Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Biography of an ingredient I: Uni (sea urchin)

What it tastes like: 

Proponents laud its flavor as akin to a briny, extra-rich egg yolk or a sweeter, less seawatery oyster, while its detractors argue it tastes more like metallic chlorine with the texture of Play-Doh. Needless to say, this is an extremely polarizing food.

What it looks like:

While the whole sea urchin, undisturbed, looks like a lethal black, red, or green Koosh-ball, what you’ll see on your plate are usually the gonads alone: yellow-orange tongues built out of microscopic eggs.

How it’s served: 

- Plain or lightly marinated, folded over on itself like thick cream, over rice wrapped in seaweed, at most sushi bars. I recommend Ikko (in Costa Mesa), whose sushi is otherwise uninspiring; perhaps they pour all their available love into their urchins, which come out miles ahead of any local competition. Ohshima (in Orange) or Nana San (in Newport Beach) are better all-around sushi bars, whose chefs serve their expertly marinated uni nigiri as an integral part of a whole stunning omakase experience.

- Mixed with cream, butter, various herbs, and often other types of fish roe, and tossed with pasta at various Japanese or Italian restaurants. I recommend Café Hiro (in Cypress), which manages to get every single strand thickly coated with rich orange seawatery goodness.

- Alive, with spikes twitching unsettlingly, creeping away from you at the glacial rate of an inch per minute, on paper plates at live seafood bars like Quality Seafood in Redondo Beach. Make sure that the spiky shell is cracked only after you select your specimen: the point of getting urchins this fresh is that their taste changes subtly after only a few minutes outside their shells.

- Forming the flowered centerpiece of stunningly beautiful chirashi bowls at Maruhide Uni Club in Torrance. This blooming, rich confluence of custard, sea vegetables, and rice must be tasted to be believed.

- Marinated in kombu-shoyu and served as an appetizer on Japan Airlines - but you have to upgrade to first class to get a taste!

Three reasons you should try it: 

1. Sea urchins eat kelp. Kelp forms a protective forest for delicate seafloor life and also slows beach erosion. Save the ocean; dine on urchin!

2. Sea urchin is a diet-cheater’s dream. It somehow has fewer calories than fish like salmon and mackerel while having essentially the same richness experience as heavy cream. It’s also full of omega-3 fatty acids. Butter not allowed? Urchin on toast!

3. If you’re going to eat a live sea creature, better that it isn’t sannakji! Sannakji, Korean-style live baby octopus chopped into pieces and served still wriggling, will grasp and hold fast to the inside of your throat in their tentacly death throes. They can quite literally choke a person to death doing this. Sea urchins, conversely, will just attempt to escape your plate slowly and directionlessly.

Parting thoughts

Who on earth discovered that eating orange slime out of an impenetrable spike forest was a delicacy??

Friday, October 25, 2013

2013 Asia trip: Top Ten

My summer trip entry ideas are now trickling in as opposed to pouring, and my memories are starting to fade.  From now on, this blog will probably focus mostly on my meals to come here in Los Angeles. While I'll still wax nostalgic about an Asian meal here or there as they come to me, I wanted to post a kind of summing-up entry into which all my favorites are stuffed.  And then ranked.

These are my top dishes.  I can still taste each and every one of them like they're sitting on my tongue right now.  Six of them made me cry right there in public in a strange country even though everyone was already staring at me because I'm blonde and have six inches on everyone. 

Clicking on a dish links to an individual entry when applicable.  I have done my best to drop a pin near the right location in Google Maps as I remember it so that you may drop everything, get on a plane, and fly out to these rare gems while you can!  I do this because addresses are often nonexistent or meaningless, and place names are invisible, in strange script, or irrelevant.  But please remember that this is Asia, things pop up and blink out of existence in the snap of a finger, and I cannot be responsible for anyone's wasted $1500 plane ticket in search of a 3 buck grilled fish (however much I support the principle of the search, and I do).

Top Ten Best Dishes:

1. Laotian grilled fish, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 25 kuai ($4) - map

2. Sushi Dai, Tsukiji, Tokyo, Japan - 3900 yen ($39) - map

3. Com hen, District 1, HCMC, Vietnam - 48000d ($2.50) - map

4. Ốc bông me, chem chép mỡ hành , District 1, HCMC, Vietnam - 100000d ($5) - map

5. Ruili crabs, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 40 kuai ($5.50) - map

6. Bò lá lốt, Binh Tan District, HCMC, Vietnam - 91000d ($4.50) - map

7. 'Potato' chips, special mountain veg, stirfry eggplant, tofu with water spinach, Weishan, Yunnan, China - 24 kuai ($4) - map

8. Roast street fish with lotus and quail egg xiaokao, Ruili, Yunnan, China - 20 kuai ($3.25) - map

9. Pork rib ramen, Osaka, Japan - 700 yen ($7) - map

10. Shrimp tempura platter, Tanabe, Japan - 800 yen ($8) - map

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part III: Vietnam and Cambodia

(... continued from Part II.)

Oftentimes in Vietnam, the lines were blurred on what was a meal and what was a snack.  Fully 90% of my meals took place planted on an ankle-high stool in a street somewhere, cost less than $2, and took only a few minutes out of my day while I slurped up the fist-size chunk of noodles or wrapped odds and ends in lettuce, basil, and mint leaves.  Were these meals or snacks?  Sometimes I ate five of them a day, but was that because of their diminutive size or my Vietnamese food gluttony?

Another peculiarity of Vietnam was that its best snacks were often technically drinks.  On every heat-drenched corner was a maze of stands selling rau má (pennywort juice), nước mía (sugarcane juice), nước ép (fruit juice) and sinh tố (fruit shakes).  The sinh tố was where things could get wild, making use of fruits as diverse as durian and jackfruit, mango, tomato, pineapple, squash, kumquat, soursop, avocado and sapodilla (a fruit I knew only as the Vietnamese 'sapoche' until this very second, when I looked up the English translation).

Keeping this in mind,

1. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Sinh tố

Making sinh tố is far from an exact science, and the proportions vary slightly by stand, but the recipe for a Vietnamese smoothie is, roughly, as follows:

Scoop edible portion of fruit into blender
Grab can of condensed milk; glop a ton of it into the blender on top of the fruit
Grab sugar jug and make it snow on top of the fruit and milk
Add ice

Even though I watched this process at least 50 times over my four weeks in Vietnam, and fully expected every time that my smoothie should taste like sugar and milk, it magically never did.  It always tasted like someone liquefied and concentrated my favorite fruit and put it directly on my tongue.  Durian shakes were appropriately stinky and retained a nice bit of custardy texture, while the jackfruit versions thankfully cut out their hint of slime.  Avocado shakes made my American palate forget that avocados were meant for guacamole and savory dishes, not sweet ones (I told a smoothie-hawker once that Americans ate avocado only with salty things and she laughed so hard she knocked over a whole pineapple she was about to slice).  I don't like sapodilla much, so it was entirely appropriate for me to think that the shake version tasted like rotten avocados.

Sinh tố was, if not the centerpiece of many photos, at least in the background, fueling the photographer.

Sinh tố in the southeast of the city 
Sinh tố at Chợ Lớn market
Sitting behind a sinh tố stand in District 10
Sinh tố in Phnom Penh
Where the Phnom Penh sinh tố came from 
2. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: "Bánh Mì"

Bánh mì (sandwich) shops are almost as omnipresent as sinh tố stands, but I was surprised to see them pop up from time to time in Phnom Penh.  The Cambodian version, name unknown (as Khmer script is all loops to me) was half the size, coated with fiery red sauce and a heavy, pudding-like paté that tasted almost fermented, and had crunchy pork skins scattered across the top instead of head cheese.

3. Phnom Penh, Cambodia: banana-filled rice

This five-cent snack came from a griddle full of its twins run by an old lady sitting across from the Chinese Embassy.  Unadulterated, nothing but a grill-blackened pad of rice surrounding a lava-hot, sticky flow of ripe banana.  I'm surprised the rest of the tropics haven't caught on!

4. Everywhere: Quail eggs

They come hardboiled; they come as balut.  They come wrapped up pretty in little quail-egg-sized bags, tied with a ribbon.  A ribbon!  Inside the ten-egg packet is an even smaller packet of chili-spiced salt that is stapled closed.  Their vendors cycle through the street and wend their way between tables at seafood, barbecue, and hotpot restaurants.  I'd stop them on the sidewalk on my way home, hand them the equivalent of 25 cents, and go home with a bag of eggs to painstakingly peel and eat sprawled out on my hotel bed.

5. Hồ Chí Minh City, Vietnam: Bánh chuối

Down the street from our last hotel was a tiny grocery which we never entered.  We never entered it because its bakery was outside, and it had perfect round spheres of blackened banana pastry all ready for us to order from the sidewalk. The proprietor would slice a big fat triangle of jiggling cake-pudding hybrid into a plastic bag at night, and it would warm to breakfast temperature in the hot room by morning.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part II: China

(...continued from Part I.)

1. Fenghuang, Hunan: Candied ginger

Fenghuang is known for its ginger crafting.  That much is clear with a simple Google.  However, further information about what type of ginger is hard to come by.  Pickled?  Candied?  Sugared?

The shops along the obviously-tweaked-to-look-ancient-but-still-striking streets of Fenghuang sold white sticks that looked like bleached bark.  This might have been ginger.  We walked past a man in practically medical garb working a taffy machine like a jumprope, twirling it and lassoing the air gracefully.

This may have been ginger, too.  Who knows?

What I eventually bought was a baggie of crystallized ginger from shop tucked way off the main road, just because that was the image in my head of how ginger ought to be consumed.  It looked just like the kind you get at Trader Joe's: soft, chewy, and sugared - except that instead of big crystals of sugar, it was powdered sugar.  And also, there was the small matter of it tasting so fresh and dewy and spicy that I may have gathered a handful straight from a passing fluffy ginger cloud.

My fatal error was buying only one bag, thinking it would last me the rest of my trip (about 6 weeks at that point).  It lasted me three days: just long enough that I was on the train to Kunming by then, regretting my decision strongly.

Ruili had something similar, imported from Malaysia, and so did Vietnam, in gigantic plastic bulk containers at the market, but nothing ever quite reached the magic of Fenghuang's.

2. Weishan, Yunnan: Sweet cornbread with fig filling

The dominant sweet in Weishan, The Friendliest City in China, was a jiggly white Jello-like cake lump that inexplicably, when cut into, formed a jagged, baklava-like square, as though phyllo dough were hidden in the midst.

It tasted like paper and soy.  I wished it were interesting.  It was offered as a sample by a pair of friendly (of course) sisters under a cardboard awning.

The rarer sweet carts only came out in the morning, disappearing entirely by about 10am.  From one of these epheremal vendors came something wholly un-Chinese, so utterly random as to almost seem unreal.

This square of cornbread, stuffed with a sweet brown fig filling, would have seemed more at home somewhere in the Mediterranean.  We were soon to see figs in Dali, in the same province, but they were plump, green, and looked almost like apples.  This filling looked like it came straight from a Black Mission.

It was a welcome respite from the bracingly sweet red bean cakes that popped up in every Yunnan bakery we would pass for the next 3 weeks.  Too bad respites work better when they come after the routine, not before.

3. Ruili, Yunnan: Shandong squid skewers

Yeah, that's a lot of place names.

I specify that this squid skewers originate from Shandong because the man who grilled them never stopped talking about his hometown.  He insisted that his skewers were the best in Ruili because he grilled them the way he had learned to grill them all the way across the country - really all the way across, over 1850 miles away.

Here he is, grilling squid the Shandong way, arm-muffs and all:

I don't purport to be able to distinguish squid skewers by grilling style, but I do know that these were more than worth the wait in the tropical rain.  He had the squid divided up into legs and bodies.  I had chosen to try one leg skewer and one body skewer, but he insisted that I choose both legs, since they were 'better'.

He soaked his grill with oil, scraped it flat, placed the squid on, coated it with oil, pressed it hard with his metal press, then let all the juices that pressed out soak up the oil and spices left over from previous orders.  Then, he scooped up the now-fried juices and poured them back over the squid, pressing them out again and repeating the process four or five times, adding garlic and powdered spices towards the end.

Again, I regretted only ordering two after I had returned to the dryness and coziness of my hotel room, and was disinclined to venture out and get more.  We looked for him the next night, but as it goes in China, he'd moved on to a different corner and was never to be seen again.

4. Dali, Yunnan: Fried goat cheese

What we initially thought were tortillas on a stick were thinly-sliced sheets of goat cheese, stuck in the fire until they blistered and crisped!  (And they weren't on a stick, they were shoved ingeniously in the center of one split chopstick.)

That makes more sense than there being tortillas in China.  Duh.
Now, my thoughts on Dali cuisine are well-documented, but occasionally these tangy, pungent snacks would be well-made and when they were, they were otherworldly.  They'd crunch and then melt, leaving a bite on your tongue not unlike Swiss cheese, but with a brown sugar aftertaste.

Next time: Vietnam and Cambodia!

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Snacking across Asia, part I: Japan

If I had my way, I'd only sit down for one full meal a day.  The rest of the time, I'd just wander around, trading coins for snacks whenever the mood or the vision struck me.  I might gobble a handful of fruit in the early morning, gnaw on some dried meat or skewers of some sort in the late afternoon, pop some herbs for a fun flavor game whenever, and let the displays and coaxings of street vendors decide the rest.

Southeast Asia was a snacker's paradise.  Most of the things on sticks that I picked up on a whim for less than 50 cents were tastier than any meal served to me on anything resembling a tablecloth - in the States or elsewhere.

Japan's snacks were harder to come by, usually ensconced in mall hell, and much more expensive, but its gems were among the most delicious.

1. Tokyo: Hotok

We stayed in the Little Korea of Tokyo: Shin-Okubo.  This meant that there were barbecue joints everywhere, which didn't faze me one way or another, but it also meant a preponderance of the Japanese take on Korean ho-tteok: rice 'pancakes' full of, well, in Korea it was almost always brown sugar and walnuts or pepitas, but in Japan it was whatever anyone felt like throwing in there.

Manning my favorite hotok stand was a trilingual, teenaged Korean national with his long hair always wrapped in a bandanna, trapped in Tokyo for some reason that remained undisclosed due either to language barriers or sensitivity.  He was jolly, correcting my noob mistake of trying to hand him money rather than feed it to the coin-taking machine on the right.  He had the ability to cook at least 5 pancakes at once, flipping them casually as he catered to the throngs of teenage girls flirting with him across the counter.

Over my three days there, I got a classic seeds'n'sugar version, a sweet potato version, and a ham and cheese.  Korean sovereignty won out here: the classic was still the best, filled to bursting with oozing brown crystals.

2. Osaka: Dried kumquats

With two new hostel friends, we were on our way to sample the takoyaki on an all-new side of town (this is how it went in Osaka: move hostels, immediately try local takoyaki).  A man stood proudly under a big awning with a staggering array of dried fruit spread out around him.  He held samples out to us in that confident, cool, kind of ambivalent way where you could tell it wasn't any skin off his back whether we tried some or not because he was just going to go on selling the best dried fruit in the city.

That kind of attitude persisted as I tried some blueberries, gasped in delight, filled my bags lightly with these, persimmons, cranberries, strawberries, and kumquats, let him weigh them, was told my exuberance would cost me $55, sadly dumped out all but but the kumquats and blueberries, was told this was still going to be $25, dumped out the blueberries, and left his stand somewhat in price shock, $8 poorer, but in possession of about 15 dried kumquats.

I was grumbly about the whole thing (and we had to hide from the dried fruit man on the way home) but I was soon to discover that I should have bought kilos of these kumquats at any price.  Though dried, they were still juicy, and their crispy sugared outsides collapsed inward when bitten like bittersweet creme brulée.

3. Osaka: Black sesame ice cream with green tea ice and mochi

This cute green tea bar was located on the seventh floor of a big, showy mall in Namba, and just heaving myself onto the escalator for each of these flights made my poor stomach turn.  I had just eaten an unbelievably rich bowl of pork rib ramen (the last dish described in this entry) and badly needed something refreshing.

$6 got us this goblet of black sesame ice cream, black, thick and gooey like a sphere of delicious tar, surrounded with icy sweet green tea foam.  The ice cream wasn't even a little sweet.  It was concentrated, smoothed out seed.  The mochi balls were superfluous; I ignored them.  Japanese music box version of songs from the Little Mermaid tinkled overhead.  We sang along, utterly inappropriately for Japan.

Next time: Chinese snacks!

Friday, October 18, 2013

Ốc Đào: Worth the hype

As long as I'm reviewing Hồ Chí Minh city restaurants that have expanded their fame to international levels (see: Bánh Xèo 46A), I may as well stay on that path and divulge that the place I will miss the most isn't a hidden gem, or an unassuming street stall, or totally inaccessible to tourists or anything.  It's even another Bourdain-vetted place.*

Ốc Đào.

Its address is a uniquely Saigonesque maze, including not only the implication that the place is in an unnamed alley off the main street, but is tucked away on one of four branches of the alley (A, B, C, and D) that are completely unlabeled.  Passing by about fourteen nail salons, a bunch of domestic doorways with curious old people peering out of them, and some too-interested dogs, I thought for sure we were going the wrong way.  But we weren't.

My waiter, the nephew of the owner, said he waits on foreigners all the time.  He's the designated foreigner-waiter because of his good English.  As I sat down for the first time, the fluttering of menus and giggling surrounding me dispersed in the same direction - to go get this guy, Linh, an enthusiastic twenty-year-old who immediately squired me to the cooks' area to look at all the snails.  Big coiled oblong snails, tiny flat snails, corkscrew-shaped snails, leopard-spotted snails, striped snails.  Not to mention the splayed salty flesh of oysters, mussels, scallops, and clams.

After I'd made my choice, we sat down together and I tried to help him learn the English names for the dishes on his menu.  It was nearly impossible.  The Vietnamese have a different name for every species of edible snail, whereas we... well, we hardly have a mental concept for an edible snail in the first place.  I was able to translate 'mussels', 'scallops', and 'lemongrass' and that was about it.  (As a bonus, I eventually ordered all the things I translated!)


The first night, chosen right from a living lineup:

Ốc bông me: snails in tamarind sauce
These snails were rich, slickly orange and sweet-sour, punctuated occasionally with candle-waxy stubs of pork fat.  The snail flesh resisted pulling with toothpicks, and it was a joy the few times one came out in one perfect piece, curled inner coil and all, whole and ready for swishing in fish sauce, spearing with rau răm, and dragging through chili-lime paste.

Sò điệp mỡ hành: scallops with peanuts and green onions
As many scallops as I've eaten in my life, I never knew they came in such a picturesque shell.  When I saw their scalloped edges, a lightbulb burned suddenly in my brain.  That's why they're called scallops!

Smaller than I'm used to, and tougher, with a texture more like a firm white-fish than the silky smoothness of raw scallops or the striped firm flan texture of scallops on a barbecue, these were a wholly new scallop experience to me.


The second night: ordered confidently from the menu after some internet research and translating:

Chem chép mỡ hành: mussels with peanuts and green onions
Though these mussels had the same preparation as the scallops the first night, they had a much stronger flavor.  Apart from a ring of snapping rubber, the flesh was yielding and full of ocean.

Note the appearance of green mango spears in the upper left-hand corner: I finally caught on that the roving bands of snack-toting women had things to offer other than baguettes and packets of 10 quail fetuses.  (3 or 4 quail fetuses would have been fine; 10 is pushing it.)

     Ốc hương xào sả : leopard-spotted snails steamed with lemongrass
Usually snail flesh itself doesn't taste like much: it just serves as a vehicle for flavor.  This type of snail has a distinct taste: fishy, kind of froggy even, with a bouncy texture.  Since steaming with lemongrass is not a hit-you-over-the-head kind of preparation, the dish needed the natural flavor of the snails to come through.

Also, rambutan had appeared by now (upper right).  It was placed without comment next to me by a smiling older waitress.  Grateful, I dug into them with my hopelessly greasy fingers.  Like little sponges, the rambutan skin soaked up the oil, cleaning my hands better than any towel.


Expensive by Hồ Chí Minh City standards, each meal cost me the stunning sum of US$5.

Had I had another month there, I would have returned six or seven times.  Enough to sweep their menu.  Enough to extract snails from their shells blindfolded and armed only with one dull safety pin.


*I may generally shy away from famous places, but if I'm going to culinarily follow someone around Vietnam, it's Anthony Bourdain.  Anyone who has the kind of credentials he does, and the connections to eat with, and at, the sweethearts of the food world, and still calls Vietnam his favorite food place, choosing to move to Vietnam for a year... that person might just be my tastebud twin.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Too special for me: A mystery Yunnanese mountain vegetable

We trundled out of a city bus from Xiaguan to Weishan in the middle of what looked like nowhere.   With our suitcases rolling and clattering on the cobblestone streets, making a big racket, we promptly (and naively) wandered right into a construction site.

A woman, shoveling debris, put her hand out and yelled for us to stop.  We did, and right as we did, a wheelbarrow descended clunkily from the second floor of a building, hanging from the claw of a crane, coming to a crashing halt right where we'd have been standing if it hadn't been for her.

Weishan was the friendliest city I encountered in China.  Someone saving our lives was just the beginning.

The very first hotel we wandered into came complete with an effusive owner, who showed us his guest log to definitively prove he had given us the best deal of the week, narrated the local news channel's offerings in the evenings, got down on his hands and knees to try and fix our internet (despite being of the generation to which internet connectivity makes no sense), and whose wife offered to do all our laundry while we were at lunch.  (Contrast this to a more typical first hotel, whose front desk clerk brusquely informs us that they don't accept foreigners.)

Old ladies in juice shops were thrilled to see us and to share small talk over mango smoothies.  Nobody 'hello-ed' us like we were clowns in the circus, but rather waved as though we all shared a common humanity.

And, miracle of miracles, the waitress in the small country-style lunch place we went to was the helpful sort.  She didn't merely stand behind us, tapping her pen against her pad impatiently.  She hovered over Julian's shoulder, eagerly explaining what each dish was (in a country where dish names often bear no relation to their contents, this is invaluable).  She even dashed over to the cooler a few times to grab a sample of whatever it was she was talking about, so we could see it.  With her guidance, we ordered a stewed eggplant dish, tofu egg flower soup, cassava (not really cassava, but close) chips, and the omnipresent 'empty heart' stirfry.

She couldn't help herself, though:

"This dish is a mountain vegetable we grow here in this part of Yunnan.  I don't know if you would like it.  The flavor is maybe too... special for you."

Was this supposed to be a challenge?  (Or just a subtly well-played marketing ploy?)

I fear not its specialness - bring me the special mountain vegetable!!

Clockwise from top left: super strong Yunnanese tea, chips, soup, eggplant, pickles, empty heart, special mountain vegetable
This was one of those meals that was so complete, so filling from all directions, so obviously well-rounded, that I didn't notice it was vegetarian until hours later - until I looked at the picture, in fact.

The eggplant melted into its garlicky red sauce, its texture more like lentils than like vegetable stew.  (After we had finished, a fly dove into the liquid and slowly drowned as though it were sinking in quicksand.  It made no attempt to escape until the very last minute, when it was too late.  I was buoyed by the thought that it was probably experiencing the best taste sensation of its life, and so didn't think to save itself.)

The cassava-ish chips were clearly fried just that instant, and more hefty-tasting than potato.  They crunched briefly, then melted on our tongues.

And the 'maybe too special' mountain vegetables?  You know what that tasted like?

Pumpkin seeds.

Pumpkin seeds with the texture of a good oven-fried basil leaf, with a woody, gnawing sort of stem, but otherwise: 100% pumpkin seed flavor.  It was uncanny.  Why would a leaf growing in Yunnan taste exactly like pumpkin seeds?


Actually, this happened again later, in Ruili, when we ordered a dish of mysterious green leaves with okra.

The green leaves tasted exactly like ripe mango.  Julian dutifully asked the waiter if they were mango leaves, but the waiter said that they were not.  He did not, however, say what they were, and it's tickled at the back of my mind ever since.

Does anyone know what either of these leaves are?

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pole-vaulting over Vietnam's culinary bar

Vietnam's culinary bar is already set astronomically high, but it still manages to give me a meal that pole-vaults over it every so often.

Or, as it happens, an entire day full of such meals.  Enter August 31, 2013.

I. Cơm hến

When a business gets popular in Vietnam, it often spawns a menagerie of copycats.  Hotels featured in the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide have twins popping up in the surrounding streets almost the instant the guides are published, hoping to draw patrons on name recognition.  In Quy Nhơn, a by no means touristy beach town between Đà Nẵng and Nha Trang, a hotel called Lan Anh had no less than 5 different 'locations' around town.  One even made sure to have a copycat Barbara's Backpackers next door, for maximum believability!

The reason I bring this up is that the restaurant I aimed for at lunch on August 31, a central Vietnamese specialty restaurant called Quán Nam Giao, was completely encircled by other Huế-style restaurants, touts-a-waving.  I disdained them, thinking it was another copycat phenomenon (this style of food isn't terribly common in HCMC) but apparently I was actually walking through HCMC's Little Huế.  Whoops!

I'd feel regretful about missing out on this great enclave but for the fact that I don't think any of them could have beaten what I had at Nam Giao.

Cơm hến is already one of my favorite dishes.  A well-delineated mix of baby clams, fresh taro stem and sour starfruit, various strong herbs, and crushed peanuts and sesame seeds over rice that looks a bit like Vietnamese chirashi might look.

 This doesn't mean it's easy to impress me merely by serving it to me.  I've had in its birthplace of Huế and I've had it at Quan Vy Da in Little Saigon, a restaurant that can do no wrong with any dish it tries.  It isn't easy to live up to either of these standards.

Nam Giao surpassed them.

I've never understood how certain flavor combinations were discovered.  Who first paired clams with mint, or taro with starfruit?  And then why would they have taken nuts, of all things, and crushed them on top?  Every ingredient is so different-tasting that you'd think your mouth wouldn't know what to do with the confluence, but this particular combination meshed so well and so smoothly that I wouldn't blink an eye if I were told it had just grown naturally on the Cơm Hến Tree.

II. Gỏi đu đủ

Nothing I've eaten out of a plastic bag in a park has ever been this good.

Those aren't noodles.  They're green papaya spears.  And those aren't leaves (well, not all of them - some of them are mint, I think), they're sweet beef jerky slices.  And that isn't mere orange oil, that is flaming-hot-pepper lava!  It'll soak the sesame crackers and turn them into fire-cakes.

Once I got used to maneuvering my chopsticks through the bag's narrow neck and getting bites with a little bit of everything, I was able to enjoy the sweet caramel char on the beef fighting with the papaya's sourness until it was all washed away in a wave of lingering spice.

(Thanks to Joe and Hai at eatingsaigon.com for directing me here - I never would have found these ladies on my own.  They stand at an unmarked stall on a busy corner not IN the park, but across the street from it.  Rough Google location here.)

III. Bánh xèo

Just around the corner from the gỏi đu đủ goddesses lies a much-lauded bánh xèo restaurant: Bánh Xèo 46A.  I'm pretty sure Anthony Bourdain popularized it, and as leery as I am of places famous food dudes have popularized (they almost always go rapidly downhill afterwards), well, it's bánh xèo, so...

I really wish I had included something for scale, but let's just make clear that if I stepped on this pancake, only about 3/4 of it would bear the footprint.  (And I wear size 11 shoes.)

A crackly outer skin, like seared paper, narrowed to impossibly thin widths at times, making it impossible to believe it held so much meat and so many vegetables together.  They leave their shrimps' skins on, so it gets even more crunchy when you ensnare shrimp in your lettuce scoop.  That's fine, because the pillowy pork fat leaves your teeth something rich to sink into afterwards.

Lots of people tell me they find bánh xèo too greasy, and I always wonder if they're eating it wrapped in, and stuffed with, vegetables and herbs, like you're supposed to.  Most Vietnamese herb 'accompaniment' places are bigger than my head, and Vietnamese people will finish them, right down to the last leaf.  If a dish isn't completely veg-i-fied with each and every bite, you're not doing it right.

I now proudly note that not one green speck of lettuce, mint, fish-mint, or basil remained on that plate after I was done cracking bites off this giant's-foot-sized pancake.

And not more than ten drops of nước mắm remained in the sauce bowl, either.

As we were leaving, I saw the kitchen.  It was like a mass bánh xèo production assembly line run by one sweating woman.  Stacks and stacks of these pancakes were balanced on a few aluminum platters, ready to be run out to the rapidly filling restaurant, while she flipped and filled at least 6 more in the three frying pans that surrounded her.  While the menu technically has about 20 items, nobody really looks at it.  It's a safe assumption that everyone will order the bánh xèo.