Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Best Part of Waking Up is Weasel Shit in Your Cup!

Nate et Coffee Lady[Nate sez]: Having a really good cup of coffee is a rare moment in our lives. We've all experienced it a couple of times - and you're caught off guard, the Charbucks and Cariboos have conditioned us to believe that good coffee is coffee smothered into the background by decaf this, and frappe that. Triple bypass machiatto? I'll take two. Double decaf vanilla caramel nonfat soy extra room no whip latte? Is that all?

For fuck's sake, why do we pay out the ass for thoroughly adulterated shitty coffee? It's a crime. I have wondered for far too long: Where the hell is my real coffee?

Apparently it has been waiting for me in Vietnam - and when that succulent, rich, chocolaty, smooth perfect sip weaved it's way down my throat, I remembered what it's like to feel alive. You can ask Ben about my reaction to the first cup of Vietnamese coffee, it was downright sexual. IMG_5732It's a simple pleasure that makes life infinitely better. Wouldn't you like to wake up to a fresh cup of melted chocolate lava that packs a caffeinated punch like no other every day? One day I had four cups of this stuff and I had to cut myself off lest I fly off the pavement. And did I mention, it's less than 30 cents a cup? And like 40 calories? Bakaahhh!!?

Cafe Da: Straight Iced Vietnamese Coffee. Take some coarsely ground arabica beans and place in a stainless viet-coffee filter (pictured below next to cups of ice). Add hot water and fill filter to top. Wait. Lift filter when done brewing. Add a tiny bit of sugar (no more than 1 tbsp). Stir. If you want to cream your pants, add 1 tbps (or really to taste) of sweetened condensed milk instead of sugar (this is called Cafe Sua Da). Pour over ice and stir - let the ice melt a tiny bit so it's not too strong and sweet; and so the temperature cools down as well.

You can get approximations of this stuff in the US in Vietnamese restaurants - but it's not the same. I developed a relationship with my coffee lady (pictured with me at top) who sold the best of the best. Her coffee was earthy, thick, and frothy - perfectly balanced. She would take a clean glass, put in a tablespoon of sugar and a few ounces of coffee, and then use a pump whisk to mix and froth the concoction. Pour it over freshly bashed ice (they only have ice blocks in the street markets of Saigon), stir and serve. I will one day return to my coffee lady. I may even try to marry her.

[Ben sez]: We figured that while we were here taking in the amazing local coffee we might as well try to infamous Weasel Coffee. Weasel CoffeeRumor has it that special Weasels eat the raw coffee berry and on the way through its digestive tract the outer fruit is digested and an enzymatic reaction occurs in the bean which is then dried and roasted.

Now, I should preface this by saying that in America I don't drink coffee, I generally thinks it's too bitter, and since I gave up on caffeine when I was 16 I don't have much need for it. With that disclaimer out of the way, one morning I felt, more or less, like poop - so a little pick-me-up was in order, and what better than some freshly brewed Weasel Excrement?

I tried the coffee and it was fucking phenomenal. After watching the water percolate through the grounds in the little Vietnamese coffee maker into a clear glass I added a couple teaspoons of sugar and then poured it all over my glass of ice. I wasn't quite prepared for what happened next.

It was magically delicious - something so good that it shouldn't even be referred to in the same way that coffee is in America. This just tasted like sweet, chocolate juice. So smooth, creamy, and overwhelmingly chocolaty that I wasn't quite sure what to think. This stuff packs a punch too. By the time we were done with our glasses I had gone from "woke up on the wrong side of the bed" to "I'm on top of the world - WHEEEEEE!!!"

Editors Note: We realize that the coffee we bought was actually this, not actually weasel-shit coffee, but beans put through an enzymatic process to simulate the effects of the weasel. Not authentic, but much cheaper, and still wicked good.

Other Drinks

[Nate sez:] It's not all just coffee, coffee, weasel shit, and coffee. There are a host of other great things to pour down your throat. On the plastic baggie drinks side, fresh iced white sugar cane juice (tastes like sweet, light orange juice), lime sodas, Lime-liciousvanilla pudding drinks, blacks sesame pudding drinks, bubble tea, and every kind of fruit flavor from syrup under the sun. My personal favorite was the sugar cane juice because it was really refreshing. All of these can be purchased for under 20 cents.

Saigon had a lot to offer in the beer department as well. First, there are the Bia Hoi joints. Bia Hoi is locally microbrewed superlight golden lager that tastes kind of crappy, but is really thirst quenching. In some cases, it's cheaper than water. If you drink a couple liters at an accelerated pace, you might even get drunk. Why bother drinking it? At 50 cents per 2 liters, free ice (we drink beer on ice out here), free peanuts, and a mess of locals gettin tanked, there is no better place to spend a great night on the town at a crowded Bia Hoi bar. They're everywhere by food in Saigon, and on every street corner in Hanoi.

There are also a couple of Brewpubs serving up a respectable and very fresh Dunkel and Munich (@ the Saigon Race Track District 11) and even a solid Pilsener at the Real Beer!!!Lyon Brauhouse in District 1, Saigon. After 6 months of nothing but golden lager, more golden lager, and golden lager on ice, some really fresh, substantial beer made from German malt and hops was a welcome addition to my stomach.

Let's face it: The guys who declared war on this country obviously never set foot into a side street to sample some of the local flavor. I don't care how communist these cats are, I was yelling "AHHHH MOTHERLAND!" by the time I finished my first cup of Cafe Da. Any self-respecting food/bev fiend will find a way to get their hungry ass down to Ho Chi Minh City for some serious stomach reeducation. But make sure before you set foot out onto the hot, steamy streets of Saigon that you have that life giving perfect cup of coffee. You'll never quite be the same.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Vietnamese Soup: Here Today, Saigon Tomorrow

Nate et Banh Mi[Nate sez]: as he cradles his first sandwich of the day...In light of all the glorious stupid jokes one can make about Vietnamese beef noodle soup like: Pho Real, the Pho-cking best, & call me on the Pho-ne, let's just skip the shit and get down to business.

Pho: Shizzle

As the national dish of Vietnam, we're all (hopefully) familiar with it in one respect or another - a meaty beef soup flavored with star anise, cinnamon, and five spice, filled with fresh medium width rice noodles, topped with raw sliced beef, brisket, tripe or other offal, and finished with basil, mint, rau ram, chilies, fish sauce, chili sauce...and the list goes on.

IMG_6005Every single street stand, every soup-slinging hole-in-the-wall, every overpriced, tourist oriented upscale noodle dive has a distinctly different style. The condiment trays vary widely, the amount of anise or 5 spice changes, are they fresh noodles, dry noodles, chili oil, chili sauce...nobody knows. You simply have to try them all.

And we did. And we do. And frankly, after 14 days of shoving bowls of 60 cent noodles down our throats, we still can't quite get over the shocking variety, the heart and soul, and the massive repeat value these noodles deliver. It's breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner.

Maybe you've had too much Hanoi Vodka - have a bowl of Pho. Maybe those tiny Vietnamese guys who took you out to the best clams and snails you'll ever eat drank you under the table - have a bowl of Pho. Maybe you're homesick, desperately lonely, and the cacophony of motorbikes, screaming children, and blasting Backstreet Boys are killing you - Have a bowl of Pho. This isn't world traveling food writer's over-romanticism, it's the stone cold truth.

[Ben sez]: Yeah, we save that kind of romanticism for our sandwich ladies.

Call it the chicken soup of Vietnam. This comfort food at its finest.

Viet Noodle Primer:

If you think that all there is to Vietnamese noodles is're just wrong. As much as I'll go on for days about Pho, I'm a diehard Hu Tieu boy to the end. Pho is beef soup and medium-width noodles. IMG_5904Hu Tieu designates a whole different creature: rich pork soup, sometimes clarified, sometimes not - filled with thin rice noodles, roasted pork, shrimps, maybe wontons, maybe seafood, and garnished with the same dizzying multitude of herbs, chili products, and citrus. Order Hu Tieu Mi and you'll get thin Chinese-style egg noodles. I personally only roll with rice noodles, but if you need some variety, it's okay with Mi once in a while (I'm not sorry about that one).

Ben and I are constantly at odds over which is better. He's beef Pho-Life. I roll with the Who's-Hu Tieu crew. Pork stock is god.

Bun: Rice vermicelli rocks out in noodle salads and special soups. You may order a Bun dish and get a bowl of noodles with grilled pork, fried spring rolls, and herbs, served with nouc cham (sweet, sour, spicy, Vietnamese fish sauce) Street Tieuand pickles. You may order Bun Bo Hue and get a tomatoey-sweet/spicy beef and thick rice vermicelli soup. Bun refers to the type of noodle: round rice noodles.

There are also clear noodles, thick wide noodles, thick round clear noodles, pork skin noodles, long noodles, short noodles, fresh noodles, dried noodles...let's face it, these guys don't fuck around. Vietnam is noodle heaven. We've covered half a square kilometer and it took us almost two weeks to eat at most of the street stalls and noodle garages.

We heard that Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) doesn't have much to offer - few museums, not many tourist/world heritage sites, and it's loud. Who the hell cares? If you like food (meaning if you have a pulse) - this is Mecca.

Welcome to the Noodle Revolution.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Banh Mi Harder!

[Ben sez]:Ben and his pink drink Live from Vietnam, Ben et Nate are here to bring you a breaking news bulletin from the food frontier in Saigon.

We arrived in Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) after 16 hours in transit. Watching out the bus window we saw cities that seemed to be 90% Pho restaurants, city blocks with five or six Pho restaurants next to each other. Suffice to say, we were excited.

After grabbing some sleep and checking our email like the good internet addicts we are, we stepped outside to meet our first portable sandwich shop (a woman with two baskets on a yoke to be carried down the street on her shoulders). A little pointing and holding up two fingers and she was slicing open baguette, inserting a few meatballs from her simmering pot of delicious red sauce, stuffing in pickles and cilantro, then pouring on a delicious chili/fish sauce mixture. The "OH MY GOD, SANDWICH!" meter was off the charts, after the shit we were eating in Cambodia, we could hardly contain ourselves as we reached into the bag to remove our little, newspaper wrapped, sandwich bundles of joy.

One bite into the light, crispy, Making the Banh Midistinctly Vietnamese baguette and we knew this was something criminal. Something so good it makes you groan and melt into a little puddle of bliss on the ground. A combination of slow-cooked pork in mystery sauce and awesome pickles (and probably some heroin based on the reaction we had) that for that moment seemed to embody everything that is good about life.

Nate got that glazed-over look to him, looked off into the distance and said happily, "I really wish a sniper would just put a bullet in my head right now, because I'm pretty sure it doesn't get any better than this."

[Nate sez]: It's true, and I wasn't completely kidding.

Vietnam is going to be awesome.

Oh, did I mention that the sandwich cost 5000 Dong? That's about 30 cents. That's a deal I can live with. On top of that there seem to be Banh Mi stands everywhere serving a a vast array of sandwiches, from the aforementioned juicy meatballs, to grilled brochettes, to god-knows-what paté - all of which are delicious.

All this blogging is making me hungry... I think it's time for another Banh Mi.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007


[Nate sez]: Cambodia brings to mind the massive and incomparable Angkor Wat. The exotic tropics of SE Asia. Paris of the East they called Phnom Penh. The truth is, this place is a nightmare (and ironically) since we didn't get our Vietnam visas in Cambodia, we have a fixed entrance and exit date instead of flexible date visas. Whoops! Now we're stuck on this god-forsaken shithole with nothing to do, and you better believe the food/everything here is bordering on inedible, toxic, and unsanitary at best.

Highlights so far: we found a bottle of '92 Bordeaux at a store in Siem Reap. Which anagramatizes to 'Rape me, si?' - which is only completely appropriate given the level of over-the-top hawkers and dramatically overinflated prices. Funny thing about that bottle of wine - it looked suspicious, like why does this label look wrong? Like why is it only $5.50? Why does this seem to be lacking some important information that any other bottle of French wine would have? I was too curious to see whether it had simply been the worst year for Bordeaux as I sensed (turns out it was really bad according to Wine Spectator) or if there even more foul play fermenting...

Unfortunately my deepest, most hideous and unrighteous fears came to fruition - as we opened the bottle, the cork looked funny and wet, lacking a name that matches the chateau label. I poured the wine into my cup (fine, I'll admit it, I'm doing sensory analysis with Orikaso plasticware), the aroma was waaaaaayy too sharp to be 15 years old. Heavy duty fake vanilla , lots of alcohol, nail polish remover, and an ambiguous assortment of ripe red fruit that can only be described as Red Kool Aid. The taste was truly hilarious, and the finish was that of a tinge of malty flavor. Yes, malty flavor - as in malted milk balls and sweet, dark German beer.

Apparently, I'm not the first to notice the presence of fake wine in Cambodia - read a funny article about it here.

This could only mean one, terrifying and horrible thing. The Cambodians have a flare for knocking off anything. This stems from the fact that Burger King won't do business here, the 7-11 won't do business here, no chain/franchise/international-institutions-of-convenience-and-economic-dominance will do business here yet, so they tend to poorly copy everything and pass it off as the original.

Guess what they did? They made up a fictitious chateau called "Chateau la Prevote" and filled it with, that's right, UNIDENTIFIED ASIAN RED WINE. I'm almost completely sure of it. While I was in Japan doing way too much alcohol research, I started exploring the wide, unrecognized world of cheap Asian grape wines. They all have this mysterious malty note to them - and la Prevote was super Asian-wine malty. Don't worry Australia, their best wine is worse than your cheap, sickening Yellowtail. Whether I would describe it as "rice malty" or "barley malty" is yet undecided, but malty indeed.

[Ben sez]: Actually the maltiness was reminiscent of Taro root if you ask me.. which you didn't, so I'll let Nate get back to lamenting our time in Cambodia.

We've now been stuck in Phnom Penh for 10 days, trying desperately not to get so depressed by the squalor, Fish Amok @ Amok in Phnom Penhthe begging children, and the absolutely oppressive heat. After eating so many desperately mediocre meals in Siem Reap for too much money, we had little hope for Cambodia's capital. We found a couple tolerable joints, not too expensive, roughly Vietnamese, kind of Chinese, a little homestyle Khmer now and then.

The market food is sketchy. I mean if the smell of rotting meat and fish baking on asphalt (indoors no less) isn't enough to turn your stomach over a few times, the utter absence of any food safety practice should be sufficient to keep you away. I have an iron stomach, I'll eat anything that won't injure me, but this was too far.

With heroic persistence, we found some good things to eat. A night market near by our guesthouse puts out what was immediately identifiable as the best meal in Cambodia as soon as we tried it. How do I know? Because everyone and their mom eats here every night. And it costs 75 cents - Fried Rice and Beef with Soy Sauce and Local Greens at Orussey Night Market is the only way to fly. We also found an awesome sandwich of Poulet et Ricegrilled beef brochettes with with shallot/daikon/cabbage pickles on grilled, margarined baguette. On this one evening where the food gods smiled upon us, we found a dessert stand serving assorted syrup soaked thin cookies and donuts with sticky rice, coconut pudding and coconut creme covered with shaved ice and sweetened condensed milk. It was safe to consume. It was 50 cents. It was what good SE Asian street food should be.

This little market was a rare gem in the war torn, lawless country that attracts mostly sex-tourists and druggies. We should have heeded Anthony Bourdain's warnings about the absence of great, much less good food in Cambodia, but I was thoroughly convinced that any country next to Thailand had to be paved with delicacies.

Seeing as it took 14 days of digging to find anything much better to eat than convenience store peanuts and Pocky, this was a tough blow to the Ben et Nate contingency, but we must move on to the promised land of noodles.

[Ben sez]: Vietnam, watch out, we're hungry, malnourised (peanuts and Pocky is not a balanced diet), and started this trip with the mission to find the best bowl of noodles. You better believe I'm going to be eating Pho (Vietnamese Soup) three, four, maybe eight times a day.

We're taking a boat down the Mekong tomorrow to get to 'Nam and there are preliminary flood warnings for low-lying areas based on the massive uncontrollable salivating that I will be doing the entire trip to Ho Chi Minh City.