Working on a magazine article at the Highlands Coffee in my apartment building took longer than expected and lunchtime now loomed. From 11am to 2pm a special lunch menu with 59,000 Dong selections including a small cup of soup gave me an opportunity to check out how chain food versions of our street food favorites taste. Paying almost $3 for lunch over here sure does feel expensive all of a sudden when mingling with the locals over a dollar plate of food at a “com binh dan” mom and pop type joint costs about a buck.
I felt like a traitor to all things street ordering food inside these air conditioned confines when only a block away the real deal lurks. And instead of working out my quads squatting on a miniscule plastic stool about as big as a child’s booster seat, I was comfortably glued to an oversize couchlike chair. It’s like a western oasis in the middle of Saigon’s insanity.
For no other than it was the weirdest sounding item on the menu, I chose the cá basa chiên xoài which is just a fancy way of saying fried fish with green mangos. Green mango is just a fancy description for mango that has not reached its proper sweet ripeness. I have noticed this about the Vietnamese. They love to eat sour and tart slices of fruit far from their peak of sugary goodness. If I am any indication, then millions of tongues across this country must recoil from the sour acidic shock when this stuff assaults the tastebuds. And on top of that they love to dredge it all through a salt and hot chili powder mix.
Fish crispy on the outside, soft on the inside arrived alongside a mound of rice and some vegetables. I hadn’t held out high hopes but it actually turned out decent. Some quite good nuoc cham sweetened just a tad bit more than the usual suspects out on the street pleasantly surprised me as well. When this sauce is bad, I mean it is bad with an explosion of strong and bitter taste.
When the sauce is good like this, I could drink it all. But I don’t. That would be rude. Plus it is pure sodium. With that in mind I used it extremely judiciously and afterwards ate a banana. Why you ask? A Vietnamese friend once explained eating a banana purges the fish sauce’s salt from the body. Now whether or not this is true or not I have no idea. But it sounds good so we will go with it. Then again this same friend told me that fish sauce in all its sodum laden glory is “good for health.”
Stuff like this hits the spot when I need an airconditioned western style break from the wild streets.