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Friday, December 3, 2010

Mutton at Mumtaz

Mumtaz is one of the most respected Indian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. It is also popular -- so popular, in fact, that Trip Advisor ranks Mumtaz number five out of its 267 rated restaurants in the city. At meal times the place is jammed with Indians doing business deals over the table, foreign tourists taking a clue from their Lonely Planet guidebooks, and curious locals. The restaurant is located on Saigon's "golden mile", Đưòng Bùi Viện (Bui Vien Street), in the heart of the backpacker district. It is in fact at the "Indian end" of Bui Vien Street, and there is another classic subcontinental restaurant Akbar Ali right across the road. Whereas Akbar Ali is cozy and carefree, Mumtaz seems more like a serious business and possibly even a chain in the making (there is another establishment on the Hàn River at Đà Nẵng). Whereas Ali Akbar is obviously a family affair, Mumtaz bustles with corporate efficiency. Staff wear shirts adorned with the Mumtaz name. They are happy to make recommendations from the menu, which is as authentic and extensive as an Indian restaurant menu should be... (For the complete guide to Mumtaz and other Indian restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, click here!)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Banh Mi Pork Overdose!

As residents of southern California would know, Bánh mì (Vietnamese sandwiches) come packed with many different kinds of filling. They even do them with fish, as my girlfriend Nga informed me today. She was in bed in our holdout at the City Star Hotel near the Cultural Park, and had asked me to go out and buy a few kebabs at a place I had found round the corner earlier in the year, on my previous tour of duty. On the way out the door I remembered that the kebab stand opened in the evening, and it was now only lunchtime (late lunchtime). Time for a rethink: she suggested I go pick up some Bánh mì instead. "But don't get any with fish in them," she said. That was strange, I couldn't imagine Bánh mì with fish (although I have since discovered that they have them in San Francisco!) I guess Nga wasn't keen on trusting fish served on the street, she is kind of skeptical of street food in general (she reckons she can cook better.) On top of that, she says street food can make you sick. Having observed the kebab stand's meat pole standing idle out in the midday sun yesterday, hours before the stand was due to open, I can see what she means. Anyway, I went out and found a Bánh mì woman at work near Star City, opposite the Cultural Park, and ordered two sandwiches. Communicating through gestures, the Bánh mì woman asked me if I wanted the pork, and I nodded in agreement. As it turns out, pork was about all I got served. Salty, gristly, but scrumptious pork. There were a few bits of cucumber and carrots and so forth thrown into the sandwich, but it was mostly pork. The pork here came delivered either cool and warm, in forms ranging from liver pate to rolls of processed ham wrapped in red plastic, to meat sliced straight from the roasted pig, skin and crackling dripping with juice. I got the hot, roasted stuff, for two. The lady doused each Bánh mì with a salt shaker before wrapping them in newspaper and dropping them into a plastic bag. When I ripped into my roll back in the room with Nga, all that gristle and salt crunched in my mouth like sand. It might have been pork overdose heaven for me, but Nga was unimpressed.

Pork gets loaded into my baguette, in Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam, 2010)

"Why isn't the bread warm?" she sniveled. As you can see from the photo above, the loaves in the stand do indeed look kind of wilted. And having stale bread is the worst offence when it comes to street Bánh mì in Ho Chi Minh City, or anywhere in the world. "This isn't fresh, and it is probably yesterday's bread," Nga declared. Which condemned it to instant fail, in her mind at least. As much of a fail as if it had contained fish! But I still enjoyed it.
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