Mexican spice in Saigon

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Khoi Thom, whose name translates as "Fragrant Smoke," is one of the few Mexican restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City, and it is authentic with a Mexican chef to boot.

The place is an airy and comfortable eatery and drinking hole, with lots of trees and shrubs, a retractable roof that closes promptly when the rain arrives, and boisterous Mexican music loud enough to make me want to get out on the dance floor dance but not too loud to inhibit conversation.

Said to be inspired by renowned Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, the restaurant is decked out in all manner of bright colors, particularly pink.

Chef Alejandro Palacios told me that Mexican eateries aim to provide comfort and relaxation, to be places for hanging out, wining and dining, and enjoying music.

Choosing to sit outdoors, I could feel the fresh cool air all around, even though my spot was not too far from the street outside.

Open daily from 11 a.m. until late, Khoi Thom has set lunches and an a la carte menu for dinner.

The main set lunch is priced at VND140,000 while the sandwich lunch costs VND110,000.

My friend and I began a decent portion of homemade chips of sweet potato and turnip, which were crunchy, naturally sweet and a tad salty, along with four different dips to add flavor, all for VND50,000.

For my main course, I chose pork and beans stew topped with mozzarella cheese. It came with salad, the soft flat round Mexican bread called tortilla, and our choice of Mexican fried rice or fried garlic rice.

The stew was a bit sour and salty, the pork was finely minced and the red beans were untouched yet still very soft. The waiter recommended that I either soak the tortilla in the stew or put some pork and beans on the tortilla and roll it up. I found either way to be satisfying.

From the sandwich menu we ordered a burrito, which is a tortilla folded into a cylindrical shape to completely enclose a filling of beef, pork, chicken, seafood, vegetables, cheese, what-have-you.

Chef Alejandro said burrito and taco (which is similar to burrito but is formed by simply folding a tortilla in half over a filling to create a flat semicircle and is also served at Khoi Thom) are the most popular snacks of Mexican people and are found everywhere in Mexico - on the streets, in the markets, at restaurants.

We went for the fried coconut shrimp burrito, which came with salad and two kinds of sauce: avocado-based guacamole and chili con carne, the latter being a spicy concoction of meat, chili pepper and tomato.

The burrito tasted excellent with its salty, sour, and slightly sweet combination. The soft tortilla and the crunchy fried shrimp were a perfect combination, tempered with lots of vegetables inside to make it less greasy and much healthier.

For drinks, I tried the traditional Mexican brew called horchata.

To make a Mexican horchata, according to Alejandro, rice is soaked in water for about two hours then blended and strained to get the rice water, which is then added with some sugar and condensed milk and finally, cinnamon on top.

Horchata at Khoi Thom is served on the rocks. Mine tasted quite sweet and I could clearly smell the rice.

We also tried the restaurant's sangria, a drink that combines wine with fruit and a little sugar. Compared to those that I have sampled elsewhere in the city, Khoi Thom's sangria was sweeter, which I really liked at first taste but found it too syrupy to keep imbibing, so my glass was left unfinished.

KHOI THOM RESTAURANT

29 Ngo Thi Nhiem Street,

District 3, HCMC

To conclude our meal we ordered bread pudding with kumquat and cinnamon sauce, which was served hot.

The sweet and sour sauce was delicious, and the small scoop of vanilla ice-cream on top made our dessert irresistible even though we both felt full.

There's plenty of indoor space at Khoi Thom for holding parties or meetings, and there's a bar inside that serves all manner of Mexican cocktails. There's also a strategically located board listing the day's specials and discounts.

To add more spice to the proceedings, Khoi Thom has a lime, soda and tequila cocktail called the Tequila Slammer, which is brought to the table and slammed down on the surface by one of the restaurant's "Tequila girls" sporting a sombrero on her head.

And on weekend nights, the restaurant usually has live music with singer and band or Salsa party.

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