Throwdown! with Saigon – 60 of 365

Wei Pei's Version

My friend Toby recently wondered which Vietnamese dish at Wei Pei Restaurant in America is most authentic.  Since a cold lemongrass noodle dish seems not to exist anywhere in Vietnam, we settled on caramel chicken as the perfect introduction to Vietnamese cuisine at this chain offshoot of PF Changs.   And please note caramel here is not the candy but rather high heat crystallizing a sugar based sauce into a delicious meat smothering glaze.

Toby’s excitement to sample some new tastes threw some inspiration my way.  The Cooking Network’s Throwdown! with Bobby Flay pits his cooking skills against amateur chefs who have perfected a specific food.  How about if we put up an American style Vietnamese dish against its Saigonian sibling?  Surely finding some proper caramel chicken is as easy as one, two, three here in its native habitat.

Wei Pei’s recipe is a busy mix of tangy caramel chile sauce, pineapple, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, mint, rice sticks and an Asian slaw of cucumbers, red bell peppers, carrots, cilantro, red onions, Fresno chile peppers, and Vietnamese vinaigrette.  Man oh man what kind of craziness do they have going on in that restaurant?  Leave it to us Americans to complicate and supersize a simple recipe!  This many ingredients in Vietnam would send a cook into sensory overload and sourcing all this mess would most likely tax a street market’s infrastructure.  And Wei Pei’s out of the box interpretation looks so unlike anything over here where creativity remains largely inside the box.

Toby even described Wei Pei’s open kitchen scene as a not so nice word for excrement “flaming up big time back there.”  Flaming crap aside, how did it all taste?  “Amazing” in Toby’s own words, and he added “Well the chicken is moist. Sauce is sweet, almost like sweet n sour sauce, but with more savory hint.  Then garlic hints are strong after.”  Well, for $8.25 before tax it better be freaking amazing!

Vietnamese Kitchen’s Version

Next up…clay pot caramel chicken cooked up in its home country.  Nothing even close was jumping out of nine different menus downtown, so the search continued south into the backpacker district overflowing with overpriced tourist joints beckoning westerners dressed in clown pants and Beer Lao tank tops.  Even deep in this part of Saigon I love to avoid, caramel chicken hides in obscurity in idiotproof menus with their full color pictures and English translations.

After much debate, Vietnamese Kitchen at 113A Bui Vien Street finally agreed to venture off menu to cook up a $3.50 caramel chicken since both clay pot pork and fish of the same variety are already on offer.   Is it really that difficult to toss in a handful of some cluck rather than the oink?  Now I didn’t have excrement flaming up big time back in a kitchen such as Toby’s experience, but touts did come up to the table trying to sell counterfeit sunglasses and Armani tees.  My flip flops even received two separate offers for a shine.  Really?  A shine for flip flops?

The elusive pot of caramel chicken gold finally arrived, and first off, a ceramic vessel cool to the touch tells us it never saw the heat of a flame as in last week’s cooking class.   But then again would any of the westerners in this joint eating BLTs and french fries know the difference?  Most unlikely and a wave of smugness washed over me.  As for the taste…well, if you enjoy Panda Express at the mall, have I got a dish for you.   Actually I take that back, Panda tastes better and what I would have given at that moment for some moist Firecracker Chicken rather than this paltry amount of dry meat, green onion, chili pepper and ginger chunk concoction covered in a sticky, marginally spicy glaze.   Where have I tasted this sour peppery stuff before?   Yes, that’s it…crappy bottled Szechuan Sauce from Safeway’s two foot wide ethnic food section circa 1990.

Our first installment of Throwdown! with Saigon concludes with a clearcut winner.  USA – One.   Vietnam – Zero.

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Categories: Vietnamese Food

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