How does a flakey baguette stuffed with crispy bacon tasting meat sound? Some fried pig fat makes anything taste good, right? Now add some seriously ripe sweet tomatoes, American style cole slaw, crunchy cucumber slices, and cilantro. Mayonnaise and hot sauce squirted from dirty plastic bottles round out this taste sensation better known as a “doner kebab.” Add waffle fries and a 32 ounce Coke and you may recognize this as the #6 gyro combo at the Fashion Place Mall food court. This being Vietnam, however, means local tastes usurp the original with French bread over Greek pita, pork over lamb and mayo rather than tatziki sauce. This “same same but different” creation is tasty nonetheless, and much to my surprise this very unvietnamese street food sells all across Hanoi for about a buck.
OK, I’ll admit it, over a year’s worth of fear kept me from actually biting into this food experience until recently since a metal cart plopped down in a muddy lot just doesn’t smack of sanitation. Quick, someone ring up the Salt Lake Valley Health Department with an anonymous tip about this one. They will have a field day inspecting this fine dining establishment in my former Tay Ho neighborhood north of central Hanoi. Surfing around their website of restaurant health ratings got me wishing we could only be so lucky to have a place capable of scoring above a 13 over here! Some joint in Sandy received a SLVHD “critical violation” for “raw chicken…being held at 47°F in a reach in cooler,” and “Raw hamburger is being held at 51°F in a reach in cooler drawer.” Really? Are they kidding? That’s a violation??!! Have they not taken the dining crap shoot we call Vietnam? An outside air temperature of 46° the day I visited was the only reason this stand had dumb luck in holding meat below this 51° the SLVHD finds so alarming.
This cart emerging just before sunrise from a run down apartment house across the street hops until dark with a steady stream of pedestrian and motorbike driving foodies. Surely people don’t go back somewhere whose dollar menu sent them on a one way ride to the porcelain god. So it must be halfway legit. An American coworker had mentioned she eats there all the time and since she hardly appears ravaged with dysentery, I bit. But cold weather only became my rule as Hanoi’s hell like summer heat can marinate mayonnaise and meat based street foods into a shigellosis combo with a side of salmonella supersized into only Buddha knows what.
While on an overnight in Hanoi for work, I was walking the old neighborhood and happened upon this old standard. Nothing has changed. The sandwich man still pirates electricity from the free trade coffee bean shop next door and the same mildewed tarp protects his stand along with the guy right next to him who cuts hair under a tree. Try imagining a hot dog stand in America tapping an extension cord into the overhead wires leading to a Starbucks and we have a reasonable facsimile of an only in Vietnam scene. Sandwich man is one spilled glass of water away from sending his metal stand into electric shock orbit. And come to think of it, are hair clippings flying around just feet from meat resting in an uncovered, unrefrigerated pan really all that sanitary? Yeah, let’s not overanalyze the surroundings too much because going skittish will keep me from enjoying a few more of these before summer heat returns my self imposed ban.
This really is the hottest drive through in Tay Ho, and I wedged myself in line between motorbikers who had pulled up into the mud to shout out takeaway orders. I watched as sandwich man cut e. coli strips from the rotating mass of meat with scissors and couldn’t help but wonder if today would be the day I hit the Immodium jackpot. In any case, rather than a stuffed pita from a relatively sanitary SLVHD approved mall food court, we have a baguette of rather dicey origins providing some welcome relief from the ubiquitous chicken or beef phos.