Barbara Adam takes a quick trip to South America for everyday Colombian food at Don Patacon Saigon. Photos by Romain Garrigue.
Oscar Fernando Ruiz learned to cook at the elbow of his abuela in her kitchen in Nieva in central Colombia.
Young Oscar learned the art of arepas, unleaven grilled corn “bread”, tamale, steamed balls of corn dough, and empanada, stuffed corn pastries.
Fast forward a decade or so and not-so-young Oscar is in Vietnam, noticing a lot of similarities between Colombian and Vietnamese cuisine, as well as the culture.
Colombia is famous for its sabrosura, a word with no direct translation into English, which means the soul, the swing and the smiles of Colombia.
Oscar began sharing a little bit of sabrosura and Colombian cuisine in Saigon with a business selling frozen Colombian cuisine and imported meat. Now he’s expanded into a bricks-and-mortar restaurant in a quiet little alley in District 2’s Thao Dien.
“I’m not a chef,” Oscar said. “I’m a cook from the countryside.”
Don Patacon definitely captures that “for the people” vibe, with the hearty and tasty home-cooked Colombian dishes Oscar grew up with, including homemade quesillo cheese and patacon (deep-fried plantain).
We started our tour of Colombian cuisine with an arepa stuffed with shredded chicken, spiced beef and a slice of quesillo (VND50,000). It was like a crumbly grilled corn pita bread, served with a side of pink sauce.
Next up was a patacon burger (VND130,000, including a drink), with a fresh, tender beef pattie slathered with pink sauce and topped with bacon, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The “bun” of this burger was two thin, crispy shards of fried green plantain. On the side were dishes of pink sauce and frijoles, a kind of black bean salsa.
Suddenly, a dish arrived that looked and smelled distinctly Vietnamese. It was a parcel of steaming banana leaves, which were unwrapped to reveal a mush of rice, corn, marinated chicken, egg, beans, vegetables and a Creole salsa. This is a traditional tamale (VND100,000), which could be passed off as a version of the Vietnamese xoi ga hap la sen (sticky rice steamed in lotus leaf).
Rounding off our Colombian feast were platters of empanada de pollo (chicken empanadas) and empanada de carne (beef empanadas), both served with a guacamole and Creole chilli salsa sauce, which should be spooned into each golden fried parcels (VND160,000 for a plate of 12) after it’s opened by the first bite.
Our Colombian lunch was washed down with a few glasses of cold Tiger draft, and finished with a shot of Colombian coffee.
We definitely need to go back to try every dish on the compact menu, including the patacon con todo, which come with a choice of six different toppings, and the fiambre, a feast for four that includes chorizo, sausages, beef, pork and chicken, served with a platter of empanadas, patacones, arepas, guacamole and salsa.