Geoff Deetz is a busy man. Between his several Black Cat ventures and two new restaurants - Typhoon and Miami - he has opened nine outlets in Ho Chi Minh City in just nine months.
At work, he serves up a tremendous variety of fare that covers a vast swath of culinary traditions: hearty comfort food, spicy Southeast Asian and Central American gulf cuisines and flavorful Vietnamese. It leaves you wondering how Deetz fills up when he’s finally out of the kitchen.
Like most chefs, Deetz craves simplicity. “I look at food all day long, think about it and try to create new meals,” he said. “I don't want to sit down to a complex meal.”
And since he only eats one full meal, somewhere around 11 p.m., this hungry chef finds himself in search of simple, satisfying food.
Street food picks
"I've always been into street food," Deetz said. "I'm a firm believer this is the best way to taste the culture. Street food works for me because it's always there. It's available."
Deetz is a big fan of com tam, also known as broken rice, since it's made from fractured grains. "It's one of my favorite dishes in the world and it's a meal in itself. Com tam is simple but really fulfilling."
A serving of com tam includes a pork chop, a fried egg, a piece of egg cake, pickled vegetables and fried green onions with oil sprinkled on top. Deetz’s favorite com tam vendor is on the southeast corner of Ly Tu Trong and Thu Khoa Huan Street in HCMC’s District 1.
For a fix of banh xeo, Deetz heads straight to Banh Xeo 46A at 46A Dinh Cong Trang, off Hai Ba Trung in District 1. Known as "sizzling cake", banh xeo is a large, pan-fried rice flour crepe filled with pork, shrimp, bean sprouts, lettuce and herbs and finished with fish sauce.
"At Banh Xeo 46A, they just do it better than anybody,” Deetz said. “It's in a busy alley and this is all they do, just sit and make banh xeo all night long."
Deetz also heads down an alley between Vo Van Tan and Nguyen Dinh Chieu, near Cao Thang in HCMC’s District 3 whenever he craves a hearty bowl of Cambodian soup called hu tieu nam vang. The soup is made with sliced and minced pork, shrimp, a quail egg, baby water celery, pickled garlic, vinegar, herbs and sliced liver (which Deetz doesn't eat, as it ruins the taste for him).
"It's a simple soup usually done with egg and rice noodles,” Deetz said. “You can get it either dry or with broth."
To Deetz's dismay, quail eggs were pulled from hu tieu nam vang during the avian flu scare several years ago and for the most part, haven't reappeared. "It's frustrating,” he said, “because the quail egg made the soup."
Hamdogs and rice cakes
Late night, Deetz heads over to Nhu Lan Bakery at 64-68 Ham Nghi in District 1 for a variation on a traditional hamburger, a sort of hybrid hot dog and hamburger. “It's a very weird thing,” he said. “The bun is sweet, the ketchup is sweet, there's some sort of sour pickle, half of a hot dog and a mini-burger patty all inside a hamburger bun.”
Deetz said it doesn't have a Vietnamese name that he knows of, but it can be found on the bakery's counter. "It's the best thing we have to a Jack in the Box drive-thru."
Banh gio is another favorite found near Nhu Lan. It’s sold by food vendors who walk down the street yelling, "Banh gio!" It's a steamed glutinous, clear rice cake with minced pork, mushroom and a quail egg, all wrapped in a banana leaf.
When the sun comes up, Deetz prefers to eat an Asian breakfast: beefsteak with pate, meatballs, eggs and French bread (35,000 VND or US$2.05) at Beefsteak Nam Son, 188 Nam Ky Khoi Nghia in District 3. Deetz describes it as a sizzling platter of food served on a large metal plate cooked over fire.
"They crack the eggs, sizzle the steak, throw in the pate, a couple of meatballs, a side of french fries (for an extra 6,000 VND or 35 cents) and drop it on the table," Deetz said. The meal comes with bread and pickles and despite its popularity as a breakfast food, it's served up day and night. "This is a meal I wish I had more time to eat,” sighed Deetz, “because it's really very good."
Durian for dessert
Deetz admits he enjoys an aromatic piece of durian, especially after a tamarind crab dinner. He describes the smell of this thorny fruit as a combination of stinky brie and banana-flavored Now and Later candy, mixed with a chicken that's been in the fridge for two weeks too long. Despite that appetizing description, Deetz defends his choice: "Once you put durian in your mouth, you lose the smell and then it's great - it's just getting it past your nose."
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