Its address is a uniquely Saigonesque maze, including not only the implication that the place is in an unnamed alley off the main street, but is tucked away on one of four branches of the alley (A, B, C, and D) that are completely unlabeled. Passing by about fourteen nail salons, a bunch of domestic doorways with curious old people peering out of them, and some too-interested dogs, I thought for sure we were going the wrong way. But we weren't.
My waiter, the nephew of the owner, said he waits on foreigners all the time. He's the designated foreigner-waiter because of his good English. As I sat down for the first time, the fluttering of menus and giggling surrounding me dispersed in the same direction - to go get this guy, Linh, an enthusiastic twenty-year-old who immediately squired me to the cooks' area to look at all the snails. Big coiled oblong snails, tiny flat snails, corkscrew-shaped snails, leopard-spotted snails, striped snails. Not to mention the splayed salty flesh of oysters, mussels, scallops, and clams.
After I'd made my choice, we sat down together and I tried to help him learn the English names for the dishes on his menu. It was nearly impossible. The Vietnamese have a different name for every species of edible snail, whereas we... well, we hardly have a mental concept for an edible snail in the first place. I was able to translate 'mussels', 'scallops', and 'lemongrass' and that was about it. (As a bonus, I eventually ordered all the things I translated!)
The first night, chosen right from a living lineup:
Ốc bông me: snails in tamarind sauce:
These snails were rich, slickly orange and sweet-sour, punctuated occasionally with candle-waxy stubs of pork fat. The snail flesh resisted pulling with toothpicks, and it was a joy the few times one came out in one perfect piece, curled inner coil and all, whole and ready for swishing in fish sauce, spearing with rau răm, and dragging through chili-lime paste.
As many scallops as I've eaten in my life, I never knew they came in such a picturesque shell. When I saw their scalloped edges, a lightbulb burned suddenly in my brain.
That's why they're called scallops!
Smaller than I'm used to, and tougher, with a texture more like a firm white-fish than the silky smoothness of raw scallops or the striped firm flan texture of scallops on a barbecue, these were a wholly new scallop experience to me.
Chem chép mỡ hành: mussels with peanuts and green onionsThough these mussels had the same preparation as the scallops the first night, they had a much stronger flavor. Apart from a ring of snapping rubber, the flesh was yielding and full of ocean.
Note the appearance of green mango spears in the upper left-hand corner: I finally caught on that the roving bands of snack-toting women had things to offer other than baguettes and packets of 10 quail fetuses. (3 or 4 quail fetuses would have been fine; 10 is pushing it.)
Also, rambutan had appeared by now (upper right). It was placed without comment next to me by a smiling older waitress. Grateful, I dug into them with my hopelessly greasy fingers. Like little sponges, the rambutan skin soaked up the oil, cleaning my hands better than any towel.
Expensive by Hồ Chí Minh City standards, each meal cost me the stunning sum of US$5.
Had I had another month there, I would have returned six or seven times. Enough to sweep their menu. Enough to extract snails from their shells blindfolded and armed only with one dull safety pin.
* I may generally shy away from famous places, but if I'm going to culinarily follow someone around Vietnam, it's Anthony Bourdain. Anyone who has the kind of credentials he does, and the connections to eat with, and at, the sweethearts of the food world, and still calls Vietnam his favorite food place, choosing to move to Vietnam for a year... that person might just be my tastebud twin.