There’s a canned drink that’s prevalent in Asia but stocked sparingly here, probably because of its name: Pocari Sweat.
Perhaps only due to the power of suggestion, it does taste like sweat - or at least like seawater 7-up. But people over there swear by it for keeping cool on meltingly swampy days. After awhile, it even starts tasting, well... like sweat altered for consumption rather than sweat canned straight from an armpit.
If you don’t like canned soda, though - if, like me, you think most of it tastes like aluminum and chemicals (or if you've seen what an otherwise beautiful Indonesian lagoon can look like choked with Pocari Sweat cans) - you need something with similar properties, but fresh and handmade, with real ingredients, and less of a resemblance to bodily excretions.
Enter the Vietnamese concoction chanh muối, which translates to salty lemon soda. With only three ingredients - preserved lime or lemon, soda (or water), and sugar - it sounds deceptively simple, but after the first few tastes, quickly becomes ragingly addictive, especially alongside Vietnamese dishes brimming with fish sauce.
Of course, you may have to run past a few... not so palatable first impressions before you get to delicious, let alone addictive. I've tried plying many people and have heard many gut reactions. Seawater. Beach towels. Socks. Dishwater (in all fairness, this particular restaurant had a crappy version).
My own personal first impression was 'socks', but I quickly saw the light, and it is now my most-ordered drink. It is also the first phrase I ever learned in Vietnamese so that just in case I found myself stranded and dehydrated in a Vietnamese café with no English translations or internet, I would still be able to sate my addiction!*
Overall, the effect of chanh muối is cooling for both heat and spice, crazy-delicious, and unlike any other drink on earth. Once you become accustomed to it, and your friends ask, as they inevitably will, “What is that gross thing floating in your drink?!” you’ll get the pleasure of introducing them to this delightfully bizarre refreshment as well!
In Little Saigon (Westminster, CA), most restaurants worth their salt (get it? Ha!) will have it on the menu, whether with soda added or water. (With soda, it'll be called soda chanh muối; without, it'll either be called nước chanh muối or just plain old chanh muối.) Everyone makes it differently, though - some use limes, some use lemons. Some use lots of sugar; some barely touch it. Some use near-fresh fruit; some appear to have pickled their fruit for years. Some just toss the fruit in the bottom of the glass; some blend the whole thing, peel and all, so the flavor is much more pervasive.
We all have our preferences (mine is lime; less sugar; more preserved fruit; blended). Here's how to find a chanh muối suited to your unique tastes.
If you prefer milder, subtle flavors, want to edge into the experience slowly, or are a supertaster and just want to give your overworked tastebuds a break, try the soda version at Bánh Cuốn Tây Hồ 4. They use lots of sparkling water and a very tiny, lightly preserved lemon that sits in the bottom of the glass like a rock. Essentially, it just tastes like Sprite with a subtle kick.
If you have a sweet tooth, head to Thanh Restaurant, which must have to buy a new fifty-pound bag of sugar every day just to replenish the supply from a night's worth of chanh muối orders. If that description makes you leery instead of hungry, congratulate yourself on not being pre-diabetic and try Cơm Tấm Thuận Kiều or Phở 54 - their outputs are probably more along the lines of a ten-pound bag of sugar. Their fruit’s preserved flavor is stronger, but the sugar still coddles your tongue as it processes the strangeness.
Bò De Tinh Tâm Chay and Đạt Thành both manage to extract a more pickled taste from their whole limes, and don't overwhelm it or try to mask it with sweetness. Both are unabashedly salty, and the fact that they use limes and not lemons gives it an even stronger citrus flavor. The fruit stays whole, though, so it's still an infusion and not a blend; the brownish limes, floating near the bottom of your mug, look a little like brains in jars from creepy science labs in movies. This is probably the version you will like if you have a 'normal' palate: distinctive enough to be interesting; muted enough to be inoffensive.
On the flip side, Quán Vỹ Dạ (perhaps my single favorite restaurant on Bolsa, so don't let this critique discourage you from visiting) goes balls-to-the-wall with their crazily preserved, blended version. If they don't leave their lemons out in a jar in direct sunlight for a good five years, I'd be very surprised. It's so pickled it's almost metallic, like the citrus equivalent of when I tried drinking out of the Claussen Kosher Dill jar as a child to see what would happen. The strength is even too much for me, and I rarely make that claim.
If you want to experience all the packed flavor that three ingredients can possibly give (without going to the level of overboard that Quán Vỹ Dạ does) there's only one option for you, and that's Phở Quang Trung'sblended-pickled-lime, so-thick-it's-practically-a-smoothie wonder. You suck up the whole fruit through that straw: seeds, pieces of peel, pith, arils, everything. It is perfect. You feel like you're living inside the lime jar that thing was pickled in.
* When I was actually in Vietnam, I didn't see this drink much. Traveling from north to south, I was all the way in Quy Nhơn before I finally spotted it on the menu. My excitement was short-lived, as what was set in front of me was this:
- two limes, cut in half
- two empty glasses
- a bowl of sugar
- a can of seltzer water
Do-it-yourself chanh muối sans fruit preservation?!