Tag Archives: Food

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.)

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

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Filed under Culture, Food & Drink, Vietnam

Nordic Food in Vietnam


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Fred Wissink

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of sitting down with a couple of visiting chefs from Sweden during the Equatorial Hotel‘s Nordic Week. At the start of the event, I had swung by for a press dinner and left utterly smitten. Executive chef Niclas Wahlstrom of Stockholm’s Den Gyldene Freden and Magnus Johansson, past winner of the Culinary Olympics and Nobel Prize dinner pastry chef, were good enough to give me some of their time between lunch and dinner services to teach me about the New Nordic Cuisine movement. Tuoi Tre‘s vietnewsonline.vn picked up my story on the culinary movement after it ran in AsiaLIFE HCMC. If you haven’t gotten the skinny on New Nordic Food yet, read about it here.


Photo by Fred Wissink

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Filed under Europe, Food & Drink, Uncategorized, Vietnam

Update Saigon: On the Palate

Yikes! This blog has gone bone dry as of late (I blame the Beginner 1 class I just started teaching). Here’s a quick blast to add some meat to my recently skeletal offerings.

  • Just days after I plugged the Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant in my Vegetarian Guide to Saigon, the joint assumed a dual identity. This Pham Ngu Lao eatery now sports two signs: Vietnamese Vegetarian Restaurant and Pizza Pasta Lasagna. The latter is meant to advertise its new meat-inclusive menu, courtesy of the new chef. In addition to an array of eponymous dishes, it also features some great meals like the cajun chicken casserole (45K VND), chicken potato paprika burger (32K VND) and pork with cream sauce and mushrooms (45K VND). However, the last two days, the new menu was unavailable at lunch time; either they’re out of ingredients or can’t cut the mustard without the new chef around.
  • Prices have shot up at Falafellim by about a 7000 VND per dish. The falafel pita that used to cost you a cool 32,000 will now set you back 39,000. On the up side, I’ve learned that chowing down on one during a bad hangover produces a sensation relative to your previous condition that I can only describe as taking a massive dose of ecstasy while riding a Unicorn through Candyland.
  • Bobby Brewers on Bui Vien has begun distributing movie leaflets again, although its all-day new movie bootleg fests haven’t yet come off suspension. Recent screenings have offered films in the 2-5-years-old range. Meet the Fockers, anyone?

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Update Saigon, Vietnam

An Israeli Falafel in Saigon

Note: Falafellim is currently closed due to a dispute with the landlord … another great eatery is in limbo thanks to the Saigon’s finicky real estate.

Falafel enthusiasts and vegetarians rejoice! Falafellim is serving up meal-sized falafel pitas here in Saigon. Located on Pham Ngu Lao just off the traffic circle at Ben Thanh Market, this small, attractive falafel bar was opened a few months ago by an Israeli ex-pat. And while most of the foreign fare you sample in Saigon disappoints, these falafel sandwiches are the real deal — packed with delicious fresh ingredients and served with authentic tahini and chili sauce. Falafellim also serves hummus, egg and salad dishes, as well as the falafel baguette (truly, an idea whose time has come).

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Uncategorized, Vietnam

Vegetarian Guide to Saigon’s Backpacker District

Eating vegetarian isn’t always easy in Saigon. Luckily, the Backpacker District encompassing Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien caters to HCMC’s herbivorous visitors. Here are some of the best spots to eat an chi.

Zen: from stir fried to braised, Indian to Mexican, Zen offers the largest slate of cheap non-meat cuisine around above Bui Vien. The Vietnamese dishes are tasty, but Zen also offers creative takes on Western dishes, like stir-fried macaroni and cheese (penne noodles in cheese sauce with tofu, onions and mushroom). Between Chua An Lac and De Tham.

Chi’s Cafe: Chi’s isn’t a vegetarian restaurant, but it does have the best 30,000 VND veggie burger around. For pescetarians, Chi’s also has a delicious basa fillet with lemongrass and chili served with rice. Between Chua An Lac and De Tham.

Le Pub: Two of Le Pub‘s managers are strict vegetarians, so extra care is taken to use vegan products and keep separate cookware and surfaces for meat dishes. The food is pricier than most Backpacker District fare, but the quality is also far superior. The spicy chickpea patty should be first on your list of dishes to try. Chua An Lac.

Vegetarian Restaurant: For great homestyle and comfort food-style vegetarian, this aptly named spot serves clay pot concoctions like spaghetti with soya balls and meatless shepherd’s pie mashed potatoes, cheese, tomato sauce and various vegetables (it’s a day-to-day surprise what greens make their way in). Chua An Lac.

Margherita: The vegetable pizza is pretty delicious, but the vegetarian Mexican food steals the show. This is no authentic Mexican, but Margherita’s spin on quesadillas, tacos, chimichangas, enchiladas and burritos are all worth trying. Chua An Lac.

New Delhi: Not only does New Delhi win the prize for best Engrish sign (Thunder price the competition!), it also has the best cheap Indian fare on Bui Vien. Your favorite Indian staples cost about 20,000 VND and the beer is dirt cheap, as well. Bui Vien, near Do Quang Dau.

Coriander: The vegetarian pad thai is always a safe bet, but the tempura-style vegetables with plum sauce is a must try. The fried and breaded mussels with plum sauce are a great treat for pescetarians. Bui Vien, near Do Quang Dau.

Chua An Lac is an alleyway between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien. It’s identifiable by the ornate gateway on Pham Ngu Lao.

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

Banh Mi: Franchised and Sanitized

Meat banh mi — Vietnamese sandwich — is the definitive Saigon street food. For 10,000 VND (about 60 cents) street vendors pile on the ingredients: the ubiquitous white porous pork, gristly bacon, spicy pate, cucumber, onion and cilantro.

But if you’re not keen on street food, you can try banh mi at the new franchise Bamizon. Think Vietnamese Subway. I personally have deep and evolved ideas about street food, but I thought I’d give Bamizon a shot anyhow. The verdict? Pretty good. The sandwich (starts at 22,000 VND) benefits most from Bamizon’s fresh crusty bread, a welcome replacement for the standard street rolls that’ve gone chewy with time. The pate is much milder, the bacon leaner — both cons in my book, but in line with Bamizon’s sanitized take on banh mi.

A tourist-friendly Bamizon location is on Nguyen Van Chiem across the street from Diamond Plaza, located across Le Duan from Notre Dame Cathedral.

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Update Saigon: Stay Cheap, Stay Alive

Okay, so things aren’t THAT dire. But heading into my third month living on savings, I’m definitely feeling the crunch in the lead up to that sign-on bonus at ILA. Here’s how I’m staying cheap in Vietnam.

  1. Bia Hoi. Paying $5000 VND (about 33 cents) for a beer sure alleviates (if not obliterates) morning-after guilt. There’re a few bia hoi joints in the backpacker district on Bui Vien, the best of which is right around the corner from Do Quang Dau (I’d give a name, but I don’t think it has one).
  2. Free movies at Bobby Brewers. This western-style coffee shop screens movies back-to-back all day long on its top floor, which features stadium seating couches. Best of all, they don’t even get miffed if you only order a coffee (20,000 VND).
  3. Pho. Because my girlfriend is a vegetarian, I haven’t had much opportunity to get acquainted with Vietnam’s signature beef soup. However, with the misses occupied getting certified to teach English, I’m slowly working my way through the many variations of pho, which go for about 16 – 20,000 VND. Note: Avoid the franchised Pho 24. It’s overpriced and serves weak portions.
  4. Trà Dá. Literally iced green tea. This is consistently the cheapest beverage on the menu: from about $1000 – 6000 VND. It’s amazing how much you save when you’re not forking over 12-20K VND for lunchtime beer.
  5. Pirated Movies Everywhere in Saigon. There are no copyright laws in Vietnam, so DVD shops are ubiquitous and dirt cheap. A good price is 10 – 12,000 VND, and don’t be shy about returning DVDS that skip.

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Filed under Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Update Saigon, Vietnam

Saigon Sellers Hawk Cookies for a Cause

Walking through the backpacker district in Saigon means shoeing away street vendors hawking everything from hammocks to hashish, not to mention the bevy of poor Vietnamese vying for your heart strings. But there’s one group of street sellers you can feel good about supporting.

Sozo street sellers operate between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien and are readily identified by their baskets of American-style cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and white chocolate. Packages of 3 cookies cost 20,000 VND (just over a dollar), the proceeds from which benefit Sozo Centre, a bakery and nonprofit on Bui Vien that provides poor families and disabled Vietnamese with job training, specifically in baking and running a business. Sozo also runs volunteer programs and funds schooling costs for some of the families with whom they work.

So before you brush off the seller who approaches your lunch table, look for the Sozo label. Not only do the cookies support a good cause, they’re tasty and more practical than a hammock.

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Filed under Causes, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Cheap Eats: Ben Thanh After Dark


During the day, visitors to Saigon flood Ben Thanh Market to rifle through stalls selling chop sticks, dried fruit, pottery, clothing, jewelry…basically everything. But as the sun sets, the main building is shuttered and food stalls set up shop around the square.

While cheap chicken, beef, and pork dishes are available, the real draw at this Saigon staple is reasonably-priced fresh seafood.

My first night at Ben Thanh, my girlfriend Sarah and I each gorged ourselves on king prawn, served Vietnamese style with lime and a salt, pepper, and chili powder mix. The entire cost, including beer (13,000 VND each), was 230,000 VND (about $14.50 USD).

The meal certainly didn’t break the bank, but it was one of our more expensive dinners. The prawn was priced by weight (300K VND per kilogram), so we headed back the next night to see if we could cut costs in fixed-price dishes at another stall.

We started with shrimp spring rolls with lettuce (35K VND, about $2) and two Saigon beers (24k VND, $1.50). Next, we had a half-dozen shrimp fried with tamarind (100K VND, $6.30). They were messy, but the postprandial finger licking made it worth the shrimp shucking. Lastly, we tried a small portion of the vermicelli fried shrimp and crab (40K VND, $2.50). It was mediocre and misleading — with two crab legs and a single piece of shrimp, I suggest springing for the large portion.

Final cost of the second meal: 198,000 VND, or $12.50, just two dollars less than the king prawn feast. The quality at both stalls was good, and since there’s only one soundtrack at Ben Thanh — revving motorbikes — don’t waste your time combing over every menu.


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