A family held up on chicken feet

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Trang and Nhi said they were eating the chicken feet at Mai Xuan Canh for the first time

I have tried and failed, for my entire life, to understand the chicken foot as a food item.

I tried them in Chinatowns all over America, placing each new foot into my mouth as though it might suddenly come alive and scratch my eyes out.

Every bite left me with the same question: Why would anyone opt to eat the rubbery, reptilian sticks that prop up mankind's meat lollipop?

No one could convince me that they had any value as a food item.

I was not alone.

Last year, Beijing levied hefty tariffs on the US$1 billion deluge of cheap American chicken feet that had come to dominate the nation's beer parlors and sidewalk restaurants.

US officials responded that the "broiler paws" were worthless at home. If Chinese restaurateurs had not started buying them by the container full, the feet would have been ground into dog food.

The future of the tariff sits in the hands of a World Trade Organization panel.

I was happy to let China have all our chicken feet, until I went to Mai Xuan Canh.

For the past 20 years, the place has served chicken in all forms 24 hours a day in the shadow of the central post office.

Every morning, Xuan, a sassy Hanoi-born matriarch, serves mien ga (chicken glass noodles) to a loyal customer base of northern transplants and masochists.

A number of local bloggers have dubbed her place mien chui"”literally "verbal abuse noodles." Most of her ire is directed at her own staff, but I once got chui'd out for stopping in front of her business to answer a phone call.

The night service is managed by her son Minh, who sits down every day at 2 p.m. with a sharp knife and a calloused hand and sets to work splitting chicken feet into perfect halves.

Minh sinks the split claws into a secret mouth-tingling marinade of his own design.

 
Mai Xuan Canh made me a believer in the beauty of a beer and a plate of grilled chicken feet
For the next twelve hours, the feet are grilled on the home's rooftop barbeque.

At some point in this process, the inedible claws, transform into chewy, charred meat candy that leaves the tongue and head buzzing long the after last shred of tendon has been sucked off the bone.

Achieving this transformation was no easy feat.

Indeed, it nearly killed Minh.

For the past twenty years, he has worked all day (and night) at creating the ultimate family business.

Rather than relying on frozen American imports, Minh bought his chickens (feet and all) from relatives in the Mekong Delta province of Long An, according to his older sister Hien. His dour squad of waiters was all drafted from his wife's family. Even the handicapped chewing gum vendor is a distant aunt.

In addition to helping prepare all aspects of the day menu, Minh often stayed up all night to micro-manage every aspect of the operation.

MAI XUAN CANH

Address: 57 Nguyen Du Street, District 1, HCMC
Phone: 090 766 7090
Price: VND25,000 per foot
(with a two foot minimum)
Hours: Never closes. The feet grilling begins after dark and goes until sunrise.
At one point in the restaurant's history, a television screen provided diners with a closed circuit feed of a row of cooks fanning the rooftop barbeque.

The screen was not meant to provide entertainment, but a method of constant surveillance.

"Nowadays, he gets the feed on his laptop," said his youngest sister, Hong.

Minh rarely slept, she said. Instead, he would return home in the backseat of a car to catch a two or three hour nap before returning to the restaurant to cut cucumbers.

"When he's here, the food is the most delicious," she said.

Last week, Minh collapsed from some sort of heart trouble.

"He was seconds away from being dead," Hong said.

Stress seemed the most likely the cause. Police have forced the family to push back their sidewalk seating and all five of Minh's kids are off studying in America.

At the moment, he is convalescing. Despite his absence, however, everything seems to be going according to plan.

His curt in-laws continue to insist that you buy a minimum of two feet at a time for VND50,000. The cucumber pickles remain well-trimmed and the plastic stools are kept warm all night long by the odd mix of prostitutes, wealthy drinkers and young lovers who cannot get enough of the fantastic feet.

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