Or, as it happens, an entire day full of such meals. Enter August 31, 2013.
I. Cơm hến
When a business gets popular in Vietnam, it often spawns a menagerie of copycats. Hotels featured in the Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide have twins popping up in the surrounding streets almost the instant the guides are published, hoping to draw patrons on name recognition. In Quy Nhơn, a by no means touristy beach town between Đà Nẵng and Nha Trang, a hotel called Lan Anh had no less than 5 different 'locations' around town. One even made sure to have a copycat Barbara's Backpackers next door, for maximum believability!
The reason I bring this up is that the restaurant I aimed for at lunch on August 31, a central Vietnamese specialty restaurant called Quán Nam Giao, was completely encircled by other Huế-style restaurants, touts-a-waving. I disdained them, thinking it was another copycat phenomenon (this style of food isn't terribly common in HCMC) but apparently I was actually walking through HCMC's Little Huế. Whoops!
I'd feel regretful about missing out on this great enclave but for the fact that I don't think any of them could have beaten what I had at Nam Giao.
Cơm hến is already one of my favorite dishes. A well-delineated mix of baby clams, fresh taro stem and sour starfruit, various strong herbs, and crushed peanuts and sesame seeds over rice that looks a bit like Vietnamese chirashi might look.
This doesn't mean it's easy to impress me merely by serving it to me. I've had in its birthplace of Huế and I've had it at Quan Vy Da in Little Saigon, a restaurant that can do no wrong with any dish it tries. It isn't easy to live up to either of these standards.
Nam Giao surpassed them.
I've never understood how certain flavor combinations were discovered. Who first paired clams with mint, or taro with starfruit? And then why would they have taken nuts, of all things, and crushed them on top? Every ingredient is so different-tasting that you'd think your mouth wouldn't know what to do with the confluence, but this particular combination meshed so well and so smoothly that I wouldn't blink an eye if I were told it had just grown naturally on the Cơm Hến Tree.
Nothing I've eaten out of a plastic bag in a park has ever been this good.
Those aren't noodles. They're green papaya spears. And those aren't leaves (well, not all of them - some of them are mint, I think), they're sweet beef jerky slices. And that isn't mere orange oil, that is flaming-hot-pepper lava! It'll soak the sesame crackers and turn them into fire-cakes.
Once I got used to maneuvering my chopsticks through the bag's narrow neck and getting bites with a little bit of everything, I was able to enjoy the sweet caramel char on the beef fighting with the papaya's sourness until it was all washed away in a wave of lingering spice.
(Thanks to Joe and Hai at eatingsaigon.com for directing me here - I never would have found these ladies on my own. They stand at an unmarked stall on a busy corner not IN the park, but across the street from it. Rough Google location here.)
Just around the corner from the gỏi đu đủ goddesses lies a much-lauded bánh xèo restaurant: Bánh Xèo 46A. I'm pretty sure Anthony Bourdain popularized it, and as leery as I am of places famous food dudes have popularized (they almost always go rapidly downhill afterwards), well, it's bánh xèo, so...
I really wish I had included something for scale, but let's just make clear that if I stepped on this pancake, only about 3/4 of it would bear the footprint. (And I wear size 11 shoes.)
A crackly outer skin, like seared paper, narrowed to impossibly thin widths at times, making it impossible to believe it held so much meat and so many vegetables together. They leave their shrimps' skins on, so it gets even more crunchy when you ensnare shrimp in your lettuce scoop. That's fine, because the pillowy pork fat leaves your teeth something rich to sink into afterwards.
Lots of people tell me they find bánh xèo too greasy, and I always wonder if they're eating it wrapped in, and stuffed with, vegetables and herbs, like you're supposed to. Most Vietnamese herb 'accompaniment' places are bigger than my head, and Vietnamese people will finish them, right down to the last leaf. If a dish isn't completely veg-i-fied with each and every bite, you're not doing it right.
I now proudly note that not one green speck of lettuce, mint, fish-mint, or basil remained on that plate after I was done cracking bites off this giant's-foot-sized pancake.
And not more than ten drops of nước mắm remained in the sauce bowl, either.
As we were leaving, I saw the kitchen. It was like a mass bánh xèo production assembly line run by one sweating woman. Stacks and stacks of these pancakes were balanced on a few aluminum platters, ready to be run out to the rapidly filling restaurant, while she flipped and filled at least 6 more in the three frying pans that surrounded her. While the menu technically has about 20 items, nobody really looks at it. It's a safe assumption that everyone will order the bánh xèo.