Plastic stool ogles comely lasses capitalizing on a renaissance of Hanoian fare in Ho Chi Minh City
A few months ago, a tall, androgynous model from Hanoi opened a tofu and shrimp paste shack in the middle of a long alley in Pham Ngu Lao.
The fried shrimp rolls (bún nem tôm) at Mam Tom+, the latest in a massive eruption of Saigon restaurants that celebrate the flavors of Northern Vietnam, in general, and the namesake potent purple shrimp paste, in particular. Photo courtesy of Mam Tom+
Reasonably priced and highly delicious, Bún Đậu Cô Khàn
(literally "Ms. Smoky Voice's Tofu Noodles") seemed, at the time, like a singularly brilliant idea.
I didn't realize that Cô Khàn's place represented a small piece of a southern renaissance of sweet fermented beverages and Hanoi dishes infused with the powerful purple shrimp paste known as mắm tôm.
This movement, if I can call it that, has changed the way people hang out. Gangs of adorable teenagers now gather, nightly, on low wooden stools to sip glasses of trà chanh (sweet iced tea with lime juice) and munch on phô mai que (essentially fried string cheese on a stick).
The tofu gold rush has even had the bizarre effect of sparking a new aesthetic consciousness in a town whose best restaurants have traditionally felt like field hospitals.
Last week, I stumbled into Mắm Tôm+, a four-month-old Hanoi food spot squirreled away in a nondescript alley not far from the Bitexco tower.
Bamboo poles with dangling orchids crisscrossed a dining room. Flat bamboo trays advertised the expansive menu from the far wall.
Naturally, the owner turned out to be a stunning and successful woman from the capital city who'd made a living in PR.
Viet Hong wandered from table to table in a purple lace dress greeting customers wolfing down the house's rich fried spring rolls.
The crisp, overstuffed rolls strained against an impressive filling of julienned carrot, mushrooms, shrimp and pork hash. The whole thing came to the table looking like a delicious anemone - the rolls were plated standing on end in a bed of white rice noodles and bright fragrant herbs.
I finished it all off with a mug of fermented purple rice and yogurt (sữa chua nếp cẩm) which went down delightfully sweet and bitter.
Not bad for four dollars.
* Mắm Tôm+
Address: 100/3 Nguyen Cong Tru St., District 1, HCMC
Telephone: 090 265 5502
Hours: 7 a.m.-10 p.m.
* Ngõ 89
Address: 89 Nguyen Du St., District 1, HCMC
Hours: 3 p.m.-10 p.m.
Address: 87 Nguyen Du St., District 1, HCMC
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
* Thị Quán
Address: 46/50 Vo Van Tan St., District 3, HCMC
Hours: 10 a.m.-10 p.m.
Though it would be impossible to pinpoint who opened the first of these stylized and delicious Hanoi food spots, the idea seems to have started on a now busy stretch of Nguyen Du Street.
"I have about half the customers I did when we first opened," said Dang Thu Hien, tugging nervously at a loose corner of her dress at a table of friends on a busy Saturday night. "So many places have opened since then."
A terrible karaoke singer had descended the legion of sweaty young sidewalk diners spilling out of her packed restaurant. Few seemed to notice, but at my table's insistence, Hien politely bargained the singer down to two songs.
Last September, the former event manager brightened a windowless shop in the bottom of a war-era apartment block with bright lights, and a cartoon mural featuring a skyline besieged by balloons and television-shaped aliens.
When the karaoke boys aren't out, the place hums to a cool international pop soundtrack.
Ngõ 89 served small plates of fingerfoods, like pork pie nuggets dipped in Hanoi hot sauce (nem chua rán) and, of course bún đậu mắm tôm, mostly to teenagers desperate to post cell phone pictures of themselves eating on Facebook.
Early this year, Hien doubled down by opening Gỏi, a hip full-service restaurant named after a dish that can only be described as a killer cabbage and mushroom empanada.
The walls and waitresses are decked out in vintage kitsch (old radios plaid aprons) and everything is served on white and blue enamelware.
Beyond its namesake dish, Gỏi serves an astounding bún chả sương xông - pork balls grilled in bitter herbs. Equally as good is the giả cầy, a pig foot stew prepared in the fashion of dog meat. The predominant flavor, of course, is mắm tôm.
>On a hot day, stop in for as many mugs of Gỏi's transcendent lemongrass tea as your bladder has room for.
Hien insisted that the recipes are nothing special. "Every Hanoi woman knows how to make these things," she said.
It would seem they have just been keeping it all from us all these years.
While her business may have suffered from the boom it may have inspired, she is still not short of customers.
On May 5, Hien's friend will oversee the launch of Thị Quán a place in District 3 that will specialize in traditional northern food and hotpots, especially lẩu gà bỗng rượu (chicken hotpot with fermented rice). I'll be there, spoon in hand, to taste what may be the next big thing.