Elijah Ferrian talks restaurant life and new beginnings in Vietnam with the owner of the best Cali-Mex restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City. Photos by Vinh Dao.
Calvin “The Bama” Bui grew up in Huntington beach, and burnt himself out on the line in some of the finest kitchens in San Francisco. This led to him landing in Vietnam eight years ago. Here, he found a sweet spot in the food culture that was lacking back in the States.
“Working fine dining, you don’t really get to cook the food you love, or are passionate about because of the food trends around you,” Bui explains. “Here in Vietnam you can really put your heart on a plate. About two years ago, I was sitting on Mac Thi Buoi with some friends, and there was a bet on the table on whether or not I was still a good chef. I took the bet, and eventually opened up my first restaurant.”
That restaurant sold, and Bui got the ball rolling on Sancho’s in June of 2016. Sancho’s vision is simple: put your soul into what you do. Whatever it is, do it with love. So, naturally, it’s easy to love this taco cantina, and a selection of margaritas (VND80,000 each, VND300,000 a pitcher), emanating from the bar like a neon rainbow doesn’t hurt either.
This place makes real Mexi-Cali food. Don’t get it twisted. Tex-Mex is not the same thing! Either way, tasting properly-seasoned taco meat in a land where, for whatever reason, any bland filling rolled in a poor man’s tortilla is allowed to be called “Mexican” food, is a fantastic change.
Quesadillas (VND160,000), tacos (VND40,000 each), and flautas (VND100,000) all come with your choice of carne asada steak, grilled chicken, pork carnitas, ground beef, or a vegetarian option. I nearly cried when I saw the Godzilla tacos. Order them. A soft flour tortilla wrapped with cheese around a hard shell taco, and stuffed full of your favorite meats and veggies.
Burritos weigh in at 1.5kilos, and come wet. You can also opt-out of the saucy topping. Either way you will find satisfaction with the regular size (VND160,000) or the extra large (VND180,000).
Make it “Sancho Style” for an extra VND50,000, where they’ll top your burrito with sour cream, pico de gallo, guacamole (when in season, their standard is to not serve weak guac), red enchilada sauce and cheese.
The food here is seriously good. This is coming from an American that makes homemade tacos and Latin food at home whenever possible.
Calvin’s service and his staff are genuine, and they seem to really enjoy their job. Working a restaurant on Bui Vien and maintaining an air of positivity is no easy feat, and they all seem to pull it off effortlessly.
Beer is cheap and good. They were one of the starting points for Phat Rooster Ales. Sundays supply cheaper margaritas at VND50,000 a glass, and VND200,000 for a pitcher, and they are always running events and food specials.
“I’m about doing tequila shots with guests I don’t know,” Bui says. “Sancho’s is about a big LA, warm welcome. We’re not about Facebook ads and passing out flyers, we’re about word of mouth and being so good people just hear about us and come to try it for themselves.”