I wish I knew how to tell the friendly ladies at Café 91 I am moving back to the US this week, and that their food the past year has been one of the high points of my time in Vietnam. My limited vocabulary allows me to explain I am headed home, but learning how to say I won’t be coming back never occurred to me. Dozens upon dozens of their filling and cheap meals inside that concrete joint have nourished my interest in all things Vietnamese, and the vast majority have been amazing foods I can’t wait to recreate back home.
Returning time and time again has ensured my belly got filled with everything from curry frog legs to squid stuffed with spicy pork to clay pot fish and anything and everything in between. Paying just over a dollar for meat, rice, vegetable, soup and a banana is the sweetest part of the meal, and I cringe when I think that a decent lunch will soon cost seven plus bucks once I return to the US.
I remember once upon a time when Café 91’s selections seemed so exotic and scary and I prayed one or two items just might be on display that would be somewhat palatable to my formerly vanilla tastes. That was then. Now ever single metal serving pan enticed me and I wished I could sample each of them. Vietnam is like that. This complex land grows on you over time, and what was once so strange now seems so normal.
Ribs are one of my more favorite foods, and a pile of miniature bones with a chunk of meat wrapped around them got my attention. Yeah, I know. Braised short ribs hardly rise to any semblance of interesting given that a pan of curried frog legs was coagulating right next door, but for one of my last meals in Vietnam, I craved something I would truly enjoy.
The serving lady saw that I had wolfed down the amazing bowl of soup first. She quickly refilled my tiny bowl, and I was so grateful for her random act of kindness. The peppery clear broth filled with some sort of soft, diced squash hit the spot and whetted my palate for the rest of the flavors still to come.
The ribs were a bit tough of course, but that fish sauce based marinade came right through in the best of ways. The combination of sweet, spicy and salt washed over my tongue and I got to thinking how sad I will be in a week that my time over here must draw to an end.
As I ladled some of that oily spiciness on my rice and ingested about a week’s worth of carbs in less than a minute, I looked back over at the metal cart containing all the lunch selections. A line of office workers had formed and I couldn’t help but wonder if they realized how lucky they are to have this type of cuisine as their everyday fare.