The taco sultan of Saigon

By Calvin Godfrey, Thanh Nien News

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 Robert Nussbaum at his favorite pho spot behind the big mosque in Phu Nhuan. He has been perfecting a Halal taco factory in his home in Go Vap District for the past four years.
Robert Nussbaum had just driven a cooler full of homemade Mexican food from Go Vap to District 7. Despite a long day in the saddle, he insisted on taking me for a bowl of Halal pho behind the Jamiul Musimin Mosque, where he regularly attends prayer.
The small street beneath Cong Ly Bridge seemed like an unlikely place for Islamic pho.
When we arrived, in the middle of a bright pink sunset, beer drinkers had sat down for a long night ahead and pork butchers were cleaning up for the day. The stall itself was attached to the front of a Buddhist offerings store, which sells everything from incense to cardboard cars for the dead.
"You don't really wonder how the place has stayed a secret," Nussbaum said, as he climbed off his bike and ordered a bowl.
Phô, the young man working the pot said his father, a Muslim from Chau Doc, opened Pho Mus Al 25 years ago. Since then, the family has provided superior meat and a finely-spiced broth to a steady clientele of evening worshippers.
Nussbaum had recommended the gầu - a kinder, friendlier version of the ubiquitous beef tendon, gân - but I had avoided it.
"Try it," Nussbaum said as he dropped a piece into my empty soup bowl.
The morsel ate like a cube of bullion-infused butter - the perfect end to what's certainly one of the city's best bowls of noodles.
"Tendon that soft costs a lot in Vietnam," he said. "Fuel is money."
Nussbaum should know.
If you build it
For the past four years the 49-year-old electrical engineer has been slowly constructing a Mexican food factory the likes of which Ho Chi Minh City has never seen.
Soon after getting the idea, Nussbaum set to work designing and building a masa (corn dough) grinder and a "semi-automatic" tortilla press. He drew up schematics for some of the parts and had them made. The rest he found by scouring Cholon for old cogs and rejected bits of Chinese-made machinery.
"I ended up using the screw feed from an old meat grinder for the masa intake," he said.
His first flour tortilla exploded.
Now, Nussbaum says, he's gotten it down to a science.
"I can make a tortilla that's nearly transparent," he said. "You could hold it up to a fish tank and still see them swimming."
He's currently finishing up a series of metal and plastic plates that will allow him to churn out tortillas (and rotis, apparently) of all shapes and sizes.
Nussbaum's passion for tacos seems unrivalled. Indeed, he can hold forth for hours on the science of tortilla making. Mexican food, he says, is in his blood.
Taco legacy
"That's the food I grew up with," he said. "Mexican food was the food we ate at home."
His family descended, he says, from "horse people" who moved through the American Southwest with dried beef burritos in their saddlebags.
Nussbaum grew up in El Centro, a small California farm town about five kilometers from the Mexican border. During high school, he competed in roping competitions and spent summers working on his father's citrus ranch, entirely in the company of Mexicans.
"I didn't work those summers for the money," he says. "I worked them for the meals."
Lunches were the highlight of his day. Tortillas, beans, meat.
After school, Nussbaum joined the Navy. A small defense contract brought him to Egypt in 2005, where he says he fell in love with the people.
"It was Mayberry," Nussbaum says of Egypt. Milk came in a glass bottle and strangers chased him halfway across town to return his cell phone.
In 2005, he converted to Islam.
When work dried up in Egypt, he moved to Vietnam - mostly, he says, because of the food. He married and became an active member of HCMC's small Muslim community. Engineering work wasn't as plentiful as he had hoped in Vietnam. So he decided to start making Halal Mexican food.
"Worst case scenario is I have Mexican food," he said. "The best case is I have a business."
Taco parties
Last June, apropos of nothing, the proprietor of the Guest House California threw a taco party for all of his guests.
Nussbaum showed up with stacks of thick corn tortillas, silky tubs of refried beans and real green salsa.
Everyone ate well that night.
The food seemed as though it had been handmade in Nussbaum's kitchen. Little did I know, he and his wife already had a small factory going on the ground floor of their house in the far edge of Go Vap District.
Give it a try!
SAIGON TACOS
Website: www.saigontacos.com
Email: saigontacos@yahoo.com
Telephone: 097 697 7907
PHO MUS AL
Address: 90 Cao Thang Street, Ward 17, Phu Nhuan District
Hours: 4:30 p.m.-10 p.m. (while pho lasts!)
Price: VND45,000 per bowl
The meat at Pho Mus Al is second to none. After 25 years of serving pho behind one of the city's largest mosques, they've gotten the broth down pat too.
These days, Nussbaum spends a good portion of his week listening to books on tape while he makes deliveries all over town. His helmet and cooler both bear yellow stickers of a cartoon Mexican and the name of his business "Saigon Taco."
Several foreigners have succeeded at operating delivery-only restaurants in HCMC. A former Mr. Canada has found success delivering healthy sandwiches and a Viet kieu mom in District 2 has nearly built a cupcake empire from her kitchen in An Phu.
Nussbaum's project is slightly different.
Though he sells a full range of food items (everything from enchiladas to salsa verde) Nussbaum isn't running a restaurant. He finds it hard, to describe exactly what he is doing.
"It's like grocery delivery," he said. "I get to you when I get to you. I'm really more of a Mexican food deli."
At times, he seems more like a Mexican food missionary.
Nussbaum continues to cater didactic taco parties, explaining the construction and assembly of quesadillas to the Socialist Republic.
Every week, he makes a bulk drop to a group of English teachers in District 7 who pool resources to ensure a week's worth of tacos.
Last summer, when a Vietnamese-American named Alvin began selling tacos out of his home (just a few blocks from the Phu Nhuan mosque) as Taco Bich, he sourced his beans and tortillas from Nussbaum.
Nussbaum is more than happy to visit you for a big delivery - a party, a week's worth of food. At the moment, he's not interested in driving from Go Vap to your house to sell you a burrito or a single package of tortillas.
But all of that could change. He's currently tinkering with a chili roaster and a tamale machine.
Soon, he hopes to begin packaging his products for sale in gourmet supermarkets. If all goes according to plan, he will begin production of Vietnam's first Halal corn dog.

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