Billy's Food Takes
While my wife is well on her way to Influencer status, what the people have really been waiting for are Billy’s Food Takes. Maybe it’s just that I’m writing this on a stomach full of three banh mis while
Maya works her abs in our hotel room, but let’s talk food.
Did you say three banh mis?
Yes, and honestly, I might have been able to squeeze in one more. When you find a good one, it’s that good. Banh mi is nothing short of the best food bargain in any country we’ve visited (Japan, Hong Kong, or Vietnam). Traditional banh mi puts pork, pate, cucumbers, carrots, papaya, cilantro, and chiles onto a perfectly baked baguette, but there are many variations. Prices range from $0.50 to $1.50 USD. That is not a misprint. We had a nice chat with a couple from Kentucky (at a banh mi hotspot in Hoi An, of course) who told us that the day before, they’d eaten six banh mis. We thought they were crazy until we realized that they were geniuses. Does BM stand for banh mi, backpacker manna, or...something else? The things you think about on the road…
Some of my favorites: Madam Khanh - The Banh Mi Queen (Hoi An), Phi Banh Mi (Hoi An), Banh Mi 25 (Hanoi), Banh Mi Hoi An (Hanoi, Hoi An)
Ramen or pho?
Japan and Vietnam are in an epic struggle for the title of “Will’s Favorite Food Country in Asia” at the moment, and the fiercest battle may just be over these two delicious noodle soups. There are endless ways to make both and I suspect that most of the people reading this have already tried or at least heard of each dish. (If you haven’t, you need to change that in a hurry). So much of this depends on your personal preferences, the specific broth/noodles/fixings, blah blah blah, but at the moment, I’m giving the slightest of edges to ramen over pho. First, Japan has the advantage of its temperature not reaching the mid eighties on cooler days, which make it a superior soup-eating climate. Second, ramen tends to be a little heartier (or so I’ve found) than pho. Pho is still substantial, but can sometimes rely on fried dough to fill you up.Still delicious, but if we’re going to split hairs, those are the tough calls we have to make. Lastly, most pho places have one preparation - theirs. You don’t get to customize (more on that in a minute). Ramen, on the other hand, is yours to design in most cases. I can see the argument for pho’s charm in that regard - there’s something freeing about ordering off a one-item menu (you can’t screw it up) - but I’m a soup snowflake and I need to order extra spicy.
Some of my favorite ramen: Ippudo (Japan, many cities), Ichiran (Japan, many), Ginza Kagari (Tokyo), Ramen Zundoya Shinsaibashi (Osaka)
Some of my favorite pho: Pho Thin (Hanoi), Pho Gia Truyen Bat Dan (Hanoi)
How is it out there for vegetarians, vegans, pescatarians, people who don’t eat pork (is there a word for that?), and generally picky eaters?
Disclaimer: I’m not commenting on how to manage allergies here because, having none, I’m not qualified to speak to that.
It’s a mixed bag. We haven’t had difficulty finding restaurants and dishes that cater to the vegetarian/vegan crowd. They eat their fruits and vegetables in Asia and soy is of course a staple of Asian diets, so you’ll find tofu or similar on most menus. Where it gets challenging is when you try to make substitutions, subtractions, or changes to items on a menu. For example, at a homestay in Hanoi, Maya and I ordered identical breakfasts, but she ordered hers without sausage. When breakfast arrived, neither of us got sausage. I made sure to remind Maya of this at breakfast the next day. Other attempts to tweak menu items have produced similar results, including one mishap where a chef in Japan brought Maya a raw egg in a bowl instead of a fried one. In some cases, changes are outright rejected. Though I just got done praising ramen for its flexibility and customization, the best advice I can give is to order items that you don’t need to tweak. Don’t order the local specialty without meat when it’s only ever prepared with pork, for instance. It may cause you to miss out on a few things, but that’s the choice that one makes when you place dietary restrictions on yourself.
What was the best meal you’ve had on the road?
Without hesitation, Daiwa Sushi at Toyosu Market in Tokyo. I can honestly say that it was one of the five best meals of my life. We were told that we needed to line up at 3:00 AM and wait several hours to have a chance at getting sushi at its buzzier neighbor, Sushi Dai. We passed on that and had breakfast at the much more civilized time of 10:00 AM. After a 20 minute wait and for about $45 US each, we got fifteen or so pieces of the freshest sushi there is. One bonus piece came with compliments of the chef for those that were willing to try - I still don’t know what it was.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?
That one piece of sushi was pretty weird (chewy, had an odd shape, I really can’t explain the taste) but it wasn’t the winner. For some people, eating bugs isn’t all that strange. I am not one of those people. Eating bugs will never not be weird to me, but I forced myself to eat a couple of crickets with chili sauce at a cricket farm in Dalat, Vietnam. A close second is the deep fried spicy frog that I had at Mok Mony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Mok Mony has an amnesty policy for their guests in order to encourage adventurous ordering - send any dish back, no questions asked, and it will be given to the local homeless shelter so it won’t go to waste - and it emboldened me to try frog. Maya abstained.
Have you pretty much stuck to the local cuisine, or have you gone for any international food or comforts of home?
For the overwhelming majority of our trip, we’ve eaten local. It just feels weird coming to Southeast Asia and ordering a burger and fries. However, we heard about an excellent Indian restaurant in Tam Coc, Vietnam called Aroma and decided that we could use a change of pace from the Vietnamese flavor palette. We liked it so much that we went twice. After much fanfare, we caved and went to 4P’s Pizza in Ho Chi Minh City. Having lived in New York for eight years, I can honestly say that I’ve become accustomed to the best pizza there is, and 4P’s absolutely holds its own. It’s not just good for Vietnam, it’s good for anywhere. We also devoured some outstanding burgers in Phnom Penh at Cousin’s Burger & Coffee.
This isn’t a question, just a rant on Vietnamese food.
Vietnamese food is freaking awesome, and I can’t believe how few Vietnamese restaurants there are in New York. Not only that, but the ones that are there pretty much stick to the basics from what I’ve seen - pho and banh mi. Both are great (see above), but there’s so much more. Bun cha, bun bo, cha ca, banh can...I can’t even remember all the incredible dishes we’ve tried that I had never heard of before visiting Vietnam. There’s a real opportunity out there for a restaurateur to bring some of these gems back to NYC.
Thanks for reading. I’ll probably redux this post once we spend more time in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand.