I had promised my friend Allie an introduction to banh mi from locally famous Nhu Lan downtown, and she was just so excited as we inserted ourselves into the unusually large crowd bobbing around its outdoor counters. My enthusiasm began waning quite quickly though as I noticed a one of their sandwiches probably was not in our immediate future. This seething mass of humanity pushing and shoving and exhibiting an utter lack of manners was after mooncakes. Yes, mooncakes. Nhu Lan was now mooncake central.
Gone was the rotating spit of meat and piles of baguettes. Even the seating area where the hungry can normally order a hot meal was now stacked floor to ceiling with plastic crates of mooncakes which are little more than doughy, dry vessels filled with anything from ground up bean paste to dried egg yolks. Dinner was rapidly crapping out, and the mostly western choices in the nearby area held little appeal.
Allie spotted a shop called EATS and remarked, “This place looks cute.” Choi oi! We picked “cute” for dinner over the street food joints full of locals which were deemed a bit too authentic for Allie. That’s ok though. Food is such a personal choice, and I am glad Saigon can feed just about anyone.
The brightly lit, air conditioned restaurant even had red booths rather than the normal squat stools, and it was like some sort of Vietnamese interpretation of a Johnny Rockets gone awry, minus the hamburgers of course. The menu actually smacked of food court Chinese, and the bò xào tiêu đen beef in pepper black pepper sauce picture looked so pretty and enticing hanging on the wall.
What arrived only vaguely matched that glossy and seductive snapshot. Par for the course in Vietnam, the cow slices were beyond tough. I remember reading somewhere to chew food 25 times. Heeding this advice was absolutely necessary for 25 chews came and went and I still had a hunk of beef nowhere near ready to go down the hatch.
The restaurant’s western ambience had so distracted me I hadn’t even noticed my jaws going numb. Maybe I burned more calories than this food actually contains trying to grind it down into something that wouldn’t destroy my esophagus. A negative calorie stir fry…if only!
The slightly spicy, slightly sweet soy laden sauce was worthy of an American style takeaway. The chunks of garlic required some emergency surgery though whereby I carefully scraped away the potent detritus. I wasn’t looking to ward off any vampires here. I was just looking to eat a meal. As we exited the restaurant Allie asked if the crowded street food joints would have maybe tasted better. I think we will let her answer that in the very near future with a field trip to one of them.