Category Archives: Food & Drink

The Queen is Back in Town

Photo courtesy of Eric Isaac, ericisaac.com

One day back in Saigon, I stopped by Bread & Butter for lunch expecting to order from the tiny Pham Ngu Lao joint’s menu of English pub fare. While I wouldn’t have my craving for bangers n mash satisfied that day, I would get a surpise that would sustain me through many a bout of lunchtime homesickness.

On that fateful day, I pulled up a stool and began perusing a new menu that read like a best hits of American comfort food. 

Philly cheesteaks. Grilled cheese with tomato basil soup. Blackened catfish po’ boys. Muffuleta  sandwiches. Mission style burritos.

Who was sprinkling this manna from heaven? None other than Liza Queen.

Residents of Greenpoint may remember Liza from her Brooklyn eatery, The Queen’s Hideaway. The Hideaway closed in 2008 due to some serious New York landlord douchebaggery, but that misfortune sent Liza to Saigon, where she took up residence alongside her long-time buddy and friend to Bread & Butter barflies, Dan Carey. But it turns out Liza wasn’t just schooling B&B’s kitchen staff on the finer points of American classics; she was learning, too.

Liza recently debuted her Vietnamese fare under the banner of Queen’s Dahn Tu at the inaugural Smorgasburg, the Brooklyn Flea’s new food market. After reading about the event on Brooklyn Based, I trekked over to the Williamsburg waterfront to try Liza’s take on banh xeo, banh trang tron, and bun thit nuong. (Bep is also serving bun thit nuong, corn on the cob [i.e., bep], and other Vietnamese staples at Smorgasburg.)

Apparently it was good. By the time I showed up at 2pm, Liza and her crew were slinging their last few servings and getting ready to restock. I got my hands on one of the banh xeo, and though for $8 the portion was a bit smaller than I’d expect, it was certainly tasty, made with more elegant ingredients than you’ll typically find at the smoke-billowing Saigon street stand.

(Plus, 9000 hours in Saigon will make a cheap bastard out of anyone.)

 The experience of noshing on banh xeo while looking out over the Manhattan skyline was surreal, but then, so was tucking into a Mission burrito as roving bicycle vendors squawked their sales pitches in the hem outside Bread & Butter.

Welcome back, Miss Queen.

1 Comment

Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, New York City

Four Kitchens, One in Hanoi

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Sunset Park to meet Village Voice restaurant critic Lauren Shockey at the far-flung Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da. I’d been introduced to Lauren through a college friend who thought we might get along, as Lauren had spent some time in Vietnam. By spent some time in Vietnam, I thought my friend meant that Lauren had passed through on the backpacking circuit.

But that was not what she meant. Lauren, in fact, had traveled to Hanoi for a residency at La Verticale, the home base of Didier Corlou, a chef who separates his own salt from nuoc mam and plays chemistry with essential oils extracted from local herbs.

I can now only marvel at how pedantic I must have sounded to a woman who’d punched the clock at one of Hanoi’s best kitchens.

Fortunately, Miss Shockey is a kind gourmand who drew no attention to my presumptuousness. She’s also a seriously talented food writer with a new book due out soon: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. As the title suggests, the book documents Lauren’s experience as an apprentice at four kitchens around the world. The anecdotes Lauren related over dinner were enough to win my pre-order, but it’s her time in Hanoi that’s really got me curious.

During my stint as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC, I spent a few hours in November 2008 with Didier Corlou, back when he was in residence at On the 6 in downtown Saigon. The man is a hurricane. We had barely finished shaking hands when he hauled me into his kitchen and hoisted uncorked jars of his herbal concoctions to my schnoz while rhapsodizing in a thick French accent about his passions and process. I could barely understand him, but I was rapt. I can only imagine what an extended stay in his world was like, and I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s chronicles of life with Corlou.

(And for the record, the bun bo Hue and che ba mau at Thanh Da are well worth the long ride on the N train.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Food & Drink, Hanoi, New York City

Bun Thit Not-So-Nuong

Perhaps one of the biggest adjustments to life after Saigon is lunch. Eating on the street became part of my lifestyle, and it’s something that I’ve tried to incorporate into my routine here in New York. Working days in Midtown, I didn’t think that would be easy. But soon after starting my gig I discovered the Midtown Lunch blog, an indispensible compendium to street stalls, cheap eats, and food happenings in the corporate jungle.

I was intrigued one day to find an anouncement on Midtown Lunch for the opening of Cha Pa Noodles & Grill, a new Vietnamese joint just two avenues from the office. Bun thit nuong, my lunch of choice while living in the Ho, seemed to feature prominently on Cha Pa’s menu. It took me a few weeks to carve out time to try Cha Pa, but last night I needed a quick bite before attending a Granta Magazine reading at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, so I hoofed over to Hell’s Kitchen, fleet footed at the thought of grilled pork slathered in nuoc cham.



And then things went wrong.

The first sign of trouble? No bean sprouts. Whatever. I can deal. I stirred the dish to mingle the rice vermicelli, pork, carrot, daikon, cucumber, and peanuts, and alarm bells went off. A plume of steam wafted from the bowl. “Is this…? Are the noodles…?”

Yes, the noodles were hot. I texted a friend: “Have you ever had hot bun thit nuong?” She inquired as to whether I meant the meat. I did not. She was disturbed. So was I. I tried a few chop stickfuls and gobbled up the pork, which was quite good. But overall, the dish was a big fail. The pickled daikon and carrot were there, but the flavor was MIA. Weak nuoc cham. A miserly dash of peanuts. Disappointment. Regret. Longing.

I left a pile of noodles in protest, ordered the bill, and left my $15 (including tip), feeling like sucker. Suddenly moving back to Saigon for the sake of frequenting my Tran Khac Chan Street bun thit nuong stall didn’t seem such a ridiculous proposition. Yes, New York is the center of the universe. But Saigon has bun thit nuong for 15,000 VND, or $1 (plus cha gio). If you think that’s an uneven trade, you’ve probably never had good bun thit nuong.

1 Comment

Filed under Food & Drink, New York City

Vietnamese Recipes a la Thuy

goi thit bo xao - sauteed beef salad

Having recently set a date for my departure from Vietnam, I’ve been experiencing some pangs of remorse–particularly in my stomach. Anxiety over where I’m going to get my 3-times-a-week fix of bun thit nuong have begun to besiege my belly. Since Vietnamese street food is dirt cheap here in Saigon, I haven’t bothered to learn how to cook much any Vietnamese food at all.

Then while researching che for an article in AsiaLIFE’s May food issue, I found A Blog of Salt. This food blog is written by a Vietnamese-American student named Thuy who took up cooking when her mother embarked on a two-month visit to Vietnam, leaving her at the mercy of her culinarily-challenged father. Thuy has been blogging since 2008 and now has about 50 recipes posted, each with lots of photos, which should make trips to your local Asian supermarket a bit easier.

This should come in handy when I move back to the States, where it’s actually cheaper to cook your own meals.

1 Comment

Filed under Food & Drink

Meanwhile, at the AsiaLIFE blog…

I’ve been blogging less than usual over at the AsiaLIFE blog, largely because I wrote the last two cover stories for the March and April issues (issues 24 and 25) on top of my regular managerial and editing duties, leaving me little time to devote to the digital domain. However, I’m back in the swing of things. Here’s what you can find over on the AsiaLIFE blog:

Leslie from Smile Group, a fantastic local nonprofit that builds community among and provides support to HIV-affected families, sent us an update on what the group’s been up to. Read the post here.

Also check out AsiaLIFE contributing editor Thomas Maresca’s excellent story from Issue 20 in which he profiles three of the families and sheds light on HIV/AIDS in Vietnam.

Sugar-coated Karma by Tuan Andrew Nguyen @ San Art's "Syntax + Diction"

Although the artist talk took place this past Thursday, check out this post for a brief introduction to leading Vietnamese artists Dinh Q. Le and Tuan Andrew Nguyen. Other suggestions:

1) Head over to the Galerie Quynh website for more info on Tuan Andrew Nguyen.

2) If you’re visiting Saigon, check out San Art and Galerie Quynh.

3) If you’re in New York City or visiting there this year, go see Dinh Q. Le’s installation The Farmers and the Helicopters, opening June 30 at the MoMa and on until January 11, 2011.

4) Read my cover story on contemporary art in Ho Chi Minh City in Issue 25 of AsiaLIFE.

Nordic Week at the Equatorial Hotel Returns to Saigon

One of my favorite food events in Saigon, Nordic Week, returns to the Equatorial Hotel from April 24 to 30. Get the skinny here, or head over to VietNews Online, where you can read my article on New Nordic Cuisine first published in the June 2009 issue of AsiaLIFE.

David Macmillan and Keith Rotheram in Phnom Penh, photo by Fred Wissink, photo editor for AsiaLIFE

I also wrote a third blog post on the controversial media coverage of the Sean Flynn discovery. It seems that Tim King, the executive editor of Salem News, took note of my posts on the questionable reportage and what I view as clear bias against Macmillan. He picked up on the story and put the news media under the lens in two stories.

Leave a comment

Filed under Art, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Media, Vietnam

A Tastier Way to Keep Cool

photo by chowdownphoenix

Twice this week I’ve been asked the same question: Is it getting hotter?

It is. It’s that time of the year when the humidity swells as the rainy season looms on the horizon. When Saigon turns into a virtual greenhouse. When the road exhaust bakes into your skin a little deeper. When at times it seems like there’s no escape from the heat.

Thankfully, L.A.-based food blogger Cathy Danh (and former AsiaLIFE staffer) has a solution: Keep Your Cool, a gastronomic guide to beating the heat the city.

Why pump the A/C when you can down some chilly (and delicious) che nhan or kem trai dua? If you’re feeling hot around the collar in Ho Chi Minh City, this is a particularly useful golden oldie from Cathy’s exceptional gas.tron.o.my blog.

Leave a comment

Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City

My Life at the Quan

Photo by Nam Quan for AsiaLIFE

I haven’t been watching which of AsiaLIFE‘s articles have been syndicated on Vietnews too carefully lately, but I just dropped by and saw that the editors picked up my piece on quan nhau: “Living the Quan Life.”

This one was a real bummer to research: head to a few local quans with friends, nosh on the savory grilled fare typical of these joints, wash it down with dirt cheap beer and shoot the shit. (That’s why I get paid the big bucks.)

As my friend Hai explains it, that’s basically nhau. Eat. Drink. Talk. No one element is more important than the other; each one fuels the other two. I go into the culture of nhau in greater detail in the article.

Oh, and I eat pig’s brain.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Food & Drink, Vietnam