A Quick Trip to Hanoi

quick trip to hanoi

On our first night in Hanoi, my friend Alix and I walked to dinner. The restaurant was just five blocks away, but that’s all the time it took for us to become completely stupefied by the chaos of the streets. We snagged two child-size plastic stools with a view of an intersection, ordered a round of beer, and watch in silence as the tangle of humanity worked itself in and out of impossible knots before us.

quick trip to hanoi

There is no ebb to the flow here, just a constant surge of grumbling motorbikes, speeding cars, and teams of people grappling their way through it all. The pulse never lets up.

quick trip to hanoi

Mornings bring Pho vendors to the sidewalks, squeezing tiny tables between parked motorbikes. Tea vendors, barbers, and pedicurists take their place in the afternoon, but are themselves ousted by men selling warm beer and women wok-frying spring rolls in the evening. Throughout it all: balloons, stray dogs, a chicken or two, loose electric wires, broken crosswalk signals, shrines, incense, bird cages, and nary a strip of sidewalk to walk upon.

quick trip to hanoi

Hanoi is, without a doubt, and exhausting city – but it’s downright charming as well. The people are endlessly friendly, the French-colonial architecture has serious photographic appeal, and, of course, the food is reason enough to attempt a potentially suicidal intersection-crossing at rush hour.

quick trip to hanoi

This was a super quick trip to Hanoi, but – with the aid of much Vietnamese coffee – we managed to zip around town and have quite a few memorable meals. Here are some of my favorites and where to find them:

quick trip to hanoi

Pho!

In its worst (and, unfortunately, its most common) iterations Pho is a bland beef-based soup flavored with little else than MSG and a lime wedge. I’m honestly usually bored by this dish, but we found a few versions in Hanoi whose hints of lemongrass, star anise and cinnamon made me snap to attention. Pho 10 does a great bowl with rare brisket and crispy fried crullers for dipping.

quick trip to hanoi

Bun!

Rice noodles, so naturally devoid of flavor, come to life with the addition of marinated beef or pork and  a confetti sprinkling of fried shallots. Use chopsticks to lift and fold the noodles into the thick soy and fish sauce pooled beneath, add some chopped peanuts, a squirt of lime, and never dare to call rice noodles “plain” again. The version we had at Bun Bo Nam Bo was my favorite dish in the city.

quick trip to hanoi

Xox Xeo!

Though usually eaten for breakfast, this mix of sticky rice, mung bean, and turmeric can be dressed up for dinner with roast chicken and a slick drizzle of chicken fat. Get it at Xoi Yen any time of day.

quick trip to hanoi

Banh Cuon!

Even after watching a woman pour water-thin rice batter into a steamer and use chopsticks to wrap the resulting translucent noodles around pork and shrimp, I’m still unsure how she did it. Banh cuon is just so delicate and slippery I could hardly lift if with a fork, much less two wooden sticks. Head to  Bánh Cuốn Gia Truyens to test your skills on a classic version topped with fried shallots, nuoc cham and cilantro.

Anyone been to Hanoi? I hope to go back some day, so leave any suggestions if you have any!

Vietnamese Coffee: Beyond the Cat Poo

 

FullSizeRender 7

Despite being the world’s second largest coffee-producing country, Vietnam has long been maligned for exporting nothing but low quality swill. French colonists covered the land with Robusta beans (an inferior variety typically used in pre-ground mixes) and local industry leaders then bolstered the product with everything from soy and caramel, to steroids and toxic chemicals. Farmers were getting the shaft, customers were getting screwed, and producers were earning a reputation as the shadiest cats in the biz.

Speaking of cats, Vietnam did make a brief, if not infamous, comeback on the high-end coffee scene a few years ago when it began to export and promote Kopi Luwak – specialty beans literally consumed, partially-digested, and expelled by the civet cat. This made for excellent headlines, but did nothing to win Vietnamese beans a place at the third wave table.

But, despite all these crappy beans and all this poo, Vietnamese coffee is about to be huge. I predict Saigon-style coffee shops in NYC, Da Lat specialty blends delivered to your door, and egg coffee on every brunch menu from Melbourne to Portland.

Why?

RengReng in Hanoi

Reng Reng in Hanoi

Because the Good Guys are Making a Move.

Vietnamese coffee lovers have had enough of tainted brew. After a series of scandals and health threats, a number of growers, distributors, and sellers are shifting towards transparency and education. Individuals like barista champion Will Frith are working to elevate standards of everything from agricultural practices to sustainable global sales, while Cafes like Reng Reng in Hanoi make responsible production and consumption their main mission. The movement is gaining momentum, with conscientious coffee shops cropping up throughout the country. As progress is made, Vietnam’s coffee reputation will have a chance at redemption.

Third wave vietnamese coffee

Cafe Po Co in Hanoi

Because Vietnamese Coffee Culture is Seriously Cool.

The Vietnamese love their coffee and they love to linger over it. They sit knee to knee in tiny shops on child-size plastic chairs with the doors and windows flung wide open. Everyone has a chat, does some people watching, and takes their sweet time to sip the bracing brew. Starbucks only opened its first store in Ho Chi Mihn in 2013, and even their to-go-cup-toting ways have not elicited enough excitement from the locals to change the laid-back culture. The coffee shops here have a solid, chilled-out vibe going, and it’s one I think we’ll soon see replicated in Western cities.

Third wave vietnamese coffee

Because Egg Coffee Brings More to the Brunch Table Than Avocado Toast.

You already know about Vietnamese coffee, right? It’s the gasoline-strength drip stuff that’s mellowed by a swirl of sweetened condensed milk. It’s been popular in Vietnam since colonial times and has made a strong showing in the West as well, but it’s about to be shown up by the mightiest nerve-jangler of them all: egg coffee. Take two egg yolks, add a splash of sweetened condensed milk, whisk until your arm goes numb and a luscious, pale yellow foam forms. Spoon this egg cream atop hot brew and stir. Voila: liquid tiramisu. For now, you can find this local fave at any coffee shop in Vietnam. In the future, you will find it on every brunch spread worth Instagraming.

 

 

Old School Eats: Dining Beyond the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo

monster cafe

From robot restaurants and owl cafes, to cuddle bars and Harajuku Girl waitresses, Tokyo takes modern dining to bonkers levels. In just four days I ate a “poison cake,” had an entirely automated ramen experience, and drank something called the Mad Scientist while sitting beneath a neon pink horse who himself was drinking from a gallon-sized baby bottle. Though delightfully deranged, these experiences left me wondering if there was any old school dining left to be had in this madhouse city.

traditional restaurants in tokyo

…which, of course, is a ridiculous notion because this is Japan we are talking about and the only thing the Japanese are more obsessed with than modernity, is tradition. World-class temples of cuisine are found throughout Tokyo, hidden everywhere from train station basements and alleyways, to non-descript office buildings. The best tend to focus on a singular technique and are helmed by a master whose life’s work is dedicated to the quiet perfection and preservation of a skill rather than personal notoriety.

traditional restaurants in tokyo

Think about it. When’s the last time you’ve been to any restaurant with notably good food that doesn’t also maintain some sort of social media platform. How about a restaurant that’s been owned by one family for generations but hasn’t been written up in a major publication? What about a place with lines out the door whose kitchen staff are all over the age of 60? In the age of dedicated food news sites and chefs with their own prescription-grade eyewear line, it seems an anomaly that this subtle, ego-less world exists. But just like that pink horse head, it does – and I like it.

Here are three stellar traditional restaurants in Tokyo you should check out before you dive into the neon nightlife:

traditional restaurants in tokyo

Takechan

Charcoal-fueled smoke overwhelms this tiny temple of skewers and draws long lines of people eager to take down all manner of chicken parts, be it heart, neck, or the part “above the knee and below the butt.” Go for the tasting menu and sit at the bar to watch a true master* transform little bits of bird into nuggets worth raving about.

traditional restaurants in tokyo

Butagumi

Who knew that the holy grail for deep-fried heritage pork would be found in a converted, WWII bath house? “Superior” cuts are always on offer here (think Iberico and Berkshire), but even the standard tonkatsu proves just how succulent the other white meat can be.

traditional restaurants in tokyo

Namiki Yabusoba

Established in 1913, this gorgeous Edo-style restaurant is a serene hideaway from the bustle of nearby Asakusa. Here, soba noodles are made by hand using 100% buckwheat flour milled each morning, and are served simply so as to allow the nutty flavor of the grain to shine. Try the plain, cold noodles with soy-based dipping sauce, or opt for a brothy soba soup topped with fluffy steamed egg.

 

*Who is this master? I read one blog that said he’s a third generation yakitori god, and another which put his age at 95.  Are these rumors true? What’s his name? Does he have a twitter handle?!  I’ll keep digging, but if you have any insight, do share.

Three Weird Bowls of Ramen in Tokyo

ramen in tokyo

Free-flowing sake and late night karaoke lead me to eat more than a few bowls of ramen in Tokyo. Some were precautionary, consumed in haste before a night spent at the micro bars; others were medicinal, inhaled as a post-karaoke booze mop. I knew I would hit up my fare share of slurp shops while touring the city last month, but I didn’t know I’d get an education on lesser-known ramen styles along the way.

ramen in tokyo

Before traveling in Japan, I had a vague idea that ramen culture went beyond the tonkatsu style I so happily slurped in the States. I’d seen all those Mind of a Chef episodes, flipped through Ivan’s book, and plowed through noodle shops everywhere from San Francisco to NYC, but despite all that, I was still surprised by the wide varieties of ramen in Tokyo. Here’s a look at some of my most peculiar finds:

ramen in tokyo

Assari Ramen

“Assari” means “light” and references the clear, thin stock that’s the hallmark of this Tokyo-style ramen. Instead of boiling pork bones for hours on end, assari stock is cooked for a considerably shorter amount of time and benefits from the lighter flavors of vegetables, chicken bones, and fish bones.

Give this one a try at Konjiki Hototogisu in Shibuya. The eight-seater draws depressingly-long lines that, sadly, do not move swiftly. Of course, the wait is worth it. The broth here is what you’ve always wanted chicken soup to taste like…if your chicken soup also had some porky notes and a saline hit from the giant clam added to the stock.

ramen in tokyo

Niboshi Ramen

Made from soy, chicken bones, and loads of dried sardines, niboshi broth packs some serious funk. While it’s somewhat shocking when pork-topped noodles taste of the sea, the flavor of the pungent swimmers actually plays well with the fatty meat and sweet egg yolk.

The undisputed king of niboshi ramen is at Nagi, a second-story dive hidden in the maze of Golden Gai’s micro bars. While the broth here is famous, I think the fat, squidgey noodles are equally notable. Join the queue in the alley below and wait to be called upstairs via the plastic tube snaking from the window above.

ramen in tokyo

Tsukemen

Think of this as the French dip of the ramen world. You get two bowls: one with plain noodles, and one with a pork broth so deeply reduced that it becomes more sauce than stock. Dunk the noodles in the sauce one chopstick-full at a time, then sluuuuurp like you mean it.

If you’re passing through Tokyo Station, head into the basement for Rokurinsha’s ultimate tsukemen. The broth/sauce here is made with a pretty wild combo of pork, chicken, sardines, bonito, and vegetables, and the noodles are the humungous, chewy kind that I love most. This is a major thoroughfare and lines are always long, but they move at a hopeful clip.

ramen in tokyo

I’ll be swinging through Kyoto next month and plan on hunting down a bowl or two of that city’s famed kotteri-kei ramen, a spicy affair boosted with chili bean paste and white pepper. If you know where I can find the best bowl, hit me up in the comment section!

Rise and Shine, It’s Shanghai Breakfast Time!

breakfast shanghai

Back in my bakery days, I used to be fully caffeinated by five a.m. and pulling my second round of pies from the oven by six. Despite the obvious pain of an early wake-up call, I loved having the mornings to myself. The commute was a breeze, the kitchen was calm, and I had so much accomplished by noon that I felt like a champion.

shanghai breakfast

Now that I’m writing and my schedule is fully my own, I don’t even set an alarm…but that doesn’t mean I get to sleep in. See the guy in the pic above? He rides up and down our lane around seven, collecting recyclables and ringing a giant hand bell. After him comes the fruit guy hollering about his oranges, then the large-electronics-recyling dude with a speaker attached to his scooter blaring “MICROWAVES!FREEZERS!TELEVISIONS!COMPUTERS!” on repeat. Finally, the middle school across the street begins playing creepy, come-hither music, which is somewhat unfortunately used in place of a morning bell. So while I may not set an alarm, China’s seems pretty set on waking my ass up anyway.

shanghai breakfast

Which is actually totally cool with me, because it turns out these people are up early too.

shanghai breakfast

In fact, everyone gets up early in Shanghai…especially on the weekends. Young and old flock to the parks (the best being Fuxing) to meet with friends and participate in their activity of choice.

shanghai breakfast

Options for group participation include line dancing, ballroom dancing, maraca shaking, saxophone dueling, ballad singing…

shanghai breakfast

toy playing, kite flying, water calligraphy, tai chi, card playing, badminton,  mahjong…

DSCF7939

and huddling around storytellers.

shanghai breakfast

But what about the poor souls who just aren’t into such quotidian hobbies? Well, they can just wrap newspaper on their head, wear a garbage bag as a shirt and practice pond-side calligraphy. Everything goes here. Everything.

shanghai breakfast

Back out on the street there are hundreds of poodles out for their morning stroll, and real go-getters squeezing in some calisthenics at the al fresco community gyms.  All this activity is great for health and social bonding, but I think its main purpose is to work up a big enough appetite to tackle the Shanghai breakfast scene.

shanghai breakfast

And quite the scene it is. Nearly every street corner has at least one vendor selling something fried, steamed, or boiled at a shockingly low price. Within a one block radius of my apartment, we’ve got:

shanghai breakfast

Da bing, or “big pancake,”  a beautiful saucer of fried dough.

shanghai breakfast

Zongzi , tight bundles of soy-flavored rice steamed in a bamboo leaf. The innards are impossibly sticky and often surround tender braised pork or a bright orange egg yolk.

shanghai breakfast

You tiao, simple deep-fried dough sticks most often eaten with soy or mung bean milk.

shanghai breakfast

Ci fan tuan, a ball of purple sticky rice wrapped around all manner of fillings, including hard boiled eggs, pork floss, and fried dough.

shanghai breakfast

Guo tie, pan fried pork dumplings filled with broth.

shanghai breakfast

And of course, jian bing, a crispy mung-bean crepe filled with egg, scallions, spicy hoisin, and a crunchy strip of fried dough.

shanghai breakfast

Despite their savory components, most of these bites are strictly relegated to breakfast fare. By nine in the morning, the jian bing lady has pulled the plug on her griddle, and by ten, the fried dough sticks have gone cold. Soon, vendors begin prepping skewers and noodles for lunch, or  disappear all together. The entire morning routine here is frenetic and fleeting, but if you miss it today, you can try again tomorrow…earlier.