Let The Games Begin

Jet-lag, schmet-lag. I think the cure to jet lag is simply having an insatiable appetite! With all the excitement of Day 1 looming, I essentially was like a kid on Christmas Eve last night and then a kid on Christmas Morning today, which meant no sleep but also no shortage of of energy to get after it today.

I hit the ground running at 9am and decided to direct the focus of my day on soups and appetizers (quick preview: thinking banh mi and bbq tomorrow/Wednesday and then juices/fruits on Thursday . . . although I did manage to sneak a banh mi late night!).

I started with a quick lay up at my hotel’s breakfast buffet to get things rolling, but, 15K+ steps later, I explored the famous Ben Thanh Market, canvassed the majority of Ho Chi Minh City’s downtown footprint, found a hip backalley eatery, enjoyed a rooftop dinner at a spot literally found through a hole in the wall, and finished off the night with the aforementioned late night banh mi. And, for bonus points, I scouted out tomorrow’s big focus on a street food market (for those keeping score, the My Story barrage I laid down on Snapchat earlier covers said scouting session . . . now, just get ready for the live action tomorrow!).

Needless to say, today did not disappoint. I’ve included quick summaries of each stop below. But, in summary, the cuisine here in Ho Chi Minh City has quickly lived up to all the amazing, classic descriptions of Vietnamese food one typically hears: fresh, colorful, and delicious. And, I am especially excited about the prospects of at least testing three concepts when I get back: coconut salads, meat stuffed bettel leaves, and rao muong as a veggie ingredient!

  • Hotel Breakfast Buffet: Generally speaking, the spread was fairly standard fare — a few Amercanized breakfast items (sausage, bacon, omelette bar), congee, local fruits & juices, spring rolls, and what us Americans would characterize as dinner-friendly entrees of stews, rices, and prepared vegetables. If anything, it once again confirmed that Vietnamese cuisine doesn’t necessarily single out breakfast-specific items all that often. Back stateside, we will generally consider anything to be “breakfast” if it involves an egg.
    • VNN Breakfast: To no surprise, there were no silver bullets for inspiration on the breakfast front, but full steam ahead on our early thoughts on congee, breakfast banh mi, and breakfast tacos. laying the foundation of our breakfast menu. Shhh the latter is still one of our secret weapons!
  • Ben Thanh Market: Awesome stuff all around. More to come on this front in an upcoming post, but this marketplace was everything I wanted to set the tone of the trip. Crazy hustle & bustle, vendors everywhere, fresh produce / meats / seafood, shopping, and, of course, food stalls all over the place. My general rule of thumb having done a number of these spots across the world (Medellin, Copenhagen, Lisbon) is to eat at the busiest places packed with locals.
    • Bun Bo Hue: Once I locked in on the most jam packed places of all, I found a small nook at the end of a counter to devour my first bowl of soup, Bun Bo Hue. Every one has just about heard of Pho, but instead of a spice forward flavor profile, Bun Bo Hue is driven more by lemongrass, pork hock, and fermented shrimp paste. For non-seafood lovers, don’t sweat the shrimp paste as it’s not at all a dominant flavor despite the sound of it. Both soups have their thrones in the must-have soup kingdom, but Bun Bo Hue isn’t as easy to come by back home.
    • Rao Muong: Above all else, I was blown away by an unfamiliar veggie called, rao muong. I wanted to initially liken it to watercress, but it turns out that rao muong is a water spinach and it also had a much more mild flavor than the always tasty watercress. With its mild flavor in mind, the most interesting detail about the veggie is that it has a very vine like nature, which makes it extremely complimentary to any delicious soup noodle. Instead of the contrast in shape most veggies offer to noodles, rao muong aligns better, similar to the vibe of bean sprouts except even more so given its elongated nature. We are always up for introducing folks to new and interesting ingredients, like fish sauce & bean thread noodles, and this seems like a super interesting angle (that’s also much more familiar than fish sauce). Stay tuned!
  • Bep Me In: While I love me some local marketplace action, hole in the wall spots always reign supreme for me. White tablecloths standout for many valid reasons, but go-to neighborhood spots are able to achieve one of two important perspectives: the true lifeline of the local area or somewhere from afar (because the owners have kept to their own culture’s traditions). Either of those perspectives typically lead to some of the best meals around and, at the very least, tell an awesome story. Enter, Bep Me In. The restaurant’s tagline is “Mamma’s Kitchen With a Twist” — five words have never captured my food perspective better. Even the path to get to literally get to this spot perfectly demonstrates its charm. Without fully explaining the address system here in town, you have to head down a completely non-descript retail alley, then venture back to another alley. That quick right leads you up to an incredibly understated, but hip venue. Simply patio seating, communal tables, and a gutted vintage van set the stage for a meal that is grandma-good but the delivery & experience meet the hispter standards of Logan Square: eclectic & swanky. My only regret was not having the stomach to order more than two dishes.
    • Coconut Salad: The pho was fanastic, fully spiced and flavorful, but the coconut salad was so good, I have to skip over the pho to provide the adequate attention the salad deserves! I have a number of Vietnamese salads before and on the surface, it met many of my past experiences: several layers & textures, boiled peanuts, pickled ingredients, and fish sauce on the side (duh). However, the flavors & textures melded in an incomparable way. There were two huge kickers:
      • 1.) The tender coconut strips — for those doing the math, I believe these were essentially hearts of palm, but the fairly eloquently-written menu stated “coconut”. so I’ll neutrally leave it at that. Regardless, they were DELICIOUS. The fun continued with shrimp, sliced pork, pickled mung beans, mint, and the always-amazing addition of fried shallots.
      • 2.) The shrimp chips. I’ve had a whole lot of shrimp chips in my life. While there are variations that exist in CPG format, I’m talking about the ones with food coloring and quickly plume when deep fried. Since I was a small kid, the combo of shrimp chips + white rice + Chinese-style crispy fried + lemon has been a Moy-family staple. However, these shrimp chips were unique. Thicker than any I’ve ever had and more mild in flavor, so the full flavors of the salad were not masked by (artificial) shrimp flavoring. I’ve always wondered how I could get shrimp chips to be more approachable. The ones served up at this spot may be the answer. Guess I just need to go back and ask (edit: I actually stopped by again just after 11pm closing . . . tomorrow it is!). 
  • Oc Chi Em: As I shared in my last post, this trip revolves around family. Well, you can add one more form of family to the list: The Kellogg Family. Anyone who has heard our story or followed us on social media knows the incredible relationship we have with the business school. In so many ways, we look at the current students, alumni, faculty, and food service staff as family — family goes to bat for you on any notice, advanced or short. In today’s case, Phuong, a classmate of Noah’s, graciously offered to meet me for dinner with day-of notice. Can’t get much shorter than that :). Being a native of the area, I was not surprised at all to find myself snaking through an even more stealth path than the one described above to get to one of the coolest rooftops, twinkly lights and all.  I literally do not know how one could ever find Oc Chi Em without a local expert’s help. iPhone 48 would still be stumped.
    • Snails, Snails, Snails, Snails: When Phuong and I first chatted in the morning about what I wanted to see, there was the obvious confirmation of menu development, but she also asked if I was an “adventurous eater”. I’m sure you know how I answered that :). To that end, I’ve had my fair share of snails, but we had snails prepared four ways: open-faced with herbs & peanuts, lightly charred, with thick tamarind suce, and steamed in coconut milk. Each dish featured a different type of snail, flavor, profile, and even method to get those lil’ suckers out! We also rounded out the meal with steamed clams in lemongrass and a squid & pork fried rice.
    • Good Company: The meal was undoubtedly great and the venue, again, was fantastic. But, it was most memorable given the hospitality and generosity of my company. It’s not all that often you find a friend willing to offer his/her help on super short notice, let alone one you just met. Thanks so much again, Phuong!
  • Ben Thanh Streetfood Market: Food halls are all the new rage. Back home, we have Latinicity and the champion, Revival (and, for those that haven’t heard, one more is on the way). As all food halls do, they provide immense variety and good vibes in a communal fashion. Ben Than Streetfood Market delivers on both fronts and then some.
    • Banh Mi: I plan to take the guys (back) there for a full tour tomorrow, but with them getting in late and needing a solid bite, we cruised over for a quick beer and . . . BANH MI finally. I was thinking of holding out for our first banh mi on a grand scale and our first meet up as a foursome was the perfect stage. We have an early morning tomorrow to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels, so short of a night out, a night with a banh mi is plenty of entertainment in my book. Having had so many classic banh mi varieties, I opted for the biggest outlier on the menu which was a beef patty. All the great amazing flavors held true (fresh cucumber / cilantro, pickles, savory protein), but the crispy, toasty goodness of the baguette stole the show. Enjoying a Vietnamese French baguette actually in Vietnam put the perfect exclamation point an amazing Day 1.

Onto more Noms tomorrow!

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