I could easily spend a year sampling 365 mundane yet quite sanitized dishes at Jollibee, KFC, and even some interestingly insipid takes on spaghetti over here in Vietnam. Domino’s even entices with the convenient buy one get one free Two for Tuesday deal at the outlet in my apartment building, and Subway can scratch that itch for anemic portions of highly processed meat products on doughy bread. But where’s the fun in that? Collecting the more local dishes helps build my connection with Vietnam off the usual expat trail even if this requires putting aside some inhibitions to get down and dirty with the street food in its naturally dirty habitat.
A pattern is developing here. If I dig into a plate of food with two splintered, recycled chop sticks while squatting on a dirty ankle high stool, chances are the taste journey will shoot me down an amazing trajectory. If I eat Vietnamese food inside an air conditioned restaurant with western style silverware and chairs, chances are it is average at best. It’s like going into a fast food joint and expecting a hand formed and lovingly grilled burger made of Wagyu beef and choice vegetable toppings.
I set aside my mission statement for sampling to most local of local meals to join a friend at a chain called Cơm Tấm Cali which means Cali Broken Rice. And no, I have no idea if this place has a connection to California or why some rice is called “broken.” To me it’s all white, steamed and stuck in one giant clump. I ordered the Cơm Tấm Cháy Giòn Đặc Biệt 7 Món for no other reason than my eyes were bigger than my stomach and half the stuff on the platter just looked plain bizarre. This is just a fancy way of saying seven flavors and in exchange for just over $3, my feast included soup along with grilled pork, shredded pork and skin, pork pie, quail eggs, Chinese sausage, shrimp & pork in bean curd and sour sausage. The soup was a decent nice start but from there things just veered off road and down a taste path completely opposite of what my western tongue can handle.
The Chinese sausage tastes like how would imagine licorice mated with a cinnamon stick. The shredded pork with skin attached of course is like moistening beef jerky so it softens and then slicing it in thin strips. I am not a fan of sunny side up eggs as it is, and to see two tiny quail ones flashed me back to these same grey birds pecking around behind my grandma’s house in Arizona. So far this was all quite off. I moved on to flavor number four and the sour sausage reminded me of a hot dog soaked in vinegar. Number five…the fried tofu like wrapper holding the pork and shrimp tasted like bacon but was just too greasy for my insides to handle at the moment.
Finally, the grilled pork and pork pie proved winners with their mainstream textures and tastes. Actually, if I could shove plate of the sticky pork chops with their awesome lemongrass and sugar like glaze down my gullet, I’d be in heaven. I gnawed that thing right down to the bone and just wanted more. The pork loaf was not bad at all either and was really like sucking down a piece of American meatloaf.
So two out of seven flavors went down nicely. Maybe I just need to find each of these foods in their natural street habitats and give them a new try. Perhaps this dinner would be akin to sending a Vietnamese person to a Valdosta, Georgia Taco Bell for a beef burrito and then expecting them to think it was authentic Mexico City quality. So new mission here…find these seven flavors out on the street away from air conditioned chain restaurants.