A tale of two soymilks

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     Chocolate soymilk (VND31,000) and durian Taiyaki (VND25,000) at The Bean Store in Ho Chi Minh City's District 3

Last week, newspapers all over the country carried a vague investigation about chemically dyed soybeans being used as filler in low-end coffee blends.

Like most investigative reports in Vietnam, it didn't say what chemicals were being used or by whom. All it did was fan a general sense that cheap coffee (and perhaps even soybeans) cannot be trusted.

In steps The Bean Store, a sleek new soymilk spot on Vo Van Tan, which swears on its menu to only use soybeans grown in the United States.

"People want something that's healthy and clean," said Phung Vuong, the 24 year-old graphic designer who got the idea of opening the place after taking a trip to Singapore with her business partner in 2008.

Her partner, Tam, a 27 year-old Vietnamese American market researcher from Seattle helped design the restaurant without any experience at all.

"I was a waiter for a while," he said. "So I'm familiar with the frustrations."

What's amazing about the place is that it has redefined a relatively common street drink as something entirely foreign.

"We love soymilk," Phung said. "When we came back [from Singapore], we missed it."

Their sua dau nanh is thick, fresh and comes in six flavors both hot and cold. The Bean Store sells everything from plain old soymilk (VND24,000) to an impossibly rich soy matcha frappe (VND47,000). Each drink arrives in an adorable miniature pitcher garnished with a pair of Pandan leaves"”a touch that Phung insists is not unique to Vietnam.

Consider a hot chocolate (VND31,000) or a cold ginger (VND28,000). Both are refreshing, in different ways, and seem to tap into the distinct comfort food appeal of the place. Both drinks pair nicely with a durian Taiyaki"”a bready fish-shaped pastry filled with fresh durian that gets pressed right in the front window.

Phung took specific pains to indicate that most of the ingredients for their vaguely Japanese menu were imported.

Even the aesthetic seems imported.

Bright wood tables line the dining room and neat Polaroids with English captions line the walls. Soft American pop murmurs through invisible speakers somewhere in the high white walls.

Even the temperature of the place is set to a perfect Singaporean chill.

It's hard not to feel like Tam and Phung have created the perfect prototype for the future of Saigon's cafés"”overwhelmingly cute, tasty and vaguely foreign.

I overheard two customers ask if there was only one Bean Store and the friend who recommended the place assumed it was Japanese.

As much as I like The Bean Store, I have to insist that fans of the drink also pay a visit to The Eternal Harmony Soymilk King (Sua Dau Nanh Vinh Hoa) in District 10.

The Eternal Harmony Soymilk King (a rough translation of the red backlit Chinese characters out front) won a special place in my heart for serving hot sua dau nanh (VND12,000) out of plastic bowls after midnight.

The place feels like an old comfortable shoe. The faded sidewalk façade is decorated principally by its menu. Inside, a display case packed with snacks joins a worn counter outfitted with an old steamer and a well-seasoned wok.

Every night, the king's loyal subjects hunker down on the tin folding tables, heaping giant spoonfuls of sugar into their milk while millions of motorbikes feed into the traffic circle at the end of Nguyen Tri Phuong.

THE BEAN STORE

Address: 339 Vo Van Tan Street, District 3, Ho Chi Minh CityHours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Tel: (08) 3 929 5678
Price: VND24,000-47,000 per glass, depending on flavor

SUA DAU NANH VINH HOA
(AKA the Eternal Harmony Soymilk King)

Address: 243 Nguyen Tri Phuong Street, District 10, Ho Chi Minh City
Hours: 6 a.m.-1 a.m.
Tel: (08) 6 651 2004
Price: VND12,000 for plain soymilk

While part of me wants to feel like there's something more authentically Vietnamese about the Eternal Harmony Soymilk King,

I know that there's not.

According to a review published by The Word, the place lifted its rather lengthy name from Taiwan's most popular soymilk chain.

Xuan, the portly pyjamaed king, said he opened the shop in the year 2000 in the shadow of a giant pillar topped by a statue of Ly Thai To, another good king.

"There were two other soymilk spots in town then," he said. "Two years after I opened, they were both dead."

Xuan's soybeans come from somewhere in Cambodia; he buys them from a local market in District 5. Health seems like a passing concern for the king.

The only item on the menu that could be mistaken as being healthy is a mug of sua gao (VND18,000)"”an insipid brown rice gloop.

Though he can rarely be found before 11 p.m., Xuan says running the soymilk restaurant is his only occupation. The place stays open for an impressive 19 hours a day and serves everything from steamed dumplings to fried scallion turnovers. It may also make the tastiest greasy fried egg in town (VND7,000).

Indeed, it feels like a guilty pleasure to end up here at the end of the night, eating fried snacks with the cheap dates and crews of bored preadolescents who ride in on their bicycles.

Every now and again, a father will pull up with his kid and treat him to a dau cha quay (Chinese cruller, VND10,000) which essentially tastes like someone fried chicken McNugget batter into an 18-inch tube and let it hang out for a while"”in other words, delicious.

The whole menu (written in Vietnamese and Chinese) is good. So good, that I often play menu-roulette with splendid results.

On a recent evening, I pointed to the banh nuong thap cam (VND20,000) which turned out to be an impossibly thin scallion omelet folded up in a flaky sesame wrap with pickled cabbage, and star anise-flavored slices of fatty pork belly.

"Yo man," called a Vietnamese-American eating at the next table. "Where'd you get that burrito?"

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