Calvin waxes lyrical about a small eatery – and quan’s in general – run by an American in Saigon
Houston transplant Mike prepares his inimitable barbeque riblets at his quán in Saigon’s District 3. The dish (and Mike’s place) make a strong case for the English language adopting the word quán into its lexicon post haste. Photos by Calvin Godfrey
How Mike’s magical pork ribs moved me to submit a Vietnamese word for full induction in the English language.
I can’t translate quán into a single English word because the Queen never commissioned one for an open, filthy house that cooks delicious things in woks and grills as you pump yourself full of iced beer.
For this reason, I’d like to move that the English language officially adopt the word quán (tones and all).
Hang on there; I know what you’re thinking.
But, food and drink are equally important at a quán, so it is not a pub. I’ve never encountered any sort of “bar” at a quán. But a quán is also, certainly not a restaurant.
There are, for instance, no napkins at a quán. There are no “waiters” either—just a bunch coiffed teenagers whose only words in English cannot be printed in this newspaper.
Some have tried to use the word “stand” to describe a quán – as in a barbeque stand or seafood stand.
But stands sell wholesome things like pie or watermelon. They are places for children and old folk and tend not to draw packs of greasy hooligans and powdered young ladies into the wee hours of the morning.
I make this motion because I have never found a place in the English-speaking world that is so much fun to eat at. Consider this: you wouldn’t expect to forget how many dishes you’ve eaten at a “restaurant,” or split your sides laughing at a “stand” or order a beer at a “pub” and get a case of them. All or none of these things may happen to you at your local quán. But you know you’re patronizing one because you’re sort of drunk and very full and terribly happy.
Also, you are probably eating fried, salted peanuts.
I could probably spend a (rather short) lifetime stumbling in and out of Saigon’s ocean of quáns trying to discover the best one.
But that wouldn’t be very quán (ADJ: of or apropos of a quán) of me.
My favorite quán, of late, is run by Mike, a pool hall and gas station owner from Houston, and his wife.
Mike opened Quán Ốc 73 shortly after marrying.
“I knew I was gonna be here for a while,” he said. “And I didn’t just want to go out every night drinking.”
Instead, he drinks every night at his quán while taking special care of his customers while she tallies receipts on her pregnant belly and casts a careful eye on the food as it comes out.
With the help of their amorphous staff (you never quite know who is a customer and who is a client) the couple may provide the best service in the city.
On a recent evening, Mike managed to conjure up a chocolate birthday cake for a red-faced regular and 15 semi-coherent pals when they stumbled in at two in the morning.
[Full disclosure: I was one of them].
The night’s menu included three pan-fried stone triggerfish, several plates of fried noodles and morning glory stems tossed in both fresh and fried garlic bitlets.
The stand-out winner were Mike’s plate of pork ribs chopped into nuggets and grilled in an other-worldly sauce that harkens back to Houston by way of Hong Kong.
Garnished with a sprig of rau ram and a little bowl of ketchup and mayonnaise, they sent me into a full-blown quángasm.
The ribs so haunted me, that I returned (sober) the following evening to observe the cooking process, which involved both a microwave and a pile of lump charcoal.
QUÁN ỐC 73
Address: 73 Rach Bung Binh Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Phone: 090 278 6169
Hours: 11 a.m.-Forever
Alas, I admit that I learnt nothing useful from watching a tattooed teenager with a whispy mustache whisk sesame seeds, green peppercorns and six or seven spoonfuls of brown and black goo into a sauce that would make Guy Fiery doff his frosted tips in awe.
All I can tell you is that the only non-secret ingredient is a squirt from a bottle of generic “BBQ sauce.”
“That’s what makes it Texas,” Mike said as he shuffled them around over the flames.
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By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News (The story can be found in the October 18th issue of our print edition Vietweek)