The keys to a city’s hidden delights usually remain secreted away by the locals who want to keep the masses from contaminating their haunts. Come on, go ahead and admit it. You’ve done the same in your hometown. We want to keep all the great unwashed safely quarantined away at the Olive Garden out by the mall, right? We’ll keep the inside track where that killer bowl of chili simmers or those amazing bagels rise. We all feel a little but of satisfaction and smugness when we are first to discover that hidden gem.
Surely our Saigon backyard is just ripe with such jewels begging to be unearthed. Eating like a local miles from the nearest backpacker is what I’m talking about. So recently I asked a couple cabin crew which restaurants they swear by and where some of Saigon’s more exotic dishes lurk. Instead of the holy grail all I got was two girls covering their mouths and nervously giggling. Later that day I even received a text message from another flight attendant with this blunt translation of what the giggling probably meant: “I scare that a foreigner like you cant eat really Vietnamese food!!!!!!”
What is this “really Vietnamese food” we supposedly can’t ingest? Or better yet, where the heck do we find it, and why can’t I seem to crack into this exclusive country club of the local cuisine? Obviously none of us expats is too scared of the food as we have yet to whittle down to skin and bones. But maybe a kernel of truth hides in that text message since chunks of congealed pig’s blood floating next to Vietnamese chitlins probably hold limited appeal to most western palates. But there’s got to be a happy medium out there somewhere, right?
Luckily my friend Joe introduced a group of us to such a place where we can nip at the fringes of hidden Saigon…Tiệm ăn Mê Kông, or simply Mekong Restaurant, at 136 Suong Nguyet Anh in District 1. We’re not talking the District 1 near the Bitexco Tower or backpackers district. No, this is the gritty District 1 where seven westerners stand out like a sore thumb in a crowd of mostly office workers jam packed into a small open front concrete shack.
On the surface Mê Kông seems to follow the cardinal rules of street food that hopefully keep a meal from making an express slide through us. Let’s see…A steady stream of customers…check. A high turnover of freshly cooked food…check. A place relatively clean by local standards…check. Now let’s keep it real here. I fully realize a dining establishment in this part of the world stands no chance against the prying eyes and busy pen of a New York City health inspector. But in Saigon the equivalent of an “A” posted by the door is dozens and dozens of hungry Vietnamese outmaneuvering each other to secure one of Mê Kông’s limited tables.
Mê Kông keeps it simple…Do you want something that was clucking or oinking only hours before? Meat grilled up in right there in the dining area is sent straight to a stack of plates already heaped with rice and vegetables. Restaurant reviews in the States will describe some high energy dining room, but they have nothing on this place which is a swirl of chaos right down to the pesky man going table to table soliciting a shoe shine. Does it look like my tennis shoes need a shine? That’s almost as bad as the pests downtown offering to buff up plastic flip flops. Yes, life in Vietnam can be both irritating and amusing all at once.
Mê Kông serves grilled barnyard friends in tasty inch size chunks, and a marinade of soy, sugar and spice caramelizes into a crispy glaze. Hungry now? Feel like saving the 26 hour plane ride and recreating this barbecue in the cleanliness and quiet of your own home? A little Dale’s Seasoning mixed with some sweet like pineapple and some heat like chili peppers could possible get us into some same same but different territory. This isn’t a recipe…I am just guessing based on what I’ve tried back home that can relate to the cuisine here. And please go Vietnamese and use charcoal! Gas would only bathe this meat in a cloud of propane fumes. Yes, we need some glowing hot million year old dinosaur remains to properly char pig into this crispy perfection.
“I scare that a foreigner like you cant eat really Vietnamese food!!!!!!” I got to thinking about that text message as I picked bones clean with an appalling lack of tableside etiquette. I concede maybe I’m not ready for primetime dishes such as fertile egg, but a meal at Mê Kông hardly scares me at all.