I WAS CHILLING AT THE IRISH BAR AT THE FAR WESTERN END OF BUI VIEN STREET ONE EVENING AT THE END OF LAST YEAR. The young ladies who work at the Irish bar are well cute, and I was chatting with them on the streetfront, when I noticed the motorbike delivery dude dodging through the traffic. The logo on his bike read "PHD", but the font made me think it was in fact phở without the accent marks, phở being of course the name of that quintessential Vietnamese noodle soup. I joked with the waitresses: "They even home-deliver phở in Ho Chi Minh City!" I soon realized, however, that this dude was a pizza delivery boy, and that PHD meant "Pizza Hut Delivery", and he had nothing to do with carting soup. Presently I was handed a brochure by a couple of Pizza Hut staff walking/working the street, detailing the whole delivery service (and offering some discount coupons!) Now Pizza Hut might have a naff image in much of the world, but in Vietnam it is kind of cutting edge cool... (For the full story, click here.)
Monday, June 29, 2009
Here's Some Saigon Streetfood Not Even Noodlepie Has Scoffed! (Vietnamese Kebabs)
ALTHOUGH TO BE FAIR TO NOODLEPIE HE HAS DOCUMENTED THE KEBAB SCENE IN FRANCE AND APPARENTLY HASN'T LIVED IN VIETNAM FOR SOME TIME, SO HE CAN BE EXCUSED FOR LOSING TOUCH WITH THE STREETS. I first became alerted to the Indochinese kebab scene in September last year, during a visit with my parents to Hanoi. One of the first things I noticed was that they call kebabs kebaps here, or to be more precise banh mi kebap. One of the second things I noticed was that Vietnamese kebabs were not served with the customary pita bread and Mideast herbage (that's why they are called banh mi kebap!) Read The Last Appetite's review of Cafe Goethe in Hanoi for a fuller illumination of what, exactly, a Vietnamese kebab experience is all about. If you want to stray somewhat off topic you can check out my site about the kebab scene in Tokyo, Japan. They don't make kebabs with banh mi bread in Japan, but do sometimes drop wierd stuff into the pita such as mashed bananas. That happened to me one cold night near Yoyogi Park in Harajuku! For more authentic looking and tasting kebabs in Saigon, specifically in District 3, read this Gastronomy Blog review. Interestingly, the kebabs here seemed to be stuffed with chicken; Vietnamese apparently dislike the taste of lamb.
On the topic of noodlepie, I remember reading him opine once that the possibilities were huge for someone who knew how to make a decent pizza in Ho Chi Minh City. That's because the local pizzas were so poor they wouldn't stand up to the launch of a quality product. Now there may well be a tiny bit of cultural imperialism coming through in noodlepie's assertion (that there is only one way to make a pizza, and that is the Italian/American/European way). Asians have a long history of appropriating foreign foods and reinventing them for their own tastes, in their own style. When I first moved to Japan eight years ago I used to scoff at the strange pizzas there (the ones topped with mayo and squid and acres of sweet corn) and the equally bizarre pasta dishes (although I must confess I fell in love with the squid ink spaghetti, literally, at, first bite!) It took me a while to understand that Japanese pizza should not be compared outright with the pizza you find in the West, but judged as its own unique cultural product in its own ground of referents. To put it blunt, pizza can be about more than cheese and tomato sauce! Given that it's his stated mission to bridge the food worlds of the Occident and the Orient (hence the label: "noodle" + "pie"), noodlepie should understand this. That said, the sophistication of Vietnamese pizzas lag far behind those of Japan in my own experience, so I am not sure my argument really applies here. Maybe noodlepie is right -- maybe Vietnamese pizzas suck! I haven't eaten enough of them to know definitively, for sure. However, I did manage to get down a couple of slices today, just up the road from my hotel, when Nga abandoned me to go run an errand across town. Nga often tells me to wait somewhere while goes often doing stuff (in this case she was getting an injection at a local clinic or hospital!) Instead of getting indignant like I used to, on this trip I am savouring these moments of independence and imagining myself as a free spirit in Vietnam, just like I was those four days I was here in March 2007. For an hour or so the shackles of coupledom drop away, and I am free to entertain myself as I please, until she returns. It has happened four times now in roughly 24 hours: one stint in Lotteria with my shrimp and cheese burger and an Australian girls junior indoor cricket team and a hell of a general racket, two times in the street just watching the madness, and this afternoon (being Tuesday June 30 2009) upstairs in a cheap fly-infested pizza joint above our old familiar Coop Supermarket. I've been dying to eat Saigonese pizza for ages now, but Nga would never stand for it (besides, she would consider it a rip-off at more than 100,000 Dong a pizza). But when the cat's away the mice sure do play... and freedom lies on the margins of the page!
Prices range from 99,000 Dong (regular size, traditional range) to 169,000 Dong (large size, deluxe range).
Backpacker District: Pham Ngu Lao, Dist.1.
Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a lot of pizza on sale in the backpacker district of Ho Chi Minh City (Pham Ngu Lao ward). There is also a lot of Mexican food and Indian, but that don't mean it is any good. It is more expensive than the rest of the city too. The photo sitting right above was taken across the narrow lane from Le Pub. They also have pizza at the Boston Sports Bar at the end of the same narrow alley; they hit the spot but you have to deal with the staff hitting on you. That could be okay if you are a man and the staff member is a hot young female, but all I ended up with an amorous gay man. His name was Thong and he wouldn't leave me alone.
Pizza Hut: website here.
Now Pizza Hut might have a naff image in much of the world, but in Vietnam it is kind of cutting edge cool. Not that the average person can afford it, but that is probably part of the appeal. Compared to Japan where I have spent the past 10 years, the pizzas at Pizza Hut in Vietnam are kind of plain. This is probably a good thing, the Japanese have a tendency to take their pizzas to the extremes! Pizza is supposed to be about simplicity. There are no wierd seafood concoctions or sweet corn overkills on the pizzas at Pizza Hut in Vietnam; what are you get are the jackstandard Hawaiians, Meat Lovers, Veggy Lovers, Pepperoni, and Peppery Tunas. Prices range from 99,000 Dong (regular size, traditional range) to 169,000 Dong (large size, deluxe range). There are some pasta dishes as well and they go for 89,000 Dong. Pizza Hut promises to deliver within 30 minutes.
Pizza Roma: Stall 1004, Ben Thanh Market, Dist.1.
I stopped here once, at the end of an epic walk north, from the Star City Hotel. It is close to the monument to the Burning Monk.