Asking for one bò kho at an unnamed street food joint in Binh Thanh District at 15 Nguyen Van Lac Street only ordered mass confusion as no one seemed to know what I wanted. So I pointed to it by name on a sign and all of a sudden choruses of “Aaahhh bò kho. Bò kho. Bò kho” erupted around me. God only knows what I had asked for the first time. So my repeating “bò kho” just brought back the same silent vacant stares aimed right at me. Pointing again to the written words whipped them all into a frenzy with renewed shouts of “Bò kho. Bò kho.” I just don’t get it sometimes over here.
Over here in the absence of absolutely perfect pronunciation, people do not seem to be able to decipher what was meant such as how we can glean anything out of heavily accented English. Soon enough the family figured out I desired a deep red broth infused with star anise, cinnamon, ginger, lemongrass, pepper, and five spice powder. Sound good? It really is. And I do apologize in advance here for using such a clichéd word but this soup really is…delicious.
Bò kho is a busy mix of the finest items culled from a street market with the liquid canvas only the beginning. Think pot roast in America, and you’re on the right track. Seriously, this one is about as close to an American crockpot beef stew as Vietnam gets. Beef tender enough to fall apart when snatched with chopsticks is paired with slow cooked carrots and onions. In the US we add potatoes to our stew but over here the local twist is a crusty baguette to mop up whatever broth may linger in the bowl.
Eating on a sidewalk imparts a healthy dose of flavor not even a sprinkle of Chinese five spice can match. Some little girl shoved a handful of lottery tickets in my face as I was trying to enjoy my bò kho. Already I was uncomfortably squatting on a miniscule stool with enough flies buzzing around me in the humid heat to make me not want to be bothered. I’m thinking not only am I going to get stung by some tsetse fly and contract Ebola, but this girl’s relentless sales tactics were not winning me over in the slightest.
I politely just told her no and eventually she moved on. I was actually going to buy one to help her out until she tried to charge me double. These colorful surroundings add a proper level of mental nourishment to fine sidewalk dining in Vietnam. I got to thinking about how in the US restaurants are like detached capsules so separate from their surroundings. Over here everything just blends into one simmering mass where boundaries sometimes seem a fluid everchanging grey zone. I prefer that, lottery sales girls, flies and all.