Jump to content


Welcome to the eG Forums!

These forums are a service of the Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, a 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to advancement of the culinary arts. Anyone can read the forums, however if you would like to participate in active discussions please join the Society.

Photo

An Asian Eating Adventure

Asian

  • Please log in to reply
95 replies to this topic

#1 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 20 July 2009 - 09:26 AM

A year ago I returned from a three-week, whirlwind eating tour of Western and Central Europe, the spoils of which can be viewed, here. In 2009, in lieu of starhunting my way through more than a few temples of gastronomy, I would alight to Asia where more exotic (and much cheaper, if I'm being honest) culinary delights were sure to be found.

This trip would bring my family to Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, and Japan, allowing us to sample a wide breadth of Asian cuisines. Surely Thai, Vietnamese, and Japanese dishes were enjoyed in abundance, but those from Malaysia, India, and China would also make repeated appearances owing to the amalgam of distinct cultures that influence the region. In sharing this travelblog I hope to return to this point at greater length. Although each country remains unique, it becomes and more apparent how much cultural exchange occurs in the region.

As with travelblogs past, this will feature an excessive amount of photo documentation. The format this time around, however, will be slightly different. The concept of a meal is hazy, for instance. With portions small and prices low, eating becomes less centered on large, multi-course meals and more centered on grabbing a dish or four here and there. Without set mealtimes or clearly printed tasting menus--or menus at all for that matter--my powers of recollection are sure to be challenged. I hope that those with more expertise on these cuisines will chime in and correct my surely numerous errors to come.

So, we begin. Expect everything from dubious street vendor mystery meats to refined kaiseki cuisine. From Bangkok to Krabi to Chiang Mai to Halong Bay to Hanoi to Saigon to Singapore to Tokyo to Atami in three week's time. It was quite the trip, and I hope others will enjoy coming along, too.

#2 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 20 July 2009 - 12:19 PM

Bangkok, Thailand
Getting from the rolling (and rainy) hills of New Jersey to the lobby of the Sofitel Silom in Bangkok required approximately 30 hours of travel time. It was a lot. A lengthy layover in Tokyo served as something as a respite, as we were able to relax in the Delta/NW lounge for drinks and nibbles. The quality of food offerings here versus the quality of those in Newark is marked. I'm absolutely kicking myself for not taking a picture of the automatic beer dispenser in the lounge. So cool. That the tap beers are Asahi and Sapporo and not Bud Light made it that much better. But, back to the main event, the food.

Our first meal in Asia would actually be in Tokyo. We would be returning in a few weeks' time but for now udon would suffice. Narita would put forth a strong contender in this first round of The Airport Food Showdown.

While various bowls of udon were ordered, this is the kitchen sink version.
Posted Image
This included tempura, sauteed beef, fried mochi, a hot springs egg, tofu skin, nori, and probably many other items. I think it's quite cool that an airport feature a restaurant that makes its own udon and soba, but then again that's Japan.

Arriving in Bangkok, even at midnight, one must deal with touts right from the start. If I have one problem with Bangkok it's that you feel like almost everyone is trying to fleece you. Tourists are continuously quoted exorbitant prices for transportation, be it by "metered" taxi or the quintessential motorized tricycles called tuk-tuks. Thailand is a place where you have to be aware and savvy at all times. One of the most ubiquitous scams involves a "helpful" stranger or taxi driver who tells you an attraction is closed for the morning/day/afternoon. Instead, said person offers to set you up with an appealing alternative tour (that is always paired with high-pressure shopping stop). It's easy to feel like you, the consumer, is not in control. Bargaining is the rule, and day-to-day activities require a certain attention that isn't necessary in the US, Europe or Japan.

To me, Thailand seems to be at a kind of developmental crossroads. Bangkok is a modern city with a new and efficient public transportation system, museums and malls, high-end hotels and office buildings, etc. Yet there seems to undercurrent of traditionalism at play here that seems at odds with with the recent development of the last couple of decades. The difference between rich and poor is significant, for instance, and further underscores the idea of two Bangkoks that we witnessed.

But rather than delve deeper into the city socio-economic climate, there are pretty things to see and delicious food to eat.

Bangkok's temples and palaces were the most impressive we'd see on the trip.

A reclining Buddha
Posted Image
The world's largest, I believe.

Wat Po
Posted Image
Almost a caricature of what one thinks of as Thai architecture. At least that was the case for me.

Grand Palace
Posted Image
Posted Image
What I found most interesting was strange mixture of Thai and Western architectural features. Can't say that Greco columns and Thai roof lines work all that well together.

Wat Arun
Posted Image
Climable, dubiously.

Our first meal in Thailand would actually come the next morning, at our hotel. I highly recommend the Sofitel Silom. The Club Level rooms are a great value for all the extras you get, namely cocktails and this super classy breakfast spread. The service was very good, too.

Breakfast
Posted Image
Posted Image
I should note now that a few pictures, such as the two above, were taken using an iPhone and therefore are terrible quality. Sorry. The Sofitel does a really nice job balancing French and Thai, as seen in the charcuterie spread and congee. Both were very good quality. French pastries were presented with housemade tropical fruit jams. Can't complain.

Our first proper meal, however, was enjoyed at Chote Chitr, a restaurant popular with the foodie set. There's a semi-onery marm who presides over the small restaurant on whom a fair amount has been written. She speaks English just fine and set us up with a nice assortment of dishes.

I should note that the heat across the board in Thailand was not nearly as bad (or good, depending on your worldview) as I'd heard. We asked for everything extremely spicy and though there was a decent burn across the board nothing was blow-you-away spicy. Granted my spice tolerance is very high, but even dishes made in advance that couldn't be toned down for foreigners and are reportedly very spicy were usually just warming and rarely hot. If I'm being honest, I wanted more on that front.

But anyway, our lunch was as follows.

Mee krob
Posted Image
A sticky, sour rendition. This would be the first of many times where I would be impressed at just how intense Thai food can be. Thai in the US tends to be over-sweet. In Thailand the tamarind and kaffir lime and lemongrass really dominate the show, even more than the heat. It was refreshing and different.

Banana flower salad with chicken and coconut red curry
Posted Image
The mee krob and this salad are signature dishes here. Very nice, and I'd never had banana flower before. This would be the first of a few exposures.

Grilled prawns in red curry
Posted Image
This curry was richer than the one in the salad. It was spicier and creamier. Nicely cooked prawns, too.

Fried river fish with mango salad
Posted Image
The mango salad was the star here. The fish was fine but could've been cooked a bit longer to get it just a bit darker and crispier. Again the sourness of the salad was bracing and quite pleasant.

All in, this meal was maybe $7 or $8 per person. Actually quite expensive for this restaurant, where we'd ordered two pricier seafood dishes, but you can't complain about the value.

I'd heard great things about Samboon Seafood so we decided to go for dinner on our first evening. The place is known for its curry crab, a rather expensive dish by local standards. As a result the restaurant is more popular with tourists and businessmen, mainly Japanese, but the quality was really quite excellent. This would be one of the better meals of the trip, in fact.

Before getting to the food, however, I'd be remiss not to mention this only-in-Bangkok situation. One block before the restaurant are a collection of tuk-tuk drivers seemingly just hanging out on the corner. As tourists approach the corner they casually ask, "Are you going to dinner? Do you like seafood?" Even if you ignore them and keep walking toward the restaurant they press harder, "Seafood, not that way. Let me take you." And so and so on. There's actually another famous scam that's been mentioned on more than a few blogs where diners are taken to Samboon-dee Seafood. The -dee in that restaurant's neon sign is conveniently dark and unaware tourists are then led into the imposter restaurant. Samboon's website even warns customers of this scam.

But, we got there unscathed and had a most delicious meal.

Prawns with chile and garlic
Posted Image
The amount of garlic in this dish, the fish and morning glory was just insane. I'm not exaggerating when I say there must've been a full head of garlic in the dishes. In this prawn dish the sauce was bound together by a sticky, sweet sauce of sorts. Delicious.

Fried fish with crispy basil, garlic, chile
Posted Image
An excellent whole fish. Quite spicy, too. There's also some stir-fried morning glory, a type of slightly bitter green, in the background.

Curry crab
Posted Image
Awesome. The egg in the curry really made the dish, adding a really interesting silky note. While I think I might've just barely preferred Singapore's famous chile crab, this dish was just great. I think this rather large crab was about $27.

By Thai standards this restaurant is quite expensive. We paid just north of $20/person and felt like we got a great bargain. The restaurant is very clean, well-lit, and the menu has nice pictures with descriptions. Not exactly the most local spot but I really can't fault the place at all. Highly recommended for folks not quite ready to jump into street food or the like.

As a related cultural aside, one could call restaurant service in Thailand and Vietnam hovering. Apparently it's considered a good thing for servers to stand immediately by your table as you peruse the menu, go over the bill, and pay. Often times asking for some time to consider drinks or what to order was met with confusion, then an awkward couple of steps back. Even after food was delivered servers would, somewhat awkwardly, just watch us eat. The thought process seems to be something like, "As a server you now have my full attention. Whether you want it or not." It was kind of weird.

And so ended our first day. We'd had Thai food that bore similarities to what I was used to yet was somehow different. Again, I think it's all about the usage of aromatics. In the US lemongrass, tamarind, and kaffir lime leaf are something like novelties. In Bangkok they served as the very building blocks for the cuisine. Imagine French or Italian cooking with limited access to onions, shallots or garlic. That's the kind of difference we're talking about here.

Edited by BryanZ, 20 July 2009 - 12:25 PM.


#3 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 20 July 2009 - 02:47 PM

Bangkok, Thailand, cont'd.

So here's where things get tricky. What does one call street food eaten in the morning after breakfast. A snack? I guess, but these were proper dishes you might order off a menu in the States. Brunch? Lacking the requisite mimosas, so, umm, no. Indeed, traveling is hard.

After our very nice hotel breakfast enjoyed tranquilly looking over the Bangkok skyline, my sister and I headed off to one of the many market street that seemingly spring from nowhere. Passing by skyscrapers, laundromats, and dubious looking massage parlors, one suddenly passes a side street literally crammed with people and street vendors. Fifty yards further and it again looks like any other big city. These side streets link the larger throughways, in our case Silom and Surawong Roads, and offer a glimpse into real Bangkok life. Besides food, one can find clothing, toiletries, auto parts, whatever.

We chose food based largely on what was crowded and what looked tasty/clean/somewhat identifiable.

Large woks filled with various curries and stir-fried dishes sit out on the street. In semi-covered wet market areas one finds seafood ranging from fresh to suspect and meats of all cuts and types.

We stuck to safer items for this early morning market foray.

Stir-fried pork with green beans
Posted Image

Red curry with pork
Posted Image
While this wasn't necessarily better than what you might get from a decent Thai restaurant here, each plate of food was less than a dollar. While the portion wasn't huge it would make a perfect snack, and along with a few satay and some fruit or grilled banana you'd have a nice meal for maybe $2.50.

Grilled banana with syrup
Posted Image
The bananas here are kind of interesting. They're small, like apple bananas, but a bit starchy, kind of like a nearly ripe plantain. They're often grilled or dipped in batter and fried. Here, you see the former variety. Having tried both styles on this trip, each has its merits.

We also got some satay for less than a dollar and a large bag of doughnut-type things. While nothing was rapturous everything was totally serviceable. Tourists could eat nothing but this food without a problem and save a lot of money. In fact, while we avoided tap water and ice we ate pretty much everything else. No real gastrointestinal problems to report throughout the trip beyond a little discomfort most likely attributed to overeating.

After this bit of food we headed out to Aw Taw Kaw, a market that's built up quite a reputation as a food tourism destination in Bangkok. It's easily accessible by public transportation yet away from the hustle of downtown. It's also quite clean and well-lit as far as open-air markets go, so the casual visitor isn't likely to be offended. Still, the smell when one walks in is nearly overpowering. Durian lingers with dried fish, tropical fruit, and spices. For some heady; for others disgusting.

There are various stalls selling all kinds of wet and dry goods. Curries, sold to-go, sit out amidst the heat. The only thing held on ice is seafood. It's all quite clean but far from the American supermarket.

A typical stall selling food to-go
Posted Image

Chiles
Posted Image

Wall of garlic
Posted Image
About half of the garlic used in our dinner last night.

King lychee
Posted Image
A bitter sweet memory here. These were huge, like three times the size of normal lychee, and incredibly delicious. But I have to admit my mother got hosed on the price. We were offered a sample, got overly excited as to how good they were and paid about $6 for a kilo. We later saw them being sold from a bit over $2.25 to about $4 for the same weight. Again, you have to be aware.

Grilling chickens
Posted Image

At the end of the market is a less densely packed area for the food court
Posted Image
Posted Image
There were probably a couple dozen stalls selling various foodstuffs. While most sold foods meant to consumed on-site some items could also be taken to-go.

The most commonly blogged about stall here is 12/5, famous for a dish called he ba mi, a noodle soup with roasted meats and dumplings.

He ba mi
Posted Image
Subtle, but nice.

Stingray (we think) with peppers over rice
Posted Image
The texture of this was very much like skate but denser. We think it has to be stingray. As you can see, portions in Thailand are quite small. You might get only an ounce or two or protein in a serving, be it fish, pork, or whatever. This was true across the board. As you so often read but rarely see in this country, it's really all about using the protein to augment the vegetables and rice.

Satay
Posted Image
Grilled over charcoal, served with a bright red peanut sauce and nice quick pickles of cucumber and shallot.

Oyster pancake
Posted Image
Perhaps the most dubious of the offerings, the raw oysters and other shellfish were stored on a banana leaf set over some minimal quantity of ice. Still, it was quite tasty if a bit oily. The pancake is cooked as a thin batter augmented with scrambled egg, sprouts, and the aforementioned seafood. The most expensive item of our lunch, this was probably $2 and change.

After a morning spent sampling Thai cuisine in rather authentic surroundings, our next stop would be the malls of downtown Bangkok, both low- and high-end. This would be our first exposure to the glories of the Asian mall food court. We need food courts like this in the States.

#4 RobC

RobC
  • participating member
  • 26 posts

Posted 20 July 2009 - 03:01 PM

" . . . a little discomfort most likely attributed to overeating." Seems like a sound hypothesis.

Thanks for the fascinating trip report, and for all your great stuff here and on Twitter. If the NYT had a brain in its corporate head, they'd hire you to replace Frank Bruni.

#5 prasantrin

prasantrin
  • legacy participant
  • 5,468 posts

Posted 20 July 2009 - 03:25 PM

Just the other day (no more than a week ago), I stumbled upon something you had written and I thought, "I wonder why Bryan never goes to Asia." :smile:

In all the times I've been to BKK, I've never been to Aw taw kaw (or however you choose to transliterate it). I really must go!

Can't wait to see more food, especially in Vietnam--the only country you visited which I haven't. And I hope you managed to get yum pla dook foo in Thailand, and roti in Chiang Mai! I want to see them!

#6 Abra

Abra
  • participating member
  • 3,186 posts
  • Location:Bainbridge Island, WA

Posted 21 July 2009 - 10:19 AM

As always, Bryan, I love your travelogues. And I have to say (again) that I love the way your family does all this stuff together. It makes for a very cool package.

#7 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 21 July 2009 - 02:00 PM

Bangkok, Thailand, cont'd.

Thanks for all the kind words thus far. I get nearly as much out of sharing my meals and travels as I do experiencing them. As always, I welcome any questions.

Like I mentioned, after Aw Taw Kaw we headed into the heart of the city to see more the new Bangkok. Here high-rises are the norm, and shopping malls are far more common than markets. But even in this new Bangkok clear discrepancies arise. The older buildings and shopping malls have a distinct feel to them. For instance, the MBK shopping mall is crammed with vendors selling knockoff merchandise and cheap apparel from every sort of stall, cart, and closet-sized store. It's as if the market-culture of SE Asia just moved indoors. It's then nearly shocking to compare this to the likes of the Siam Paragon or Central World, shopping malls that literally glitter with newness and money. The former's collection of international luxury brands rivals anything in the States. SE Asia's largest aquarium is housed in the Paragon to boot.

But, more typical, is the food court at MBK. A bit dingy but totally clean. One purchases coupons at a central cashier to redeem at the various stalls. There are stalls for fruit drinks, beer, desserts, and basically any Asian cuisine one can think of. Each specializes in just a few dishes, usually one or two.

MBK food court
Posted Image

Leo beer
Posted Image
Local beer, served with straw. Thankfully this was cold. Beer with ice more common in SE Asia than one would ever hope to see.

Stewed chicken over rice
Posted Image
Craving something a bit different we went with a vendor that specialized in Muslim food. I believe chicken and mutton were on offer. This was quite good but strangely seasoned to skew toward sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg. This was about $2.

Central World food court
Posted Image
Clearly much newer, brighter, and not even that much more expensive. A very nice food court. Immediately before the food court itself were both a sizable supermarket section and a collection of cold cases with high-end cheeses, meats, charcuterie, and some prepared foods.

Pork leg over rice
Posted Image
One of my favorite Thai dishes, this evokes one of my favorite Japanese dishes, buta no kakuni. Again the portion of meat is small, maybe an ounce of muscle and an ounce of fatty skin. Chopped, served with an egg, greens, and some rice. I love the sweet-salty flavor and the assortments of textures.

Siam Paragon food court
Posted Image
By far the most extensive, most crowded, and most impressive, this food court was really something. Bustling with people, the court is organized in a circular fashion around a dining area that must easily seat 1000. It's rather large. We also happened to be there when a special food expo was going on, featuring dishes presented in a street vendor-like fashion, only much cleaner. The quality of these items was really excellent, though a good deal pricier than what you'd pay of the street.

Khao soy
Posted Image
I love khao soy. There's something about the assortment of ingredients and curry-coconut broth that's rich yet not cloying that really works for me. This was an excellent version. About $3.

Sticky rice with mango
Posted Image
So simple but so good. The mangoes were excellent, not at all stringy. The crispy bits that sat atop the rice made the dish, however, adding a salty note that served as a great foil. This was also rather expensive at $3. Both the khao soy and mango were from the special expo section of vendors.

After a brief rest and some nice cocktails at the hotel we headed out to dinner. On this evening we'd be heading to Lek Seafood, a far more local-oriented restaurant that's also frequently recommended on blogs and other message boards.

Lek Seafood
Posted Image
As with many restaurants in SE Asia there were both air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned dining areas. We opted for the former. The kitchen here opens to the street.

Tom yum goong
Posted Image
More sour than spicy, though the heat level here wasn't too tame.

Deep-fried fermented pork ribs
Posted Image
Fermented pork products are far more common in SE Asia than I would've imagined. It seems that nearly all sausage is based around some kind of fermented pork. These had a bit of a tang but were otherwise inoffensive and quite tasty. Total beer food.

Stir-fried clams with basil and chile
Posted Image
Not familiar with this variety of clam but they were analogous to a littleneck, perhaps not as meaty. Thai brown sauces tend to be sweeter than their Chinese counterparts.

Stir-fried greens
Posted Image
I think this was some kind of squash blossom/shoot. I remember them having a distinct pumpkin note.

Grilled prawns with chile, mint, rice powder
Posted Image
This was a super interesting dish I became obsessed with. The salsa/dressing included chopped scallion, lemongrass, garlic, and various herbs. What made it standout, however, was the rice powder that lent a most delicious toasted, savory note. The prawns themselves were cooked to what I'd call medium-rare leaving the heads just a bit custardy. Quite the visceral dish.

Lek is a no-frills restaurant, even by Thai standards. You eat on thin metal tables, servers are brusque to say the least. Dishes aren't so much placed on the table as they are tossed--some sauce flew from plate to my foot as it made its way down to the tabletop. It's loud, harshly lit, but quite delicious. The prawn dish here was among the trip's most memorable.

After two full days in Bangkok we would leave the next morning to go to Krabi, a beach area on the Andaman sea.

Edited by BryanZ, 21 July 2009 - 02:04 PM.


#8 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 21 July 2009 - 05:43 PM

Krabi, Thailand

Considering the number of flights we had to catch in a short amount of time it's surprising we missed not a one. Though Air Asia would repeatedly delay and even cancel flights on us, we still got to where we needed to go with minimal drama. Perhaps my only regret is missing out on a meal in Chiang Mai due to flight delays, but as you'll see Krabi is not necessarily hard on the eyes.

So, Krabi, in the interest of disclosure the food here was certainly the weakest of the trip. That's not to say it was bad, just not up to standards of the rest of our destinations. On the whole I'd rate it at the level of solid Thai food you can get in any decent-sized city in the US. Somewhere between Sripraphai in Queens and your typical Pad Thai Satay Depot. Then again, we chose this area more for the beach than for the food so I'm not going to complain.

First, some eye candy.

Railay West
Posted Image
Posted Image

Hong Island
Posted Image

Tubkaek
Posted Image
The beach our hotel sat on, at low tide.

Beach food vendor
Posted Image
A bit of irony here. I wish the picture was clearer, but the image in the sign that strictly forbids beach vendors is a mirror image of the very beach vendor in this photo. We were quite amused.

In Krabi we stayed at the Amari Vogue, a very nice property located on the aforementioned Tubkaek Beach. The trade-off for being on such a peaceful, undeveloped beach was that we were nearly 30 minutes from the big tourist town of Ao Nang and 10 minutes from the closest small village. Eating options were therefore limited.

Welcome basket
Posted Image
The canapes were a bit dubious, something about smoked salmon and prosciutto, well, didn't quite jive with me. The humidity also didn't do the bread or bread sticks any favors. I include this picture, however, to point out the mangosteens in the fruit basket, the dark fruit at the front. This trip greatly expanded my knowledge of tropical fruits. Besides new forms of lychee, I also spent a good bit of time becoming acquainted with said mangosteen, dragonfruit, rambutan, and a few others.

Happy hour cocktails
Posted Image
The hotel actually had a pretty decent cocktail program. Besides the assortment of overly sweet tropical drinks were a collection of decently made classic cocktails. If only they used harder, bigger ice. The vibrant quality of the fruit and mint helped to elevate the drinks.

Assortment of resort Thai food
Posted Image
Posted Image
Posted Image
Posted Image
I include these images not because they're particularly exciting but because, to me, they look more like Thai food in the States. Portions are bigger, there's more protein, more nonfunctional garnish. Still, this food was well-prepared and not all that expensive by resort standards. Each dish was maybe $6-8. I particularly liked the crispy pork belly dish with bitter greens. We also sampled the hotel's special dinner buffet one night and generally enjoyed it. While it was far from the best buffet I've ever enjoyed, it was useful to be able to sample a variety of competently prepared Thai dishes. As might be expected, the cold salads and made-to-order satay and noodle soup stations provided the best offerings.

A hamburger may have been ordered...
Posted Image
But a fine, if unique, specimen it was. It featured mozzarella cheese, a fried egg, and bacon.

Other meals and dishes--fried fish, prawns, various stir-fries--were consumed over the three days we stayed in Krabi, though nothing all that exciting worth posting here. For those curious, we had totally decent and cheap meals at Ao Nang Cuisine in Ao Nang and The Terrace in Klong Muang.

One dish I would like to call attention to is Yum Makeua Yao, grilled eggplant salad. I think I've had this grilled salad before, but in Thailand the dish is so much more intense. I'm not sure if it's the eggplant itself or the grilling, but the couple times I had the dish were exemplary.

Yum Makeua Yao with shrimp
Posted Image
The intense smokiness is what makes the dish distinctive.

Krabi was beautiful and less developed than what we'd heard of Phuket, the other destination we considered. Despite it being monsoon season we only dealt with passing rain storms in the afternoon, never more than an hour. We were somewhat delayed out of Krabi, thereby necessitating a meal in Suvarnabhumi Airport instead of in Chiang Mai as we had planned.

Edited by BryanZ, 21 July 2009 - 05:45 PM.


#9 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 21 July 2009 - 07:14 PM

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Bangkok's international airport is the incredibly modern (and difficult to pronounce) Suvarnabhumi Int'l. We spent a good deal of time here, waiting for connecting flights to ferry us across the country and into Vietnam. Unfortunately it's contender to take the title in The Airport Food Showdown left something to be desired.

We chose the most crowded airport cafe in the food court and arrived at mixed results. The simpler, traditional Thai items were actually quite good. Fried chicken wings with lemongrass, a tom yum noodle soup with prawns, both these items were enjoyable. A bit more dubious was the roasted chicken, which was more braised in a Western-style brown gravy that somehow tasted quite Thai, probably due to the sugar and white pepper we detected. Worse were the steamed shrimp dumplings. Perhaps dim sum was not a wise choice; I resisted ordering them myself.

The most memorable dish, however, was one of the desserts, durian in coconut soup. I'm a big fan of the warm coconut soup with purple starch cubes that is found in more authentic Thai restaurants in the US. In fact, we ordered one of these at this cafe and quite enjoyed it. And although I believe I've had desserts with durian flavoring, this was actually my first exposure to the fruit in its unadulterated state. It really does smell something like a rotting diaper perfumed with a custardy sweetness. In the mouth it really is quite custardy and nice. I actually enjoyed the flavor quite a bit. Burping up durian, however, is a bit unsettling.

Durian with coconut soup
Posted Image

After finally arriving in Chiang Mai after midnight we went straight to bed. As we'd only have one full day in Chiang Mai, the next morning would take us to Doi Suthep, a famous temple at the top of a mountain that rises above the city.

Doi Suthep
Posted Image
In contrast to the bold, near garishness of the Bangkok's temples this mountaintop, draped in mist, had a more spiritual aura.

Climbing up and down the few hundred steps from taxi drop-off spot to temple surely necessitated a snack.

Fried bananas
Posted Image
A bit heavy, but addictive. A lightly sweetened batter, warm from the frying oil.

Even spending the briefest time in these two largest Thai cities it was impossible not to notice the huge differences between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Perhaps our taxi driver in Bangkok who told us of Chiang Mai, "That's not Thailand!" should've resonated more deeply. We were well aware of the political instability in Thailand in the months and weeks leading up to our trip but seeing the difference between the northern and southern regions of the country was illuminating. Bangkok is a developed city; Chiang Mai's agrarian roots have hardly been shrouded by modernity. As my mother remarked, Chiang Mai today looks like any one of Japan's smaller, agrarian cities 40 years ago.

Despite the city's seeming smallness, it still gave us perhaps the surprise meal of the trip. I had read good things about lunch at Huen Phen in various outlets, but the unassuming restaurant still managed to over-deliver. In a lunch in which we sampled seven dishes, we spent a whopping $3 per person! This was staggeringly good value in an area of the world where cheap food is the norm rather than the exception.

I wish I had taken notes with this meal, as we had the waitress effectively choose dishes for us. Oh well.

Khao soy
Posted Image
A very solid rendition, for less than $1.

Khanom jeen
Posted Image
Although less famous than khao soy, this is another very popular northern Thai dish. A coconut milk-free broth. The meat in this was so tender and nice.

Deep-fried pork chop
Posted Image
The blanched okra was an interesting textural contrast with the crispy pork. I think this pork was lightly fermented, too.

Red curry
Posted Image

Grilled eggplant salad
Posted Image
A more sparse version of the eggplant salad we all quickly came to love. Need to make this at home. The mint added an interesting herbal note to go with the bittersweet eggplant.

Pork rind salad
Posted Image
Ridiculously porky. Some would probably find this offensive but I liked the cool vegetables and crispy pork rinds. Not something you'd find in the US very often.

Another type of curry
Posted Image
I can't seem to remember this dish. As you can see there were many red curries that were similar but also quite different.

Our server here was super friendly and accommodating. And, again, we were shocked at just how low the bill ended up being. Supposedly the restaurant becomes more touristy at dinner, but at lunch it was just locals.

Edited by BryanZ, 21 July 2009 - 07:58 PM.


#10 Kent Wang

Kent Wang
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 2,383 posts
  • Location:London

Posted 21 July 2009 - 08:19 PM

Great stuff, Brian.

How did you find where to eat? You mentioned you looked at some blogs?

#11 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 21 July 2009 - 11:04 PM

How did you find where to eat? You mentioned you looked at some blogs?

View Post


Besides the many logistical issues in planning this trip, deciding where to eat was a new type of challenge. Unfortunately there's no Michelin guide to help steer the clueless food traveler, nor are there celebrity chefs or wine growing regions or famous specialty shops that receive international press. I guess the closest thing to any of that would be Bourdain's travels, which we did rely on from time to time.

While guidebooks provide some insight, they too are prone to many omissions. While Frommer's might feature a streetside restaurant find that's actually quite good, it's more likely to send travelers to an overpriced tourist trap, a fate we try to avoid where possible.

To be honest, Chowhound is actually pretty decent for Asia eating recommendations. Singling out the posters who know what they're talking about is always a bit of a challenge, but once I've got find a few seemingly savvy people recommending the same places that's enough for me.

And while I'm on the subject I may as well go through the blog roll now and thank those folks out there who document their eating adventures so that others, with less time to explore, can follow in their footsteps. This list is by no means complete but includes some of the cooler, more useful blogs complete with maps, addresses, etc. It should definitely help anyone wanting to plan a similar trip.

Thailand - ImportFood.com, Austin Bush Foodblog
Vietnam - Gastronomy (so helpful), Savour Asia
Singapore - I Eat, I Shoot, I Post, Makansutra
Tokyo - Tabelog (Japanese only, translated by my mother when needed)

Edited by BryanZ, 21 July 2009 - 11:14 PM.


#12 prasantrin

prasantrin
  • legacy participant
  • 5,468 posts

Posted 22 July 2009 - 05:25 AM

I guessed you missed the "No photos" sign at Central Food Court. :laugh:

I think most of the big malls in BKK forbid photos, primarily because of the internal terrorist acts. But I often sneak them in. I'm only taking pictures of food, after all!

For Singapore I'd also recommend Chubby Hubby (though he mostly does high-end French or the like, so it's not as helpful with "local" cuisine), and Travelling Hungry Boy.

#13 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 22 July 2009 - 09:55 AM

Chiang Mai, Thailand, cont'd.

Clearly a large lunch would not be enough food, so we continued walking through the Old City, exiting through the famous Tha Pae Gate, and had a snack at the open-air restaurant Aroon Rai's.

I'd heard a great deal about this restaurant, mostly good, so I thought a stop wise. We had just one dish, a dessert, and some drinks. As I mentioned, fermented pork products are quite common in SE Asia. Northern Thailand is especially known for its fermented pork sausages. Between the lactic acid that builds up in the meat itself and the sour flavoring agents you have quite a distinctive product.

Original Aroon Rai's
Posted Image
As at Huen Phen there's a lunch counter of prepared items and a kitchen in the back.

Fermented sausage, egg, vegetables
Posted Image
My closest reference point to this would be something like a Thai breakfast dish. You've got your egg, your sausage, omelet-like fillings, all with a serious Thai bent. This was actually pretty good and totally unlike typical Thai food.

Mango with sticky rice
Posted Image
A good rendition, though not as nice as the one at the Siam Paragon. This lacked the crispy bits that defined the previous dish. Still, this was a good bit cheaper at about $2.

We retired to our Lanna-chic accommodations at the Manathai Village hotel before setting out again for Chiang Mai's famous Night Bazaar. This entire thing is clealry aimed at tourists, but it's worth it to spend 45 minutes just walking through and taking it all in. Vendors in temporary stalls line the streets for blocks selling all kinds of merchandise. I'm not one for trinkets or knockoffs so I wasn't wont to buy much, but snacks were certainly procured.

As my mother and sister explore one of the indoor areas--there are a few covered shopping centers with booths in addition to the street stall vendors--I visited the main food area, Kalare Food Court. As I didn't have the camera I didn't get a picture of the pork leg over rice. Though eggless, this dish was less than $2 and quite delicious.

Walking east from the southern end of the night market, along the Anusan food street, we passed a roti cart. I'd seen these carts here and there but had yet to stop at one. This woman also seemed particularly adept at stretching the dough. That or she put on a good show.

Roti being stretched
Posted Image
The motion is quite cool, very rhythmic.

Cooking
Posted Image
The dough is fried in oil, filled with a cracked egg and sliced banana, then folded. The whole thing is then drizzled with what I think is sweetened condensed milk.

Plated
Posted Image
For just under a dollar this was a sizable snack. Sweet but also eggy and savory, too. We were big fans.

A couple blocks away was our dinner destination, Just Khao Soy. While not screamingly authentic, the quality of the product was very good. And although it charges three-times the going rate for a bowl of noodles, that still puts one order at around $3. Not exactly budget-busting. This place has a solid reputation among food travelers, but I can also see why it's not frequented by the locals. First, they presumably only make khao soy, rendering the menu effectively as limited as a street vendor's. Also, there's the issue of price. And while the restaurant is large and comfortable, it's rather out of the way. As a result, we were literally the only patrons in the restaurant. It was a bit unsettling but the khao soy was very good. My only complaint, not blow-me-away spicy.

The Just Khao Soy story
Posted Image
Good for a laugh if you've got a few minutes. A slightly different, but similarly hilarious, take can be read on their website.

Before our khao soy, we ordered more fermented pork sausage. Due to camera issues, I don't have a picture. Sorry. It was tasty, just strangely dry if eaten without the green garnishes provided.

Khao soy
Posted Image
Served on an artist's palette for the diner to add garnishes as she chooses. There's shallot, lime, sambal, fish sauce, coconut milk, banana, and sugar. Various meats are offered. We chose the wild chicken (like poussin), chicken drumstick, and pork, I believe. The poussin was my favorite.

The next morning we headed to Chiang Mai's largest market, Wororot. Of all the Thai market areas we visited this was actually the most intense. Half is set on the street while half sits beneath a dim permanent shelter whose busy access points are nothing but small passageways between various vendors' wares. Unfortunately the busyness of it all and camera issues prevented many pictures from being taken, but I'll look around and see what I can find. Although the scale of Vietnam's markets was certainly larger, this one perhaps felt the most SE Asian. I prefer the open-air market streets and the relative cleanliness of the likes of Aw Taw Kaw, but this had a rawness that was in some ways more memorable even if we spent but a few minutes walking through it all.

If asked to choose between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I'd probably choose the former, but with caveats. For those averse to big city bustle Bangkok will probably come across as too large and stressful. That the touts are more aggressive and seemingly disingenuous is another mark against Thailand's biggest city. And there's the whole sex tourism thing that really skeeves people out. Still, I think its very brashness is what made it more memorable for me. Chiang Mai feels like an older, sleepy city, with all the benefits and drawbacks that that label entails.

After our market stop it was off to Vietnam, where even more delicious food was sure to be found.

Edited by BryanZ, 22 July 2009 - 09:59 AM.


#14 Eatmywords

Eatmywords
  • participating member
  • 492 posts
  • Location:Hells Kitchen, NY

Posted 22 July 2009 - 11:15 AM

Brilliant. Such attn to detail. You really take us there. Can’t wait for more.
That wasn't chicken

#15 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 22 July 2009 - 12:05 PM

Bangkok & Chiang Mai, Thailand, reprise

Digging deep into my iPhoto library I unearthed a couple more pictures that I'm including for the sake of completeness. Unfortunately I can't edit the original posts themselves as it seems that window of time has closed.

The "street vendor" area in the Siam Paragon Food court
Posted Image

Fermented pork sausage at Just Khao Soy
Posted Image

Warorot Market
Posted Image
Fine, it's not the most authentic shot. Waffles anyone? But it's what we got. If you look past those waffles, you get an sense for how long and dim the whole place is.

#16 kathryn

kathryn
  • participating member
  • 716 posts
  • Location:New York, NY

Posted 22 July 2009 - 01:42 PM

So here's where things get tricky.  What does one call street food eaten in the morning after breakfast.  A snack? I guess, but these were proper dishes you might order off a menu in the States. Brunch? Lacking the requisite mimosas, so, umm, no.  Indeed, traveling is hard.

View Post


Elevensies?

After a morning spent sampling Thai cuisine in rather authentic surroundings, our next stop would be the malls of downtown Bangkok, both low- and high-end. This would be our first exposure to the glories of the Asian mall food court. We need food courts like this in the States.


You mean like the Flushing Mall in Queens? :)
"I'll put anything in my mouth twice." -- Ulterior Epicure

#17 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 22 July 2009 - 02:55 PM

After a morning spent sampling Thai cuisine in rather authentic surroundings, our next stop would be the malls of downtown Bangkok, both low- and high-end. This would be our first exposure to the glories of the Asian mall food court. We need food courts like this in the States.


You mean like the Flushing Mall in Queens? :)

View Post


Haven't been out there. Should probably make a visit. The closest experience I'd had before this trip was some of the Asian malls I've been to in Toronto and Vancouver. Then there's the little food court in the Mitsuwa, which is sort of similar but really not.

#18 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 22 July 2009 - 04:06 PM

Halong Bay, Vietnam

Again, a late arrival necessitated some creative dinner strategies. But before we get to midnight pho, a little Vietnam anecdote. Upon arriving in Hanoi we dealt with the typical taxi hassles. Whatever. What was most notable about the ride was the honking. One reads about this, but literally anytime our taxi driver passed anyone he would honk. Even by Vietnamese standards our first driver was rather honk-happy, but it was a fitting welcome to this most fascinating country. Upon arriving at the intersection nearest to our hotel our driver mistakenly turns the wrong way. Rather than circling the block upon realizing the error he backs up down this one-way street. And rather than K-turn at the aforementioned intersection he simply backs right through it. No traffic lights or stop signs for that matter, just a busy uncontrolled four-way intersection, done in reverse.

After checking into our rather cheap hotel--$45 for the night in a triple room--in the Old Quarter I went out to find dinner. The gentleman at the reception desk steered me to an area a few blocks away that might have a few street vendors still open at this late hour. And on his advice I sat--though crouched is more accurate--to the quintessential bowl of Vietnamese pho, served on the sidewalk, on a mini plastic table with even mini-er plastic stools. I'm not a huge guy, but I feared for the seat's future.

Pho
Posted Image
This cost just over a dollar and was quite fortifying. Certainly not the best pho I've had, but there was something about sitting on the little stool, a stone's throw from the cockroach the size of a small mouse that felt so very Vietnamese. The pho marm in this instance refrained from giving me the raw minced meat that had presumably been sitting out in the heat all afternoon and evening without any ice or refrigeration. I can't say I was that upset given the circumstances.

We would be spending more time in Hanoi later on, but this first night was just a layover before a cruise in Halong Bay. Early the next morning we departed with Columbus Cruises to meet up with our noble junk, the Nina Cruiser. Rather than opting for a larger junk cruise ship, we chartered the Nina and her crew for ourselves. The boat is a little rough around the edges but still quite nice by Halong Bay standards. The two day trip cost $150/person plus bank service fees and all that, making it very expensive for Vietnam, but this was still less than the tariff charged by many of the luxury junks.

The Nina Cruiser
Posted Image
We were greeted with a warm bottle of French sparkling wine. Classy.

The quintessential Halong Bay shot
Posted Image
Taken at Surprise Cave, one of the stops on our cruise.

One of the most interesting parts of the tour was a visit to a floating fishing village. Today, most of the inhabitants raise fish in small netted farms located next to their homes. These people live on the water, two hours from the mainland. It sounds like quite the difficult life, yet they somehow make due. There's even a floating school and floating bars with karaoke. On a more somber note, however, these people's wages are something like $20 per month or something absurd like that.

Fishing village
Posted Image
Posted Image

The food on the cruise was actually better than I expected given the conditions. Some of it was quite good. If anything they overfed us--something like seven to nine different dishes at a given meal--which led to a bit of monotony. Here's just a small sample of what we ate in Halong Bay.

Fried shrimp and cha gio
Posted Image

Chicken breast and squid
Posted Image

Clams
Posted Image

Fried fish with tomato and dill
Posted Image

Halong Bay is a beautiful and mysterious place. While we preferred Krabi overall, there's something so grand about the bay with its 3000 islands. We kayaked into some secluded caves and saw monkeys up in the cliffs. Truly, the other side of the world. With that said, in so beautiful a place it's difficult to ignore the pollution that mars the more trafficked part of the bay. As the bay is so sheltered from wave or tidal action, plastic bags, sandals, and styrofoam collect in certain beach and cove areas.

#19 Irishgirl

Irishgirl
  • participating member
  • 341 posts
  • Location:Vancouver

Posted 22 July 2009 - 04:53 PM

I really miss Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I would say that I like Chiang Mai better. We found much better food there, and the cultural feel there was far more apparent. I found some fabulous art at the night market both times that we were in Chiang Mai. And not your regular garish painted knockoff crap. So much to be seen at that nightmarket!

That said, the food courts of Bangkok are amazing. Siam Paragon is vast! I had some of my best food in Bangkok there. I wish our food courts had food like that!

I also find that the food in the beachy resort areas to be not so nice. We were in Phuket, and the food sucked. It could have been just the beach that we were at, but all of the restaurants were catering to the European palate. So there was an Italian place, and a German place and a French place and it just went on and on like that. And none of the food was anywhere near good quality, but I guess it was supposed to provide something familiar for the tourists. Very little Thai food, and what there was, was not great. However, we did make it to a Muslim fishing village, and the food there was tremendous! I guess you have to seek out the good stuff. We had a better time on Koh Chang.

Would love to compare photos sometime.

#20 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 22 July 2009 - 09:35 PM

Hanoi, Vietnam

After returning from Halong Bay we checked into our new hotel in Hanoi's Old Quarter, the Hanoi Elegance 4. I really enjoyed this property and its location in the thick of it all.

Everything about the Old Quarter, Hanoi, and northern Vietnam in general feels so completely Vietnamese. It's at once dirty, untouched, busy, and serene. Amidst the roar of literally thousands of motorbikes one finds a lone woman walking complete with conical hat, carrying a load of produce over shoulder. In front of ugly, unfinished concrete buildings ones sees rice paddies with roaming cows and ducks.

This was the vista from our room. Not exactly pretty but, again, so Vietnam.
Posted Image
Compare that to this stylistically similar shot over Arles in Provence, France from last summer and you get an even stronger sense as to just how different Hanoi really is.

Our first real meal in Hanoi was at a branch of the famous Highway 4 family of restaurants. Here, one dines, somewhat uncomfortably, sitting on the floor of these wooden booth things. It's like a tatami room, outside, and not as forgiving on the knees. Although this restaurant is mentioned in every guidebook and most every blog, we actually came across more than few young locals dining here, too. Don't get me wrong, this is a tourist restaurant and is quite expensive by Vietnamese standards, but it did seem to have some local panache, too.

The restaurant is most famous for its infused liquors. Insects, lizards, various woods and herbs, etc. I wasn't so much feeling hard liquor in the heat, so I stuck to beer. Missed opportunity, I suppose.

Catfish rolls
Posted Image
A signature dish here and a cool one at that. Fried fish nuggets and topped with herbs and mayonnaise then wrapped in rice paper. The effect is crispy, crunchy, warm, cool, and creamy all at once. Objectively, the dish was too heavy on the mayonnaise, but still very enjoyable.

Banana flower salad with dried beef
Posted Image
Cool, crunchy, chewy, a bit sour. Clearly textures are a focus here. Now that we'd been exposed to this ingredient a couple of times, some research was clearly in order. More information, here.

Deep fried pork ribs with crispy lemongrass
Posted Image
This was my least favorite appetizer, as it was a bit bland. Frying the lemongrass added texture but took away from its vibrancy. I wish the marinade on the ribs themselves had more lemongrass flavor.

For our main course we decided to try something very north Vietnamese, if not particularly seasonally appropriate. Vietnamese hot pot is called lau, and the style of broth served here is at once sour yet deeply savory. There also seemed to be some French influence evident as the broth included both tomatoes and fennel.

Raw materials
Posted Image
There was chicken, beef, fish, tofu, tofu skin, and probably a couple of things I'm forgetting.

The noodles and veg
Posted Image
The amount of vegetables served with this dish was just absurd. A full cafeteria tray piled high with all kinds of greens. There was probably a pound noodles, too.

Lẩu canh chua
Posted Image
Although it was all a bit warm overall we really liked this dish. Hot pot is always satisfying, but the broth here and diversity of ingredients made for a memorable dish. And while the broth was good to begin with, it was excellent by the end of the meal.

Highway 4 is a festive place and offers a somewhat Disneyified look into northern Vietnamese food. I would go back but would probably sit in the air-conditioned building next door. I think we spent maybe $9 per person, probably less.

Full of warm broth and beer we retired back to our hotel. The next day would bring a street food extravaganza.

Edited by BryanZ, 22 July 2009 - 09:45 PM.


#21 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 23 July 2009 - 01:01 PM

Hanoi, Vietnam, cont'd.

The most interesting thing about Hanoi is just how raw it feels. The Old Quarter is nothing but narrow streets and alleys with stores and street vendors and grime and chaotic energy. When one compares this part of Hanoi to the somber, sprawling spaces that surround Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum just a few minutes' taxi ride away, it feels not like a different city but an entirely different country. Besides the few famous cultural diversions like said mausoleum, the Temple of Literature, and Hoan Kiem Lake, visitors are probably best served exploring the city's street food culture. In Thailand street food was concentrated around market areas. In Hanoi one can hardly walk a block without passing by a few street vendors or small open-air restaurants that spill onto the street.

In this food pursuit, the Gastronomy blog was incredibly helpful. Its top 10 list had far more great finds than duds.

One of Hanoi's most famous pho shops is Gia Truyen, located at 49 Bat Dan. There's no chicken pho here. This was undoubtedly the best pho we'd have during our time in Vietnam and, by extension, the best pho I've had, period. In the US I find most pho broths to be over-sweet and over-spiced. I love me some pho, but a broth that tastes more of MSG, sugar, and anise isn't necessarily what I'm after. Across Vietnam, and especially here, the broth was fundamentally beefy and rich.

Pho with crullers
Posted Image
Delicious. The cooked meat sits out in various piles and on various hooks. It's sliced to order. This is not a cheap bowl of noodles, however. With the crullers we paid closer to $3 than $2, or probably twice the standard tariff. The crullers themselves were new to me, and I see the appeal. A bit of chewy, doughy crunch to go with the soft meat and unctuous broth.

In search of banh mi we walked into the relatively famous Nguyen Sinh, a little hole of a French restaurant at 17 Ly Quoc. Upon sitting down in the restaurant we soon learned that banh mi were only for take-away. A new strategy was then deployed at the advice of our server. We would order the house charcuterie plate, allowing us to sample more items, with baguette. I also got a glass of wine, my only one in SE Asia, because it felt oh-so-very French.

Charcuterie
Posted Image
This was a really, really good charcuterie plate. Like, I'd pay $14 for this in NYC. Needless to say it was much less than that. Like 1/3 of that, or something. The bread in Vietnam is really quite the enigma. It's informed by a proper French baguette but clearly isn't. It's much, much lighter, yet still manages to have some chew. It's soft yet its crust is distinctly crisp. We became quick fans and found it addicting in a sense.

Our next stop was just down the street, a fried foods shop without at a name at 52 Ly Quoc. The nice thing about the Old Quarter is that you can walk through the whole area in a day.

A setup typical of the typical street-side restaurants
Posted Image
Notice the nearly adult-sized tables. A classy spot.

Fried wares on display
Posted Image

Banh goi
Posted Image
I like to call these Vietnamese empanadas. The concept and shape are identical. The fillings were those you'd find in cha gio, but the thicker skin in this case was really quite delicious. This little baby was excellent and cost less than $.30.

Our next stops did not go quite as well. Little did we know that between lunch and dinner restaurants shut down. Can't say I expected a break in between services, but we were shut out of a couple places that we'd wanted to try.

Alas, we soldiered on. I should note it was pouring rain.

Cha ca is a very famous Hanoian dish that we had to try. The most storied location is La Vong, or somesuch, but we decided to buck the trend and with the Gastronomy recommendation. They'd not steered us wrong yet--well besides not warning us about midday closures--so we made our way to Cha Ca Thanh Long at 31 Duong Thanh.

Cha ca involves fish, dusted with tumeric, cooked tableside, with dill and greens. This mixture is then set atop vermicelli noodles, which are then topped with peanuts, coriander and scallion. The restaurant only serves this one dish, as we learned when we gestured for a menu and were able to put together that their wasn't one after but a few seconds.

Cha ca, cooking
Posted Image
It's quite the aromatic dish.

Cha ca, plated
Posted Image
So fresh, so good. The spices, greens, and herb really work here. If anything the dish is a bit dry; I might've liked some nuoc cham, which I don't believe was provided. Still, a really interesting dish I'd happily eat again and again. This was a very expensive dish, however, at $7 per portion.

But the pinnacle of our afternoon of excessive eating was to be our last stop. Bun cha is a dish that even most casual eaters of Vietnamese cooking are familiar with, as its nearly as common as pho or cha gio. The version we had at Bun Cha Nem Cua Be Dac Kim at 67 Duong Thanh, however, was superlative. The portion is huge, too, and could certainly serve two people for lunch with a couple spring rolls.

The kitchen
Posted Image
See those laundry baskets of greens at the back left? Each diner is given a huge plate of them to eat with her bun cha from the baskets. Where do the uneaten greens go? You guessed it, back in the baskets. Oh, Vietnam.

Bun cha, lawn trimmings, nem cua be
Posted Image
Freaking awesome. The charcoal flavor made its way well into the meatballs and the thinner strips of pork. The broth was balanced and added umami and sweetness all at once. The restaurant makes a solid crab-pork spring roll, too, known as nem cua be. Bun cha and spring roll, $2 and change.

This street food adventure was undertaken with my sister as my mother worked in the hotel. Not the biggest fan of street food, my mother went here later and agreed that it was the best thing we ate in Hanoi, restaurant or otherwise.

Edited by BryanZ, 23 July 2009 - 01:08 PM.


#22 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 23 July 2009 - 01:50 PM

Hanoi, Vietnam, cont'd.

Sparrows are ubiquitous in Vietnam.
Posted Image
Like a finch, just not as cute.

Ubiquitous indeed.
Posted Image
Pets? Or...

Where was I?

Ah, yes, for dinner that same evening we decided to go to Quon An Ngon, a restaurant concept that's quite evocative of the new Vietnam. A smart fellow adopted the food court/hawker center model and applied it to Vietnam's street food vendors. The first Quon An Ngon was actually in Saigon but has now been built into a mini empire with regional differences. The premise is that each stall offers its specialty but the food is delivered by waiters to guests sitting at normal-sized tables in a clean, festive setting. A great way to try many items if you're not brave enough to, as they say, take it to the streets.

The food stalls surround the huge dining area.
Posted Image

Dining room
Posted Image
There's also a building with a couple small floors of dining rooms not seen here. This is a big place.

Many dishes were ordered.

Cha gio
Posted Image
I believe these were standard issue, with no special fillings, possibly some pork.

Goi cuon
Posted Image
Salad rolls, summer rolls, whatever you want to call them. A solid rendition.

So many wrapped items
Posted Image
In the foreground, rice noodles wrapped around shrimp and pork, I think. In the back left, wrapped pho, or rice noodles wrapped around braised beef and herbs. I prefer these to goi cuon generally.

Trotter noodle soup
Posted Image
A funky, cartilagey noodle soup that I quite liked. Not sure what the distinctive flavor came from, but it wasn't tame. The chopped trotter required some gnawing. Not for the faint of heart.

Dried beef salad
Posted Image
I love the usage of dried meat products in Asian salads.

Grilled blood cockles
Posted Image
Some oysters have a certain minerality to them. These were like that, a far cry from a meaty, sweet littleneck clam. I'm sure the straight grilling added to this earthy taste. Interesting, though I liked them more than my family.

Another innocent looking salad?
Posted Image
Why, what is that pointy, bony looking thing at the bottom of the plate? It looks like a wing.

Ah, yes, the chopped corpses of these little guys.
Posted Image
It's like a sparrow graveyard up in here. So, honestly, the flavor of these was pretty good, like a gamey, five spice-rubbed bird jerky. Feeling the very skeleton of the whole bird crunch in my mouth, however, was not all that pleasant. Add to that some whole heads, complete with beak mind you, and yeah, it was a lot. Only a few bites were managed. It was a novelty.

All this food and a couple beers was something absurdly cheap like less than $8 per person.

And with that grisly final image we left Hanoi early the next morning and set off to Saigon. Much like Chiang Mai's entry into The Airport Food Showdown, there's hardly anything to say. I had an early morning banh mi that was totally serviceable. Can't complain, but not a serious contender to Tokyo's udon entry. Still, I'd take any of said offerings over a dry sandwich or soggy yogurt parfait.

Edited by BryanZ, 23 July 2009 - 01:52 PM.


#23 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 23 July 2009 - 02:01 PM

I really miss Bangkok and Chiang Mai.  I would say that I like Chiang Mai better.  We found much better food there, and the cultural feel there was far more apparent.  I found some fabulous art at the night market both times that we were in Chiang Mai.  And not your regular garish painted knockoff crap.  So much to be seen at that nightmarket!

View Post


I've been thinking about this post, and now that I've relived more of my time in Vietnam I think I can answer why I wasn't as moved by Chiang Mai. To me Chiang Mai occupies a middle ground. It certainly can't compete on big city excitement with Bangkok or Saigon, much less Singapore or Tokyo. And yet if you're looking for the quintessential, raw SE Asian urban experience Hanoi is hard to beat. Chiang Mai has a certain peacefulness about it, and that is appealing, don't get me wrong. It just lacked some of the distinctiveness that the other cities on our trip had in spades.

#24 docsconz

docsconz
  • eGullet Society staff emeritus
  • 9,806 posts
  • Location:Upstate NY

Posted 23 July 2009 - 02:31 PM

Outstanding as always, Bryan. Thanks!
John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."
- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

#25 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 23 July 2009 - 03:26 PM

Saigon, Vietnam

Welcome to Saigon. Try not to be run over by a bike, or dozens of bikes, or hundreds of bikes.

A typical intersection
Posted Image

Even the sidewalks aren't safe. A closed down part of the road just means the bikes invade the sidewalk.
Posted Image
These things are going by at easily 20 mph. We literally had to huddle behind a street sign to avoid the melee.

We arrived in Saigon in the later part of the morning and wanted a quick meal. The perfect excuse for more pho, though this time at Pho 24. I'd intended on trying out a chain pho shop like this one to see where it ranked overall. These Pho 24 shops are quite common throughout the city. It's better than, say, your typical pho vendor on every other block, but not nearly as good as the likes of Gia Truyen.

Beef pho with everything
Posted Image
A little bit of everything here, as is most common. Raw beef, braised brisket, tendon, tripe. The broth itself was good as was the meat, but the vegetable garnish was a bit meager, especially considering the bushels of greenery we'd been getting elsewhere.

Chicken pho
Posted Image
My mother prefer this. I'm not sure why. A side of beef broth soup with the creepy, squeaky meatballs that are something of an acquired taste.

Com tam with pork chop and pork skin
Posted Image
The pork skin here wasn't that strange. I would soon have a much skin-ier version, but that's later. This was solid.

Breakfast done and done. A few dollars each probably, no big.

Saigon's District 1 is really quite comfortable. Wide streets, pretty buildings old and new. Honestly, it feels a lot like downtown NYC with all the boutiques and shops and a hint of European flair. We stayed in the Park Hyatt, directly next to the Opera House. It's a beautiful hotel that I highly recommend. After being in Hanoi it was like night and day. Guests will surely face sticker shock, however, upon seeing the prices. $5-6 for a beer? Outrageous! Actually not bad at all in a luxury hotel--in Japan the same beer would be $10--but SE Asia does that to you.

After breakfast we set off on a walking tour of the area, ending up at Ben Thanh Market, Saigon's most famous, if not its most local.

The typical market vendor
Posted Image
Dried fish and shrimp, various spices. Cell phone, barefoot. Yep, that's about right.

Ben Thanh is heavily geared toward tourists. The exterior shopping areas sell knockoff merchandise and souvenirs and gaudy "Vietnamese" robes. The food court area has more than a few gentleman who not so subtly try to get passing tourists to eat at their respective stalls. This would not be the case at the much more local Binh Tay Market in Saigon's Chinatown.

A snack was surely in order amidst all this abundance.

Foodstuffs on display
Posted Image

Salad rolls
Posted Image
Perhaps we were hungrier, but these were better than those at Quan An Ngon.

Pork skewers
Posted Image
Salty, a bit sweet, tender, charred. What more could you want? The Limoges bone china just adds to the elegance.

Sated for next 15 or so minutes, I pressed on.

As my family retired back to the hotel, I had one more stop to make in this continuous, extended meal that somehow began as breakfast and morphed into a late lunch.

Com Tam Moc is a sleek little chain of broken rice eateries. If I'm being honest, I can't really tell the difference between broken rice and normal rice. But I don't know much of anything.

Storefront
Posted Image
A step up from the steet eats in Hanoi, at least on the decor front.

Each meal comes with tortilla soup
Posted Image
Clearly, that's what this was. All I needed was some crema and fried corn tortillas and I'd be set. Seriously, the taste was identical, veggies, garlic, cumin, and all.

Com tam with mixed pork
Posted Image
This place really only does one thing, pork with rice, but it's quite good. The pork chop was a solid specimen but nothing new. The pork loaf thing was really cool, like a super light terrine. The pork skin was not so much up my alley. While Pho 24's version tasted like pork and was just a bit chewy, in a good way, this was, I'm guessing, more authentic. It was as if they took skin, and made floss out of it. The flavor was also overwhelmingly porky, and coming from me that's saying a lot. The only part of the plate I didn't finish.

Edited by BryanZ, 23 July 2009 - 03:27 PM.


#26 Peter the eater

Peter the eater
  • participating member
  • 2,610 posts
  • Location:Halifax, Nova Scotia

Posted 23 July 2009 - 05:17 PM

Great stuff, Bryan. I'm still stuck on those sparrows. I'm totally on board with the control/enjoyment of small birds, I just can't bring myself to preparing them complete with skeletons and beaks, etc.

Seriously, somebody should design the equivalent of a juicer for small birds.
Peter Gamble aka "Peter the eater"

I just made a cornish game hen with chestnut stuffing. . .
Would you believe a pigeon stuffed with spam? . . .
Would you believe a rat filled with cough drops?

Moe Sizlack

#27 BryanZ

BryanZ
  • participating member
  • 2,700 posts
  • Location:NJ,NYC,NC

Posted 23 July 2009 - 06:15 PM

Seriously, somebody should design the equivalent of a juicer for small birds.

View Post


This duck press at Daniel comes close.

#28 Abra

Abra
  • participating member
  • 3,186 posts
  • Location:Bainbridge Island, WA

Posted 23 July 2009 - 09:11 PM

I'm curious about how you managed to order, since it sounds like you don't speak either Thai or Vietnamese. Do street vendors know any English? Does everybody recognize you right away as American, or where to they think you're from?

#29 Margo

Margo
  • participating member
  • 242 posts
  • Location:Allentown, Pennsylvania

Posted 24 July 2009 - 08:10 AM

It's only a slight exaggeration to say that I live for your travel blogs, Bryan. Thanks so much for putting this together. You have a great "voice" that comes across so well.
Margo Thompson
Allentown, PA

You're my little potato, you're my little potato,
You're my little potato, they dug you up!
You come from underground!
-Malcolm Dalglish

#30 liamsaunt

liamsaunt
  • participating member
  • 113 posts

Posted 24 July 2009 - 09:27 AM

Bryan, I always really enjoy reading your detailed and informative reports. Thank you.





Also tagged with one or more of these keywords: Asian