Sunday, November 24, 2013

Egg Coffee, Bun Cha and Kem Caramem: The Lesser Known Gems of Vietnam

Some of our new favorites in life were found in Hanoi, the first city we visited in Vietnam.  We were overwhelmed by the city's motorcycle mayhem in the streets and sought moments of peace whenever possible.

We found some in a hidden cafe, tucked behind a clever T-shirt company at 11 Hang Gai.  Walk past the shirts (the designs are so unique!), down the dark alley, and find yourself in the comfort of a calming courtyard tastefully cluttered with Asian ceramics.

Place your order at the foot of the stairwell - the egg coffee is a recommend, and ascend another set of spiral stairs.

Unless you want to sit on the cute little mezzanine (adorable also!). 

 But the real prize are the few tables on the rooftop overlooking the Lake of the Restored Sword (Hoan Kiem).

Our drinks arrived quickly.  The mango shake was tall, slightly sweet and refreshing.

And the egg coffee was particularly thick and foamy.  Egg coffee is essentially espresso with an unbelievable layer of egg sabayon - the result tastes simply like liquid tiramisu.  It's wonderful and completely unique to Hanoi.  

Early in our trip, we had taken a tour with a couple representatives from Hanoi Kids, a neat little program where university students function as free tour guides in exchange for practicing their English.  Of course, our tour was lean on the cultural facts, and heavy on socialization and food recommendations.  We asked our guides what their favorite food was, and both answered, "Bun cha."  From this, I am just going to make the wild assertion that everyone's favorite food in Hanoi is bun cha.  It is now ours too.

The best bun cha place is a taxi ride away from the Old Quarter at a place called Bun Cha 34.

Bun cha is primarily served at lunchtime, and the streets are perfumed with the smell of grilled meats during this hour.  Bun Cha 34 was packed with workers on their lunchbreak, squatting on plastic chairs in their dress shirts, and stuffing their face with porky goodness.

An order of bun cha comes with a radiant assortment of herbs and springy vermicelli noodles.  

Thick strips of grilled pork belly and grilled pork patties are served in a bowl of warm fish sauce.  Then to eat, you take the vermicelli noodles and any herbs with your chopsticks, immerse it in the bowl of fish sauce, grab some meat, and eat !  It's simple.  It's fun.  And it's really good !  The fish sauce is very mild - almost like a broth, and the meat just brilliantly charred.

The egg rolls make a popular addition also.  Though greasy, they are crackly and crispy, filled with more pork (just can't get enough!) and glass noodles.

Though absolutely bustling, there's really no rush or pressure to finish your meal quickly here.  Everyone meanders through their meal at a leisurely place, and it's somewhat relaxing even though you're only steps away from the curbside.  It's sad to know that we probably will never get to eat this again, until our next visit to Vietnam, but I've bookmarked some recipes to replicate it in the meantime (stay tuned).

After you finish licking your lips from the succulence of your lunch, walk a few steps across the street to Kem Caramen.  There's a slew of creme caramel spots along this street, but the bright red banner of this one caught our eye.

For bout a US dollar, you get a creme caramel and a fluffy egg chiffon cake.  The cake is nice, astoundingly fluffy and as light as air.

But it's the creme caramel that is what you should come for.  They open up a plastic container, plop it on a plate, and you basically just swallow the dessert whole because it just goes down that easy.  Slightly bitter and creamy, it's a refreshing dessert on the warm afternoon.

Everyone just buys bagfuls of this stuff.  I can completely understand why!

It's hard to start sharing these favorite spots with you because the posts take twice as long to write - I am too distracted by the photos and the memories.  Hopefully they are inspiring you to visit my home country soon !

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Dude.  Just look at the pictures.  Go.

Cafe Pho Co
11 Hang Gai

Bun Cha 34
34 Hàng Than, Hoàn Kiếm, Hanoi

Kem Caramen
29 Hang Than

Saturday, November 23, 2013

I'm back and missing the banh mi badly from Huynh Hoa

The trip to Asia was unbelievable.  I saw so many things ! Ate a lot ! Loved it all.  My heart is still over there.  My body is here.  Shivering.  (Why is it so cold?  I know it's winter.  But why !)

No bias - really ! But Vietnam, hands down, had the best food.  And if there was any sole reason why you should want to go to Vietnam, it should be for this banh mi.

I mean, the pho was spectacular, and we'll definitely talk about that soon enough, but my mom cooks some killer pho.  My mom cannot, however, cook killer banh mi.  Saigon's Huynh Hoa can.


The shop is open from 2:30p to midnight.  Do not go in the morning like us unless you just want to see them sitting on the floor preparing the fixings for the day.  Do go at 2:35p like us to watch them make the first dent into the mound of glorious pate.

And also go at any other time of day, like us, because you just can't get enough.
Why is it just so good?

It might be because the bread baker is so cool.  He just sits there by their wood-crate-encased oven, smoking cigarettes and posing for pictures like a gaddamn pro.

Then he so effortlessly puts his hands into the oven to turn those suckers over when it's time.  Like a baawwse.

Or it might be because all their beautiful meats are stacked tall in neat piles, and they are so generous (and consistent) in packing your sandwich with every single cut known to man including pork belly, Vietnamese sausage, and shredded pork.

Look at that fluffy shredded pork that you could just sleep on and have the most wonderful pigacious dreams.

The shop is just a walk and go.  We always ordered ones with everything on it (beware of the crazy spicy peppers, but they make a memorable experience), and then you hand over 28,000 VND per (~$1.4 USD) in exchange for a clear plastic bag of joy.

We would then take our sandwiches over to the giant Starbucks down the road.

I never thought I would say this, but, I had the best banh mi of my life at a Starbucks.  This is what Vietnam does to you.  But the Starbucks in Vietnam doesn't care what you eat there, they offer unlimited napkins (a serious Asian luxury), the best bathrooms, and wifi (with purchase of a drink).  And! Air conditioning !

The sandwich is so huge - like the size of my giant forearm.

Contrary to the sandwiches you find in the US, the ratio of meat and vegetables is definitely reversed... to the point where the sandwich is virtually only tasty, tasty meat.

The peppers look sparse, but are ever so effective. 

And the bread is just absolute perfection.  Crispy yet SO moist and fluffy.  Your mouth will not be cut up.  Your mouth will weep from the blissful experience.

AND.  You know how the best part of eating an Nestle drumstick is that hardened chocolate chunk at the bottom of the cone?

You get the equivalent with this banh mi.  
A perfect little mouthful of buttery Vietnamese mayo and unctious pate.  Gah.  Heaven.  Tastes.  Like. This.

It might have been overkill to dedicate my first post to this banh mi, and then show you like 20 pictures of the same dish, but it's what happens when your life changes with a single sandwich - the moment you realize what something should taste like and it's astonishingly great !  I miss too many things in Asia, and this is definitely one of the top 3.

More soon!  Hope you're all keeping warm!

Han's Nonsensical Rating: Definite yes. Eat it everyday. Eat it every meal.  Freeze it.  Bring it home.  Send it to me. Love you forever.  Thank you, best friend.

Huynh Hoa
26 Lê Thị Riêng, Bến Thành, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam