Mexican food in Saigon
How many Mexicans live in this city? That’s right, not many! So how many Mexican restaurants are there in this city? That’s right, none! At least none that any person bearing a Mexican passport would acknowledge. But truth to tell, there are very few true Mexican restaurants anywhere outside of Mexico. I fell into one many years ago in Madrid. I drank tequila with the owner, who sadly told me of his struggle to keep a going concern outside Mexico. The poor chap was basically giving away guacamole gratis and he couldn’t pay a Spaniard to eat a jalapeno pepper. So don’t feel that I disparage when I say that virtually nobody has ever eaten true Mexican cuisine outside of Mexico.
For those of us who hail from North America (yes, that means Johnny Canuck, too), we have grown up surrounded by restaurants called ‘Mexican’. But even there it’s not what folks would eat south of the border. It’s called TexMex if you’re anywhere east of the headwaters of the Rio Grande, and CalMex anywhere else. And these are worthy cuisines. They have given us such ‘Mexican’ staples as chile con carne, fajitas, nachos, Caesar salad, the margarita both shaken and frozen. But you’ll find none of these things in Mexico except at Club Med, US-owned chain restaurants, Princess Cruises, and the innumerable borderland beaneries where gringos gather.
While today a stellar form of cookery, Tex/CalMex had very humble beginnings. Hard-working Mexican farm labourers who travelled north of the border didn’t care for, nor could they afford, such delicacies as peanut butter and jelly, or baloney sandwiches. Twinkies didn’t float their boat. And burgers and fries were food for “el patron”. So they relied on the simple stalwarts, the tried and true. Tacos, burritos and tamales (and permutations thereof) became their staple fare. Those things exist in Mexico, but they are not considered ‘cuisine’. They are snack foods. And in Mexico they are as basic and unadorned as baloney on white bread with no mustard. You know, stuff you get in jail (or maybe you don’t know).
But in Texas and California things took a different turn. There were ingredients easily available that were not so in Mexico. Sour cream, different cheeses, superior and various meats, and better beans all found their way to what would eventually become Señor So-n-So’s taco truck, and ultimately the plush downtown joint with red leather booths. A wider, largely gringo, clientele brought even more variety, and demand for more and better. And, significantly, Tabasco and other sauces and condiments came into play. That’s right, Tabasco sauce is not from Mexico! But with that condiment, and others, as the beginning, a true saucier’s art has come to flourish in the CalMex kitchen. And in Saigon there is only one CalMex saucier that I know of.
Enter the Big Cheese. Geoffrey Deetz, owner and boss of the Black Cat restaurant, is one big man. And the boss man is known as the Big Cheese (so is his eponymous 1-pound burger at Black Cat). For the past three years Deetz has been accumulating and hoarding the biggest supply in Southeast Asia of the rather rare poblano chilli pepper. It’s a very flavoursome breed, but not burn-your-face-off spicy. When the poblano is dried or smoked, it becomes the ancho and it yields a manly sauce that rivals any of the more feminine varieties a French or Italian kitchen might produce.
With this precious stash, along with a steady supply of meaty chipotle (smoked jalapeno peppers) and a gonzo aromatic pepper blend, Deetz is now, for as long as it lasts, offering a trio of robust CalMex sauces. Ancho, chipotle and classic chilli sauces are gracing enchiladas made of the finest golden corn masa and stuffed with tender goodness.
All three sauces are superb. But start with ancho. It’s moan-out-loud, squirm-in-your-pants delicious. It’s a deep brown sauce recalling a molé, but this is no soft and subtle molé. It’s a bold, brown, brash beast of a sauce. But as masculine as it is, it isn’t so insolent as to mask the flavours of the bundle of gentle delight it cloaks. Rather, it drags them by the hair out into the full daylight and marshals them onto your tongue in full tasty array. The soft and supple enchilada does not become a mere vessel for the sauce. It’s a blushing bride who comes decked out in black leather and studs. You can almost hear the whip crack.
The ancho’s little brothers are game fellows, too, disporting themselves amongst the maidens of La Familia Tortilla. They chase and capture. They tease and titillate. And they’re good boys to play with for a while. But it’s big brother ancho I’ll cross town for.