I wasn't so naive as to expect quaint, undiscovered gems to burst from every picturesque corner, or to return singing the praises of the 'real, unspoiled' HCMC.
What I expected was open friendliness mixed with curiosity, neighborliness, and merely decent but extremely cheap grub, and for the most part, this is exactly what I got.
(Links on dish names below lead to an approximate Google map location of where I ate them.)
The first day, snakehead fish porridge (cháo cá lóc, $1.25) eased me gently into what I remembered best about Vietnam: its ability to stuff more flavor into things than has any right to be there. The porridge's deceptively oatmeal-like exterior yielded to waves of pepper and caramelized onion as well as seemingly more fish than could physically fit in such a tiny bowl. In case my tastebuds were bored, sliced limes, three kinds of chili sauce, salt, sweet soy, and hoisin were of course provided.
One old lady's grandson graciously helped me order, and I joined the throngs pressed knee to knee at the metal tables behind the cart. The egg cake relied heavily on noodles and mushrooms rather than Little Saigon's pervasive pork, while the bi was as powdery, savory, and wriggly as I could have hoped. The fat, candy-red lạp xưởng sausage tasted like strawberry sugared meat candy, which I wasn't feeling, but the highlight was absolutely the fresh-grilled pork chop, whose salty crust broke to veritably ooze meat juice wherever it was bitten. ($2.50)
The first snail place I saw in my neighborhood was modest: just a woman throwing molluscs in a wok and a little table set up with about a platter's worth of each species. I stopped to check it out; an eager old man hobbled up and took my arm. "Ốc Hương," he barked, waiting for me to repeat after him. When I did, he moved my hand, and his, to the next bowl. "Sò Điệp," he asserted. "Nghêu. Chem chép. Ốc mỡ." And so on.
When he had named all the varieties, he seemed satisfied that I was now well-schooled in the art of shellfish. He shook my hand, said 'Bye!' and was gone, which surprised me, because I had thought that he worked there!
Feeling nostalgic for last year, I got the blood cockles ($2.50), which she threw in the wok almost as soon as I uttered their name. They came to the table coated in rau răm leaves, which stuck to the firmly closed shells. Blood cockles are one of the only varieties of shellfish that don't open when cooked. You need some serious fingernails to dig their stubborn shells open. Here, their color wasn't so shockingly red and the texture was slightly more raw oyster than clam. I also had to discreetly drop a few bad ones on the floor. Overall, though, it was a happy reunion.
My second snail restaurant was fancier, a lot covered in corrugated iron. It had chairs with actual backs. A skinny cat sharpened its claws on a stack of Heineken boxes and the waitresses giggled at my side, occasionally saying things like "Rice!" or "Chicken!" when I got to the relevant page of the menu. No thanks, ladies - I am here for snails. Bring me a big plate of ốc mỡ with garlic and onions ($3.50 for the snails alone, $6 for the lot)!
And they did, but they also brought out a plate of seafood fried rice that I definitely did not order. No matter. The snails were mealy at certain ends and rubbery at others, but I swear you can put that lime-salt-pepper mixture on anything and cover it with garlic, cilantro, and rau răm and it'll be delicious. Also, a platter of trứng cút lộn? There's no better feeling than having waitresses watch you expectantly, waiting for you to gag on an unexpected baby duck beak, and instead ending up watching you pop three in a row.
To be continued...