The best Mexican food in Saigon

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Faced with a tough choice, and four times the recommended daily allowance of meats, Owen Salisbury grits and grinds through the best taco options this city has to offer. Photos by Kyle Phanroy

Even as I type this, I’m eating a burrito. Kind of sad, isn’t it? Less than a week after a 10-hour marathon of gorging through the best carnitas, nachos, huevos and tacos Ho Chi Minh City has to offer, and I’m back at the trough.

But why not? I am from California, and I’m pretty sure we invented Mexican food, as well as the internet, Hollywood and pomposity. (Actually, we had three Californios on this trip. You can’t escape us.)

Here’s the thing you should know about Mexican food — and sorry editor Nick, Americans are convinced we know The Truth about it — it comes in varieties. How can one pick the best when every place has its own way, its own history, its own culinary signature?

By eating our guts out is one honest answer.

The more honest answer is that — to be honest — we can’t.

Still, let us try. Let us intrepid five — Ed, our deputy editor; Natalia, the Latina in the mix; Kyle, photo editor and brother of the guy behind the now-part-of-Saigon-folklore Gringos; Amber, our friend along for the ride; and me — guide you through the nascent world of Vietnamese-Mexican food, comprising four restaurants, each vying to outdo each other in fish tacos, nachos and assorted other gooditas.

We began the day at Khoi Thom, easily the most beautiful spot, travelled through rain and thunder to La Fiesta, detoured through an American craft whiskey festival, dined by riverside at The Boathouse and ended — appropriately — at Zombie BBQ, which took exquisite care of our bloated bellies and empty brains.

Our thanks go out to each of the restaurants involved for feeding us just enough to not slay us through overindulgence.

Each of us had our favourites, our pet dishes. We hashed out disputes, bickered over authenticity and sampled extensively. This series of mini-reports should give you not only the substance, but the — excuse the pun — flavour of the best Mexican feast this city’s ever seen.

The Best Overall

I’d thought of doing this chronologically, but what the hell, let’s start with the best. The winner is Tex-Mex joint La Fiesta, heart-and-soul-child of Scott and Duc Marquis of District 7 mainstay Scott and Binh’s — who want me to assure you that everything on the menu can be made vegetarian. With its spartan décor of painted luchador masks on the wall, and animated by Scott’s own warm liveliness, we ate simply sublime huevos rancheros, nachos that divided us (were the chips too thick? Opinions differ) and fish tacos that Ed will tell you about.

Every judge save one picked the huevos

rancheros — a mountain of beans, cheese and chorizo topped by two perfectly cooked eggs — as one of the three best dishes of the night. I picked it as first, to be honest, but the ultra-high levels of insulin that hit later may have prejudiced me in the slightest. Endurance eating — not for the weak of pancreas.

Many of us also chose the molé, though as Natalia commented, “I wish there had been more chocolate.”

“I feel a little guilty for how much we all loved the corn,” said Amber, daring to meet my challenge to be witty.

Pro tip: Try La Fiesta’s Mexican Street Corn.

The Beauty Spot

Khoi Thom’s fish tacos. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

Another area of surprising unanimity was in best, most beautiful atmosphere: Khoi Thom, whose peaceful outdoor seating caused us to make the tactical mistake of eating everything offered at this, our first stop. I can highly recommend the chicken fajitas.

“The fajitas hit everything right,” I quote myself. Frankly, though, I wish they’d go more authentic with the tortillas and chips, and several — Kyle — wished for more grease in the experience. Health nuts, that’s for you: the most beautiful spot is also the most Fresh-Mex, emphasizing veggies over cheesy, meaty weightiness.

Be warned, though: as Natalia said, “I was missing more of the spiciness,” commenting that too many restaurants cater to Euro-American wimpiness in that arena.

Pro tip: Plan your next six-margarita lunch here, and pass out in their beautiful garden.

The Dark Horse

The Boat House’s carnitas nachos. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

A surprising contender for best food was District 2’s The Boat House, where new managers Jeff and Maggie plied us with food in a sly attempt to discombobulate rival Zombie BBQ.

As Amber said, “These are the nachos we’ve been waiting for,” when presented with their mountainous pile of carnitas-topped nachos and trays of salsa, sour cream and guacamole.

This was in response to Ed commenting that he could drink the chipotle sauce from “the pump”. So… yeah, that echoed our state of mind pretty well.

For me, the carne asada tacos were a gift from home, where — by the time you read this — I’ll be gorging myself again on authentic Cali-Mex carne asada everything.

Pro tip: Don’t let mosquitos eat you — you’re the apex predator here, dammit.

The Final Resting Spot

“Ok, Word Magazine post-mortem,” Ed said. “Day of the Dead has arrived.”

Zombie BBQ — already reviewed in this magazine for its BBQ — serves up some mean Mexican food, delighting us with dishes no one else attempted as well as with genuine Mexican Jarritos fruit soda, and was the only place that provided wet-naps.

We also got an excellent ceviche and a Vera Cruz shrimp cocktail, both ways of cooking meat chemically, a bit of science trickery I frankly love, along with raw meat.

To be brutally honest, we were all pretty burnt by this point, arriving in the rain at nearly 10pm, and staggering out into another, later rain like — yes, I’m going for it — zombies.

Pro tip: Try the house-made, hibiscus-infused Patron tequila — or the tiki bar when it opens soon.

The Unexpected, or “Holy S***, They Have Liquid Cheese in Vietnam?”

Zombie BBQ’s ceviche and Vera Cruz shrimp cocktail. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

I just want to say that finding that Zombie BBQ serves nachos with liquid cheese brought tears of patriotic fervor to my eyes, as a bald-eagle screamed and an F-22 nuked Nazi-terrorists.

“They’re like something I’d expect to find at a baseball game,” said Kyle, and I fist-pumped in agreement.

In Sum

I keep coming back to the variety of opinion expressed (and how stupid I sound in audio recordings) and so my final words to you are these: the best Mexican food in the city is where you feel best, where things taste best, where you get the most variety and the most food for your dong. Get thee out, and try ‘em all.

If that sound like a cop-out, ya got me. I like food. Hell, I love it. The way it looks, smells, tastes, the creative things chefs do to delight us with this most transient of arts. I like writing about it, taking pictures of it, cooking it, eating it. I want more Mexican food in this city, more and better, because that fills the hole in my soul left by the absence of Super Taqueria’s carne asada burritos.

So let us know, readers. What’s your best Mexican food in the city?

The Word sincerely thanks Khoi Thom, La Fiesta, The Boathouse, Zombie BBQ, Zoom Café and Robert Nussbaum for their hospitality, and apologises for any hurt feelings the mild snark may cause. I’ll eat at all of your restaurants again, I promise

Day of the Nacho

La Fiesta’s nachos. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

Nachos, first invented in 1943 by a dude named Nacho I swear this is true, and that Oct. 21 is the International Day of the Nacho — formed an integral part of our quest to find the best Mexican food this very un-Mexican city has to offer.

Each restaurant threw down with their version of the dish. One of the things that makes nachos so great, of course, is their versatility, and we saw our share. This is another one of those cop-outs, but — as with nachos themselves, there are no rules for nacho roundups.

The Best

We staggered to The Boathouse’s table, and within minutes, owner Jeff had deposited a pile of nachos so huge I could barely see over them.

“It’s huge,” Amber said from behind the pile of carnitas, sliced peppers and ooey gooey cheese.

Despite being full, we kept coming back to the fully homemade goodness, and that power is what earned them this spot.

The Healthiest

This may be unfair, but Khoi Thom’s nachos were as airy and green as their outdoor seating… especially given their relative lack of cheese and chicken. If you like nachos, but don’t like triple-bypass surgery, these are the nachos for you.

But let’s be honest. We don’t eat Mexican food for our health.

The Most American

I may be US-centric, a little, but I was honestly delighted by the appearance of Zombie BBQ’s liquid, petroleum-byproduct 7-11 cheese, which I haven’t eaten since my last visit to Taco Bell.

What was also American was the barbecued beef liberally mixed in with the chips and beans, mouth-watering chunks that slightly clashed with the downmarket appeal of their fast food chic.

The Controversial Ones

Every band has its badboy. La Fiesta’s nachos fill that role. Me? I love ‘em. Others… not so much. The chips are house-made, thick and crunchy as hell, and the nacho-pile is a mixture of like 18 different ingredients — not exactly the limpid simplicity some expect. The resultant tower split the difference between the other restaurants — not as healthy as Khoi Thom’s, but more so than the others; not as oddly compelling as The Boathouse’s, yet still with its fans; not as American as Zombie’s, but the only ones made Tex-Mex style.

Best Mex

La Fiesta’s huevos rancheros. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

We had our pets, but through dint of clever bargaining and horse-trading, managed to cobble together a list of the best dishes. Each of us picked three, and I recalled elementary maths to score them and average them.

#1: La Fiesta’s huevos rancheros (available in vegetarian! For some unknown reason!).

My comment: holy s***.

Others’ comments: far more eloquent, sadly unrecorded.

#2: Zombie BBQ’s ceviche.

My comment: if the parrotfish were any fresher, it would bite you with its lippy, corral-eating jaws.

Others’ comments: “Spoiler: that was my favourite dish of the day,” said Ed in the Zombie post-mortem.

#3: a tie, between Khoi Thom’s chicken fajitas and Zombie BBQ’s gator tacos.

My comments: first, the chicken was perfectly cooked. Second, I like eating things that want to eat me (screw you, beef, you’re just not macho enough).

Others’ comments: “The meat was just perfectly cooked,” said Natalia. “The meat had weird bones in it,” said Kyle. You figure out which they’re referring to.

Honorable mention: The Boat House’s carnitas nachos that everyone kept coming back to, despite near-terminal pain in our bellies. When you’re already that full, and are served a pile of meat and cheese that you can’t stay away from, the cooks are doing something right/horribly, horribly wrong to your arteries.

The Best Fish Tacos in HCMC

The Boat House’s blackened mahi-mahi tacos. Photo by Kyle Phanroy

Fishes were first taco’d in northern Mexico, before gaining notoriety as a southern California classic, in their battered and corn tortilla-wrapped form. From there, they travelled up the coast to the San Francisco Bay Area, where I first encountered them in a cute shop with a whittled wooden fish attached to the bathroom key. It’s been love ever since.

Out here, they have the whitefish, but do they have the moves? The fish-savvy amongst us decided to find out.

Below are the results.

#1: The Boathouse’s blackened mahi-mahi tacos. These tangy numbers cut through our malaise with their freshness, and the consistency differential brought by the hard shell. Although not playing by the same rules as the rest of the competitors — they were grilled rather than battered — they take first place on the back of Grade A whitefish and no fuss.

#2: Zoom Café. Although price points weren’t a main consideration here, Zoom’s awesome Fish Taco Tuesday promo — three tacos for VND60,000 — must be recognised. Add that to the overall balance of ingredients and the flavour of the fish and you’ve got a winner. Although, as tester Jon said, “For my mouth I want a bit more zing.”

#3: La Fiesta. The fish tacos at La Fiesta were traditional, we all agreed, but some were left unimpressed. Kyle offered a defense of their perceived lack of flavour: “It’s a pretty light dish. You’re not supposed to eat one, you’re supposed to eat five.”

But on the flip side, Kyle took issue with the one untraditional factor. “While the breading had crispiness, I don’t know if it was the right kind of breading. That was more like the kind of breading you do on chicken than one you do on fish.”

#4: Khoi Thom. Packed with mango salsa and super-fresh fish, Khoi Thom’s offering was its Fresh-Mex style in a nutshell. The flavour balance was interesting, but the corn tortilla was sorely missed. And, as Kyle said, “the signature taste of fish tacos comes from the corn tortilla”.

“But,” he pondered, thinking of the flavour possibilities, “at the same time, the corn might have clashed with the mango salsa. The flour is more of a neutral flavour.”

Also worth noting is that this tasting was the first dangerous step towards Natalia’s eventual salad rant.

#5: The Boathouse’s breaded fish tacos. Boathouse’s grilled prizewinners stood diametrically opposed to the restaurant’s other, more traditional fish taco offering. Wrapped in wax paper and giant-sized tortilla, this one overwhelmed us with sauce, lettuce… “and cheese?” asked Natalia. “No.”

Other Creatures of the Deep

Gaining some buzz lately are the duck tacos that Calvin Godfrey first wrote about on Medium — an outrageously savoury meeting of streetside rotisserie duck and just-made-that-day corn tortillas from Saigon Tacos. Taco mastermind Robert Nussbaum met me in an obscure part of the District 2 roadmap, an inconspicuous location at 554 Nguyen Thi Dinh with vit on the signboard.

We ordered a herbaceous half-duck for VND250,000, which came with a beautifully salty-sweet hoisin variant, a ramekin of Saigon Tacos’ proprietary salsa roja, diced salsa veggies and eight steaming tortillas. We folded them up and dug in.

And guess what? It was heaven. Those meats. Those tacos. Those accoutrements. It would have taken top slot in our best Mexican tasting, I’m pretty sure.

The combination was outrageous, a rolling flavourball of sweet, spice, duck, corn, fresh veg and crisp cucumber, from first bite to last. Yes, I’m fully aware I used the word ‘outrageous’ twice in the last four paragraphs. But I got saliva all over my thesaurus, so that’ll have to do.

Also falling into this category of fantastic and overlooked sea dwellers are the grilled octopus fajitas at Khoi Thom. Besides for requesting nachos and tacos from each of the restos on our list we left it to their discretion, and this niche item got lost in the shuffle. Which wasn’t a bad bet on our vanilla preferences, as Khoi Thom’s chicken fajitas ranked pretty high on our overall score sheet. But, speaking from personal preference, these squeaky morsels would have bested any dish except the duck. — Ed Weinberg

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