Saigon’s restaurant scene gets more creative every month and a handful of places have begun combining traditional Vietnamese dishes with western staples in ingenious ways. Michael Tatarski happily volunteers to eat his way through these creations and discover the inspiration behind them. Photo by Vinh Dao.
As Vietnam becomes more globalised, its famous cuisine has gotten caught up in international food trends, resulting in some surprising dishes. Young generations of the Vietnamese diaspora in countries like the US have altered time-tested Vietnamese recipes to fuse them with other dishes from around the world. One example is the ‘phorito’ served at a Southeast Asian restaurant in Los Angeles, which is exactly what it sounds like: all the ingredients of pho stuffed into a tortilla and wrapped up like a burrito. One Korean-Vietnamese restaurant in New Orleans offers ‘bacos’, banh bao buns opened down the middle like a taco and packed with a variety of meats and vegetables.
While fusion dishes like these have been popular in the west for years, they are only just making their way to Vietnam, and it comes as no surprise that Saigon is leading the way with such innovations. Here are three restaurants serving particularly intriguing riffs on classic Vietnamese cuisine.
The Banh Bao Burger
This dish is a westernised take on the wonderful, fluffy late-night snack which tastes amazing after a night of drinking but usually leaves you wondering what exactly you ate the following morning. The standard banh bao is served from a street cart and stuffed with a quail egg and steamed meat product. The banh bao burger, served at deciBel on Monday evenings, takes the bread of the street snack and replaces the mysterious innards with a beef patty, arugula, pickled carrots and daikon, caramelised onion, tomato, mayonnaise and soy sauce.
Ludovic Tran, a manager at the restaurant and lounge, shares via email that the Vietnamese community in western Europe first created the banh bao burger. He had heard of the dish from friends and family, but it wasn’t until a friend returned from a trip to Berlin with the recipe that they decided to give the burger a try. After an overwhelmingly positive reception at one of deciBel’s Free Food Tuesdays, the restaurant decided to add it to the menu permanently, albeit for just one day a week.
Try the banh bao burger at deciBel,
79/2/5 Phan Ke Binh, D1, on Monday evenings.
Pho, meet Burger
Given the increasing popularity of hamburgers in Saigon, it should come as no surprise that more than one Vietnamese dish has been transformed into this western staple. District 1 eatery Relish & Sons serves its pho burger as an occasional dish.
Pho hasn’t changed much since its birth in Nam Dinh province in the early 20th century. While there are variations in flavour in different regions of the country, generally you get a rich broth with noodles, chicken or beef, a pile of herbs and bean sprouts and however much hoisin and chilli sauce your heart desires. The pho burger retains most of these ingredients but dramatically alters the presentation.
According to Andy O’Brien, Relish & Sons’ chef, the creation of the burger coincided with the recent 40th anniversary of reunification. “We wanted to do something that would appeal to Vietnamese customers,” he says. The dish proved popular, and they occasionally bring it back as a special. The restaurant actually makes pho to braise the beef for the burger, which is then marinated in herbs and spices. The pho noodles are not left out either, as they are fried and used as a bun. The burger is served with the usual pho sauces and herbs on the side, as well as a small bowl of standard pho. As O’Brien says, this way it’s possible to cut up the burger and mix it in with the pho broth, if you so choose. “It’s a much lighter burger,” he adds. “You can eat it any time of day, just like a bowl of pho.”
Relish & Sons, 44 Dong Du, D1. Call to check if the burger is being offered at 012 07 214 294.
Duck, Tortillas and Dumb Luck
Unlike the previous two dishes, this last example of creative fusion is not served at an air-conditioned District 1 eatery. Instead, a drive to the far southern reaches of District 2 is required to enjoy duck tacos from a typical Vietnamese quan. One could be forgiven for wondering how exactly tacos found their way to this far-flung, heavily Vietnamese neighbourhood.
Robert Nussbaum, the owner of Saigon Tacos, puts this delightful food marriage down to luck. His factory, which produces the only corn-based tortillas in all of Vietnam, is located in the area, and one night he met his future wife and asked her out to dinner. Though he had a nearby Singaporean noodle place in mind, she suggested grilled duck. Nussbaum grabbed a stack of tortillas and they sat down at an open-air duck place, and the rest is history.
Every Tuesday, which is when the tortillas are fresh off the production line, the Vietnamese family which runs the quan serves up duck tacos in addition to their standard menu. The meaty duck comes with chilli sauce, tortillas, salsa and refried beans made by Saigon Tacos, as well as the herbs which accompany countless Vietnamese dishes. The bizarre Mexico-meets-Vietnam combination works, and the collaboration has built up a steady following over the last year.
Given the popularity of the above dishes, it is surely only a matter of time before more Vietnamese dishes are fused with western cuisines. Who knows what the future of such creations in Saigon may hold.
Duck tacos are served at
554 Nguyen Thi Dinh, D2 every Tuesday evening.