. Unfortunately, we are not in Vietnam. If you flip the pot over directly, you may not get a clean fall. You kind of have to come in at an angle, like from 3pm to 7-8pm. Now you'll know why it took me a good 8 times.

(6) This is the easy part. Refer to my egg roll diagram. It's pretty much the same, only the crepe is more delicate. When you do the main rolling, any extraneous parts, you can simply cut off or tuck underneath the crepe for aesthetics. The 'belly' of the crepe should be exposed, not the wrinkly 80 year old grandma skin.

(7) Serve with dipping sauce, boiled/steamed bean sprouts, fresh cilantro and fried shallots.

For this recipe, I found myself adding a little more water to dilute the batter as I tasted too much flour/starch. Otherwise, the recipe is very basic and can be done with patience. No holes in the kitchen walls this time. It tastes good but still doesn't beat the original steamed version.

***Note: The Phu Huong truck is now owned by new people, but they are actually offering more store, including Chiu Chow food like Fried Turnip Cakes with Eggs. Good when fresh, not under saran-wrap.

Thanks for reading.

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - A Morning Market

Saigon Market Morning Market

On the morning I went hunting for breakfast, I came across a morning market that was very much alive and kicking. It was now 7 am and life was going on here. People picking up breakfast, people shopping for groceries and vendors competing with their neighboring competition. A little more to eat wouldn't hurt I thought.

Saigon Street Life

Saigon Morning Market

While some locals run their businesses at a farmer's market or stall, there are vendors on wheels. Two wheels to be exact. Most of them sell fruit but I've seen something as wild as a guy riding with a hot deep fryer filled with oil on the back seat of his bicycle. I named him "Mr. Deep Fry-cycle". If the LA health inspection gets riled up over a taco truck on a street, imagine what they would say about the "deep fry-cycle". He would be sent to prison!

No matter where I am, the sounds and smells of a farmer's market are all part of the experience. Your senses are put to the test with each step that you take. In a sense, it is a bit of a sensory overload, but that of enjoyment.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Similar vendors are grouped together and although they are selling the same product and directly competing with each other, it's a friendly rivalry. I bought these freshly-fried fish cakes (ca chien) which I love almost more than anything. The fish was so tasty and full of that 'bouncey' bite that I look for in pureed/paste-like Asian products. Thai fish cakes for example, oh man.

Saigon Morning Market

Who doesn't like fried tofu. I didn't see anything that resembled Taiwanese stinky tofu, which I enjoy as well.

Saigon Morning Market

7 am, and the grill masters are out. Here's a Vietnamese version of yakitori. You've got various ground meat that are shaped into balls and chicken/pork organs. They served fish sauce dip on the side and the smell was great.

Saigon Morning Market

In addition to your standard seafood fare like fish and mollusks, you get beautiful blue-colored prawns fresh from the sea. These things were some of the largest prawns I've seen.

Saigon Morning Market

Most of the vegetables and seafood were all set outside. I then walked into a large depot that had something entirely different going on: meat. And to my surprise, there was not one single man wielding a sharp cleaver. Here in Saigon, the women are the Queens of the Kitchen and can very well chop up a pig faster than you can ever.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

While most Westerners turn away upon the site of a completely butchered pig, it is actually more respectful and resourceful to use everything. I saw everything chopped up and ready for purchase. There were no putrid smells of death because everything was so fresh.

Saigon Morning Market

Saigon Morning Market

Ribs, chops, shanks, ears, offals, feet, tails and head. Nothing gone to waste. These were some of the most bad-ass women I've come across. And the irony of it at all, they still managed to look as beautiful as they could with jewelry, dyed hair, make-up and painted nails. Nothing will get in the way of good looks, even if it means dissecting a 250-lb pig on an early morning. Thanks for reading.

More postings on Saigon, Vietnam:
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Meet You and Eat You
Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, a Taste of Vietnamese Crepes
Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, An Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh
Saigon, Vietnam - Saigon Seafood Stalls

Eat Drink Style Saigon, Vietnam - Saigon Seafood Stalls

Saigon Seafood Stall

After J and I got back from eating banh xeo and bun bo hue earlier in the day, we headed back to rest. We were still jetlagged and again I found myself falling asleep to another great English Premier League match. I love that Asia has games going on all day long on TV. We woke up and it was now 10 pm and we still had not eaten. Rather than take the scooter out into the wild streets of Saigon, we decided to do it like foraging tribesman and walk around. And I has had stated earlier on my breakfast hunt, you don't need to go far to find food in Saigon. All you really have to do is stand and do a 360, and you'll realize that it is actually the food that finds you. Pho was cooking on the left. Banh mi was being prepared on the right. But straight ahead, we were attracted to a small stand lit by the greenish, fluorescent lights that seem to be so prominent in Asia. Like moths in flight, we headed towards the light source.

Saigon Seafood Stall

The lady behind the stall spotted us approaching her stand and smiled, pointing at the tiny red and blue stools in front of her. We could hear the sound of something heavy being cooked in her pan, a sound very similar to the shuffling of Mahjong tiles. Based on the pitch, we knew it could only be one thing: mollusks. But she wasn't just offering a few clams, her little humble stand offered you a nice glimpse of the ocean. She told us to come up and waved her hands over her offerings like a magician about to reveal his trick. There was an enough assortment of 'fruits of the sea' to give you a food boner. Shrimp, squid, crab and clams I had never seen before. This was like Jacques Costeau's snack shop.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

Saigon Seafood Stall

There are many tough decisions you make in life, like friendships, relationships and careers. Add this seafood dilemma to the long list because there was just too much going on. I love extensive menus but when almost everything looks appetizing, I get very annoyed. So we picked a few, mainly rarities, and she asked if we wanted a choice of garlic, spicy garlic or sweet & sour tamarind sauce. We asked for one of each with our dishes.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Blood Clams with Tamarind Sauce
Beside the fact that these delicious clams are banned in Shanghai for carrying hepatitis, typhoid and dystentery, this was my first time trying the 'blood clam'. The shell itself has a pattern of rivets and a more jagged texture to your standard Manila clam. The rivets themselves are almost the perfect type of clam to serve with a sauce because they can 'hold' the sauce in its grooves. I picked up the clam and sucked all the sauce off the shell, it was slightly spicy and tangy. Quite good considering I don't really care for dishes that call for tamarind paste. All the clams were shut and suggested they were either very stubborn or not cooked through. But with little effort, the clam gave in to me. To my surprise, the clam was dark red in color, and the juice had almost a muddy brown color. I took the juice in and tasted something deep, earthy and slightly muddy. And it was fantastic. I personally decimated this blood clam village. Had I known that there was a potential threat of contracting hepatitis, I might not have eaten it. But I'm glad I did.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Razor Clams with Spicy Garlic Sauce
I'll never forget the way we had to remove a razor clam from its shell back when I worked in a restaurant. A razor clam can range anywhere from 4" to 8-9" with varied widths of 1/4" to 1". The shell is rectangular and opens exactly like a book. With the head and tail ends of the clam exposed, this isn't the most protected clams out there but it's not easy opening. In order to get the clam out you take a paring knife, nudge the blade in between the shell and slash down the line of the shell, basically slicing the clam lengthwise. What happens next varies. You'll either see the clam ooze out of one end, wriggling in pain or see some sort of bodily fluid ooze out of the body. One time, that fluid nailed a colleague in the face and she shrieked in disgust. It's a bit cruel but the fastest way to get it in your stomach. The ones I had here with by far a midget version of American razor clams. The shells were super thing and with enough force, can probably be broken quite easily. I loved these clams for their king mushroom-like texture and garlicky sauce. This dish was also completely finished.

Saigon Seafood Stall

Sea Snails with Garlic Sauce
I enjoy evicting these mollusks out of their homes. A simple pronged utensil, a steady pull and you've got your buck naked snail. I love snails but it's VERY easy to overcook them. When they are overcooked, they are almost rubber-like – not tasty. We didn't finish these.

As we sat there in front of the stall, we completely forgot about our surroundings. This whole seafood meal only cost EIGHT DOLLARS and was more than worth it. We were in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon's District 1, eating seafood. I think we're too used to eating seafood this fresh by the sea. I didn't think about it during the time, but you may want to be careful considering the fact that not many vendors refrigerate or ice their goods. Seafood generally has to stay cool, so be aware. But if this seafood stall wasn't doing things right, it wouldn't be packed every night with customers. For the most part, if you're willing to be adventurous with street food, you'll be rewarded. This stall is one of many in the city. I had heard that there was even a seafood alley in the city. Man how I love blood clams and razor clams! Thanks for reading.

Saigon Seafood Stall
Bui Vien (1/2 a block east of De Tham)
District 1

More postings on Saigon, Vietnam:
Saigon, Vietnam - Hello Saigon, Nice to Meet You and Eat You
Saigon, Vietnam - Banh Xeo 46A, a Taste of Vietnamese Crepes
Saigon, Vietnam - Bun Bo Hue, An Afternoon with Nguyen Thi Thanh

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.

************************************

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.

EchoPark NoodleMama10

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.

EchoPark NoodleMama04

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

EchoPark NoodleMama05

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.

EchoPark NoodleMama07

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

EchoPark NoodleMama06

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.

EchoPark NoodleMama02

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 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 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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