Eating like a local in Saigon

It was a balmy night in Saigon, and I had found myself perched atop a low plastic stool, alternating between sucking on a cold brew and sea snails seasoned generously with chilli and salt.

It was a completely unexpected foray into the food scene of Saigon, and I was having the best time of my life.

How I got there, on the eve of my last day in Ho Chi Minh City could only be described as pure good luck.

If you know me, you know I travel for two things – adventure and food.

So I was slightly disappointed when after one full day in Ho Chi Minh City aka Saigon, I hadn’t found any leads on truly mind-blowing Vietnamese food. I was acutely aware that with only four days in this city, time was against me.

Being a non-pork eater in Asia has proven to be quite a barrier to enjoying the best that places like Thailand, Bali and Vietnam have to offer. Of course, I wanted to try banh mi and pho in Vietnam, but the best versions of those dishes are made with animals that go oink and I just can’t.

So I had kind of resigned myself to an unremarkable foodie fate when my Airbnb host Mai stopped me on my way out one day. She asked if I was interested in joining her on a food tour that she was testing out for guests in the Airbnb.

At the time I was still waffling between two other food tours and trying to schedule my tours for the next few days. I told her I would get back to her.

The following day I had my timing sorted out enough to say what the heck, and I messaged Mai to say she could count me in.

Two nights later Mai and Linh (her co-manager) met me at the apartment. I was kind of thrilled to find out I was the only one going on the tour with them. I love a personalised experience.

I hopped on the back of Mai’s motorcycle and we sped off into the night, out of District 1 and through the winding streets of Saigon, through hundreds – maybe thousands – of other scooter-bound motorists to District 10.

There we found Bánh Canh Ghẹ, a restaurant I am told is named after the main dish served there, so guess what we were going to have.

That’s right – Bánh Canh Ghẹ!

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Bánh Canh Ghẹ is essentially a crab noodle soup. The broth itself was thick and spicy, while slightly sweet at the same time (coconut milk perhaps). Swimming in the broth was a miscellanea of fish meat, spices, herbs, thick and meaty udon noodles, a few crunchy puffs (the name of these escape me) and an entire crab.

It was frickin’ delicious.

It was an amalgamation of some of my favourite things – seafood, udon noodles, spice, coconut and it was the exact thing I had been after in Saigon. Everyone eating at the restaurant appeared to be a local, I was getting the real deal.

Once we finished up with our bánh canh ghẹ we headed back to the bikes and I hopped back on the back of Mai’s scooter to zoom to the next location on our food tour.

Luckily for me, I’m a pretty adventurous and trusting person. So I actually wasn’t put off at all when Mai and Linh turned down a dimly lit alleyway off the main street, and pulled up alongside an open-air room, clamouring with locals, packed to capacity with low metal tables and plastic chairs.

We were at the snail spot I mentioned earlier – Quán Ốc Như.

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I gave Mai and Linh full authority on what to order – this wasn’t exactly the kind of place where I could peruse a menu.

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After some animated deliberation with a waiter, they settled on chilli salt sea snails, snails in a milky coconut broth, clams in lemongrass broth and cockles in an assortment of sauces. Despite my protestation that I absolutely do not drink beer, Linh ordered me a Saigon beer anyway, insisting that this was how the locals did it.

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Believe you me, no one was as surprised as me when that bottle hit the table empty. The beer, as it turned out, was the perfect accompaniment to the salty, chewy molluscs.

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As much as the food, I was thoroughly enjoying my company. Mai and Linh – both Vietnamese girls in their early 20s – made me feel like I was shooting the breeze with friends back home.

Despite my sometimes frosty exterior, I actually get along very well with people most of the time. We chatted about boys (I showed them pictures of my boyfriend which got them oohing and aahing), our careers, travelling and just general challenges they faced being bold young women in a somewhat conservative society.

Beer and sea snails safely tucked away in the confines of our bellies, we soldiered on to the next and final stop – dessert.

Vietnam, like most of the South East Asian countries I’ve visited, has a vibrant street food culture. Vietnam pavements are often lined with plastic stools and low metal or wooden tables. At any point in the day, you can observe a multitude of locals enjoying a meal amidst the minimalist furnishings, served by street side cooks.

We pulled up alongside one of these vendors, the girls giggling excitedly while promising me ‘the best ice cream in Saigon’.

I’m not a huge ice cream fan by any stretch but I’ve experienced some of the most satisfying ice cream in this part of the world – due in large part to their commitment to coconut. I looooove coconut so I’m always thrilled to dig into a scoop of coconut ice cream and find chunks of coconut jelly ensconced within.

This particular coconut ice cream was also topped with toasted coconut and served in a coconut shell.

Talk about staying on theme.

Also in this coconut shell? Purple sweet rice, corn and peanuts (yuck). I picked the peanuts off but everything else was bomb.

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Following our sweet treat, the girls and I headed back to our apartment building.

Back at the base, the girls said that as they were just doing a test run of the tour, they’d just divvy up the damage from the night and we’d split the cost evenly between us.

My grand total for a night of delicious Vietnamese food and great company? Roughly $16 USD.

Of course, once the ladies launch this tour officially it’ll set their customers back a bit more but even at four times this cost, I’d say the experience is totally worth it.

As a bonus, the following day I went to a restaurant that had been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in search of another traditional Vietnamese dish – bánh xèo.

Bánh xèo is basically a Vietnamese crepe, stuffed with assorted veggies and some kind of protein.

I headed to Bánh Xèo 46A on the back of my Grab motorcycle. It was evident I’d shown up during the lunch rush but one of the perks of eating alone is that there is almost always a spare single seat somewhere to accommodate me.

I foolishly ordered some fried calamari to start, ignorant to the size of the bánh xèo that would be heading my way in a few.

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I was more than a little puzzled when the waiter plopped a plate of greens in front of me – pretty sure I didn’t order a very plain salad with this meal.

I panicked.

What was the deal with this lettuce? A quick glance around provided me with a lead – it was no mistake, it had to do with the bánh xèo.

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I literally googled “bánh xèo” and “lettuce”, and found a YouTube video demonstrating the accepted way to eat bánh xèo – first by tearing off a piece of the crepe, placing it atop the lettuce, rolling it tightly then dipping it into the sauce they served with the meal – a kind of fish sauce and chili concoction.

The bánh xèo was massive; I actually read in one blog that bánh xèo is prepared a little differently across Vietnam, but that the crepes in Saigon were typically large.

No lie.

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The final verdict – definitely delicious but way too much for me to finish in one go. This might be a meal that’s better shared with friends.

I know I barely even scratched the surface of Vietnamese food. I’ve already resolved to return so I can travel to Central and North Vietnam and try all the regional dishes.

That’s all for now, hope this titillated your inner foodie a bit.

Until next time!

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5 food spots you shouldn’t miss in NYC

I spend a lot of time in the Big Apple.
Well…relatively…considering I only visit two or three times a year.
Since I’ve spent the better part of all my visits for the last four or five years eating my way through New York City, I’m constantly giving restaurant recommendations to friends and family heading there. So, I thought – why not make life a little easier for everyone and put my top eateries in a blog post?
This list is by no means exhaustive, of course. New York is a veritable foodie playground and I can never quite seem to get through my restaurant wishlist. These are the best of my best so far.

Totto Ramen

 

It was a chilly Halloween night about two years ago when my friends Ashanna and Anand and I stumbled upon a tiny ramen-ya in a Hell’s Kitchen basement. The growing line outside the restaurant let us know the wait would be worth it, even though temperatures were below 10°.
I don’t eat pork so I wasn’t able to partake of the signature ramen dish, but the chicken stock ramen remains to this day the best I’ve ever had in New York City and you HAVE to trust me on that because I eat A LOT of ramen…

Dominique Ansel Kitchen

 

While on a rushed trip to Greenwich Village for Ladurée macarons, my best friend Sandi and I ducked into an inconspicuous bakery for a cup of coffee. After a few minutes, we realized we had happened upon the bakery of the man who had invented THE food fad of our generation – the cronut. While we didn’t get cronuts that day (people start lining up at 6am) we did make a point to return on our next trip to NYC. By then though, the Dominique Ansel Kitchen was open for business, so that became our choice for breakfast since there was seating and a wider range of dishes available there. If you love baked goods, surrender yourself to Ansel. Be warned though – there IS such a thing as sugar overload, and I guarantee you’ll get it here.

Jack’s Wife Freda

 

I don’t often return repeatedly to restaurants (because there’s so much to eat in NYC) but when I do, I go back to Jack’s Wife Freda. My go-to dish is the Madame Freda, a pressed sandwich with duck prosciutto and a sunny side up egg, but I can also vouch for the Rose Water Waffles if sweet is more your thing. The place is compact with communal seating and gets PACKED so I would recommend making reservations (if you’re a table of four or more) or going on a weekday.

The Boil

 

Every trip to NYC I say I want to go to a crab boil and every trip to NYC I never make it. This time around was different though, and I finally got to this restaurant that I was put on to by my friend Makeela. My boyfriend and I settled in in our very fashionable bib and rubber gloves and got to work on a bag of 1/2 lb lobster and 1lb of shrimp. By the end of the night I was literally licking the bag and my gloves trying to get every bit of sauce off them (not even lying).

Sweet Chick

 

Sweet Chick is a restaurant that has been on my radar for ages. Apart from the fact that it’s a top-rated brunch spot in the uber-trendy Williamsburg neighbourhood, it’s owned by a Trini! I finally got around to visiting Sweet Chick on my last trip to NYC and I have to proclaim – Best. Chicken. And. Waffles. Ever. The wait staff is also super friendly…if you’re into that kind of thing. The place was pretty full when I visited (we sat at the bar), so it’s a good idea to head there early o’ clock to beat the crowd.
So there you have it – my top 5 spots to hit the next time you’re in NYC.
Tell them Ceola sent you, they’ll be like “Who?”

Travel Diary // Eating the Big Apple I

Hi, I’m back and slowly but surely getting over my intense NYC withdrawal.

For those of you who follow me on Instagram and Snapchat (@CeolaB), you probably witnessed me successfully eating my way through The Big Apple last weekend with my best friend Sandi and her sister Ashanna.

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No makeup selfie on the way to Brooklyn from JFK. Shout out to Jose who was the best host ever (AirBNB y’all).

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These beauts on the A train ^^^

Normally my trips to NY are just huge shopping marathons with my mom but on this trip I wanted to focus on eating at places I’d never been to before. I polled my FB friends before I left to try and get a gist of some of the best NYC eateries that I should hit up while on vacation.

Naturally I couldn’t hit them all, but I think I achieved my goal of enjoying a true foodie experience in New York.

Check out the pics below for a run down of all the grub I had.

Spice was one place that kept coming up when I asked about good food in New York. It’s a chain restaurant with extremely quick service, which doesn’t come at the expense of the quality of the food. We had a great meal and all our entrees came with complimentary appetizers. Don’t mind if we do.

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That night we decided to check out a Zagat rated southern comfort restaurant nearby where we staying. Peaches Hot House was packed to capacity when we arrived around 8:30pm. We placed our names on a board and went outside in the cold to wait, staring daggers at this group of folks who were taking forever to pay their bill and leave.

Eventually we got a seat and started in on some good ol’ comfort food. Not too shabby, but admittedly, didn’t live up to my expectations. I was super excited about the mac n cheese and blackened catfish but the fish turned out tasting a bit overseasoned and the cheese was slightly too sharp given the tartness of the salsa on the catfish.

Sorry about the dodgy pics, the lighting in the restaurant was next to none and I didn’t want to blind my fellow diners with my flash.

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That was day one of my NYC eats. Look out for the next post in which I gush over Chelsea Market.

Out & About // Meet Me at Fanatic – ‘Fresh”

It’s Lent y’all. Time to purge the sins of Carnival away with our seasonal stint of devotion and piousness (kind of).

In keeping with the holy season, Sean decided to throw a vegetarian edition of Meet Me At Fanatic – out with the meat and in with the veggies (and a touch of fish, I guess for the people who think fish isn’t meat).

I don’t eat beef nor pork, and my best friend Sandi is pescetarian, so we both left the event feeling WAY more full than we normally do, since this was the first Fanatic that we could actually eat every single dish. Those small bites add up in a big way when you’re not looking.

Ambience wise, the crowd was noticeably less thick than I’m accustomed to, but the good thing about that was I didn’t have to elbow anyone in the face for taking my seat (which Sean constantly forgets/declines to reserve for me). DJ ShyGuy, as usual, kept the vibe up with a mix of his house, lounge and soca music.

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Drinky drinks. Cucumber and mint martini to fit in with the night’s theme of ‘Fresh’.

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Cous cous galette with mushroom ragout, topped with goat cheese.

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When I saw cassava ceviche on the menu I was perturbed. A ceviche with no fish? Quel horror! It was actually probably one of the most delicious dishes of the night. IMG_9264

Phyllo pastry stuffed with mushrooms, olives, spinach and raisins and drizzled with an agro dolce sauce (sweet and sour for us native english speakers).

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Super delicious lentil and roast corn patty atop a fennel-scented bun. Those kale chips on the side were the bomb dot com.

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We also got a nifty recipe card at the end of the event with the recipe for the patty.

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A smoked salmon and cream cheese roulade. My least favourite dish of the night, but only because I despise cream cheese. The reviews from the cream cheese lovers were great though.

Unfortunately I didn’t get any snaps of the spinach and mushroom fettuccine, or the desert, which was fruit clafoutis, but they were both God damned delicious.

To maybe make up for that (not really, I know) here are some bonus shots of the prep/plating:

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Out & About // More Vino & Carnival Pop Up Shop

I’m desperately unprepared for Carnival.

Maybe it was the short season that left me thinking I had more time to get my shit together…but I’m 21 days out and still haven’t even been to Samaroo’s! I don’t even know who I am anymore guys.

I’ve been working out 6 days a week and I’ve been doing Slimdown 360 meals (more out of convenience than anything else) but when the weekend comes, I go H.A.M. on the carbs (kinda). I don’t know…I just haven’t stopped eating…and to prove it to you…here are some pics from my More Vino (or as I like to say Mas Vino) dinner date with my besties on Friday night.

My beautiful best friend Sandi perusing Vino's fancy schmancy menu

My beautiful best friend Sandi perusing Vino’s fancy schmancy menu

Hiyashi Wakame Salad

Hiyashi Wakame Salad

Crab Dip with Tsum Tsum Bread

Crab Dip with Tsum Tsum Bread and some next bread no one touched

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Tone Up Roll and Riceless Roll in the backround. To our credit, it was a riceless night.

Noting my significant lack of preparedness for Carnival, on Saturday I decided to check out the Carnival Pop Up Shop, which took place at Fluid Bar on the avenue. I’ve been meaning to grab some items like the Shibue strapless panty (more on that later) and check out the Carnivalista fishnet tights, and they were both going to be at the Pop Up so I figured I’d kill birds with stones and whatnot.

Shop Shari shell down the place with her amazing statement necklaces

Shop Shari shelling down the place with her amazing statement necklaces

Could totally picture a nude body suit & a Shop Shari Carnival piece for Monday wear.

Could totally picture a nude body suit & a Shop Shari Carnival piece for Monday wear.

Ear cuffs by Kimi See Tai

Ear cuffs by Kimi See Tai. Call her at 377-2557 to order your own. She does custom pieces as well. 

I've seen these Shibue strapless panties being touted on Facebook so I did a little research. Seems like a pretty nifty solution to the issue of what to wear between your stockings and your privates on the road for Carnival. God knows panty lines do us no good.

I’ve seen these Shibue strapless panties being touted on Facebook so I did a little research. Seems like a pretty nifty solution to the issue of what to wear between your stockings and your privates on the road for Carnival. God knows panty liners do us no good. May do a review of these before the big day. 

Grabbed me a pair of Carnivalista Naked fishnets in shade Toffee (because I'm getting a tan for Carnival and anticipating a shade darker). May just wear these on Monday though...we'll see.

Grabbed me a pair of Carnivalista Naked fishnets in shade Toffee (because I’m getting a tan for Carnival and anticipating a shade darker). May just wear these on Monday though…we’ll see.

BONUS PIC!

Went a smidge overboard on Zara over the holidays and ended up with apparently enough new items that I can wear an entire outfit comprised entirely of Zara. Wore this to my friend Nick's birthday lime on Saturday night. Only non-Zara item is of course my Lend & Borough bag.

Went a smidge overboard on Zara over the holidays and ended up with apparently enough new items that I can wear an entire outfit comprised entirely of Zara. Wore this to my friend Nick’s birthday lime on Saturday night. Only non-Zara item is of course my Lend & Borough bag.

Out & About // Crust2Crumb Dessert Café

Hey guys! Happy New Year!

On Saturday I had the pleasure of going to breakfast with one of my best friends Leah.

She lives in Palmiste so we opted to hit up the dessert café Crust2Crumb, which located on Dumfries Road…about a 2 minute drive from her home.

As far as first impressions go, Crust2Crumb makes a good one. The interior is warm and well lit, and was decorated for the season – stacks of gift boxes, a Christmas tree, lots of Holiday paraphernalia all around. Leah told me they do themed decor for Halloween as well, so I presume it’s a ‘thing’ they do, which is great.

Interior

Interior

There is ample parking both in front and around the cafe, though it did get quite packed by the time we were leaving.

The menu is simple but effective…exactly what you’d expect of breakfast offerings in a café.

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I opted for a caramel latte and the eggs benedict. Leah had a hazelnut latte and french toast and scrambled eggs on the side.

The coffee was great. My only complaint about the food was that one of my eggs was more soft boiled than runny (I had requested them runny), but the other was exquisitely runny. I also snuck a bite of Leah’s french toast and that was quite good too, though they do the french toast (as you can see in the photo above) as a grilled flatbread almost. I personally prefer the softer, traditional style of french toast.

Service was excellent and the prices were, in my opinion, quite reasonable. I would definitely go back again, perhaps to try lunch. There’s a fish and chips option on the menu that’s piqued my interest and Leah vouches wholeheartedly for the salads there.

They also do pastries and cakes but I didn’t get an opportunity to sample any….Carnival is, after all, right around the corner.

Crust2Crumb gets a solid 8/10 from me as a breakfast spot in the Southland.

You can check out their website ::here::

Out & About // Cafe Mariposa

Payol runs through my blood so I was more than excited to see Cafe Mariposa, a restaurant in the Lopinot Valley featured on this year’s TT Restaurant Week schedule.

Like many kids, I spent a lot of time in Lopinot during my childhood. I have very distinct memories of eating multi-coloured cheese paste sandwiches and catching tadpoles in the river there. What I did not have a distinct memory of, however, was the extremely long and winding road that one had to take to GET to that tadpole hunting ground. Like it’s worse than Maracas. So if you’re prone to motion sickness, consider yourself warned.

Anyway, undulating journey behind me, I was very excited to arrive at Cafe Mariposa. Waze was actually sending me another few kilometres down the road…but thank God for relatively sharp eyes because I spotted the Cafe Mariposa sign just as I was about to go trekking to whatever far off land Waze wanted me to visit. It’s literally on your left, just a few metres down from the periphery of the historic site.

Our dining area for the day was the patio space overlooking Mariposa’s “Farm-a-see”, or, you know…garden. Hummingbird feeders were strung up along the edge of the roof, attracting what had to be more than 20 different tiny iridescent dive-bombers. They were very unafraid of people…coming uncomfortably close at some points.

Mariposa’s menu was good old country cuisine with lots of ingredients you can tell were sourced from just beyond their door step.

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The starters were dasheen sticks and tostones (smashed plantain slices) served with a home made chutney. I love dasheen in any form so those went down great. The tostones I wish were a little sweeter but I know it’s the luck of the draw with plantains sometimes. The sweet, tangy chutney really elevated the taste profile of both these otherwise rustic dishes though.

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Tostones

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Dasheen Sticks

Next up was the soup course. Every time there’s pumpkin soup on a menu, I will order it (it also helped that I’m not a big fan of eggplant). It’s definitely a departure from the thick, creamy version of pumpkin soup that I’m accustomed to. However, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Pumpkin Soup

Pumpkin Soup

Finally! The main course. I eat lamb on occasion so I was sorely tempted by the Cocoa Crusted Leg of Lamb. However, our lovely waiter recommended that I try the Fresh Agua Viva Tilapia. I do not regret taking his advice. The tilapia was wonderful…and that Green Banana Casserole. was. every. thing. It was hands down my favourite thing on the plate. The only thing I wasn’t too fond of was the rice, and I suspect that’s because I normally only eat brown rice. The stuffed christophene was….christophene.

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All in all the entree was pretty good but I would have been happy with just the tilapia and the green fig casserole to be totally honest.

Then came the moment we’d all been waiting for…DESSERT.Now I generally don’t do ice cream. That over-processed, super creamy, high in fat sweet stuff just doesn’t do it for me on most days. But when you see something cited as ‘award-winning’ on a menu…you really have little excuse not to try it. I’m a big fan of cocoa so the Award Winning Cocoa Ice Cream was a no-brainer for dessert. I loved everything down to the presentation.

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The only disappointment in this dish was that I couldn’t eat the cocoa pods they used for the presentation, so I recommended they swap those out for a dense sponge cake soaked in cocoa liqueur or something.

After our meal was done we got serenaded by the lovely proprietors (who I later found out are my friend’s mom and aunt).

Only thing to note before you head off to Cafe Mariposa…I should let you know that this isn’t the salty, season-y dishes your palate is probably accustomed to. I am a serious salt mouth and I felt compelled to declare that pretty much everything needed more salt. But when you rock back and really study it though…did it? Does anything really need THAT much salt? I don’t know…enough of the meal was tasty without the all too familiar saltiness we’ve come to expect from our food.

Once all was said and done…the verdict is, I would go back to Cafe Mariposa. But I wouldn’t just go for a meal…right now my mind is on a weekend away from all the noise, all the pollution, and all the bullshit of ‘civilisation’. Instead I’ll take fresh air, a dodgy wifi signal, all the cocoa tea my heart could desire, and see how well I can fare without air condition for a few days. There seems to be so much more to explore at Cafe Mairposa besides the food, and I love how much of their ingredients is either grown in their garden or sourced from people within the area. Sustainable living. I approve wholeheartedly.

So just a heads up…if I randomly go missing one weekend, don’t be alarmed…I’ll be unplugging in Lopinot.