Monday, February 12, 2007

Travel Dish: Café Terrace (Vietnam)

This is the fifth in a special series of food reports from my recent trip to Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Return every Sunday and Monday for the latest postings.
Where the young and nouveau riche sip Vietnamese coffee

65 Le Loi Blvd., District 1
(ground floor of the Saigon Center)
Breakfast, lunch and dinner
Credit cards not accepted; free WI-FI access

Sometimes when I walked around Saigon/HCMC, I saw new high-end stores opening and shiny new office towers being built, and I wondered to myself: Who shops or works at these places? Well, at least I know where they eat.

At Café Terrace, a modern, stylish coffee house on the ground floor of the Saigon Center, you’ll find young Vietnamese dressed in hip jeans working on their lap tops or well-heeled businessmen having a sip of coffee and probably discussing the latest telecom deal. The décor shouts out contemporary with its red-black-white minimalist design.

All the servers were friendly and very young, fitted with decorative T-shirts and tight black jeans. And the vibe was definitely laid-back as many people took advantage of the free Wi-Fi access provided. I was just glad to be in an air-conditioned environment and was excited to see paper napkins on my table. (See my Postscript entry below to see why this was such a big deal for me.)

Serving a westernized clientele, Café Terrace offers a menu that features pasta and pizza. But being in Vietnam, I stuck with the local selections. I ordered the Bo Kho Kieu Viet Nam, or traditional beef stew in clay pot, and the Goi Cuon, or fresh spring rolls with prawns and pork. I also ordered a dragon fruit juice since I’m not a coffee drinker.

The Bo Kho had a tasty broth. Like I’ve mentioned before, the Vietnamese know their broth. The stew was made with the traditional ingredients of carrots, lemongrass, fish sauce and star anise (just to name a few), and served up in a black clay pot. I felt the meat itself could have benefited from maybe another hour of stewing. Still, it was quite a filling dish. Which made it harder for me to eat all of my spring rolls when they arrived.

The Goi Cuon plate was huge with two beautifully wrapped rolls made of rice paper and a lot of greens serving as a rope tying everything together. The Goi Cuon was fresh, tightly wrapped and easy to bite into the stuffing of shredded vegetables and thinly sliced pieces of shrimp and pork. Just the rolls itself would have made a nice light lunch or afternoon snack. (I brought a roll back with me to snack at my hotel later.)

As you can imagine, Café Terrace is a great place to people watch, whether inside in the air-conditioned dining areas or outside on the covered terrace if you can brave the city’s year-round humidity. I found the food satisfying — a great escape from the chaotic city outside — but nothing distinctive.

Side note: I’m not sure whether Café Terrace really accepts credit cards or not. I asked, and my server said no, but he explained something about the machine not working. I think it’s a situation of whether they feel like running your card or not, depending on how much you order. Also, my bill came out higher than what I expected so I’m guessing there were several service charges tacked onto my bill at the end. But that’s the thing about dining in Vietnam: Even if you think there may have been an error on your bill, it really translates to a $1 or $2 difference. For my meal of beef stew, spring rolls and fruit juice, I paid D127,000 (or $7.93).

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (perfect for travelers hungry for Wi-Fi and a nice lunch)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

About the Saigon Center:
The city is sprinkled with these tiny shopping malls or plazas. They're not very exciting compared to what you'll find in California because they're often only three floors with a few shops. But what's nice about them are that they're air-conditioned, and many times I'd pretend to feign interest in that shirt or bed linen just to get away from the humidity outside. The Saigon Center is centrally located and includes a grocery store that's convenient to pick up bottled water at a reasonable price.

Postscript Saigon: How do I wipe my mouth?
An odd custom that I couldn’t really get used to in Vietnam is that restaurants don’t provide you with paper napkins to wipe your mouth while eating. Instead, when you sit down to eat, the server will typically bring you a mini wet towel (either on a small tray or in a plastic wrapped bag like the airlines). I couldn’t tell if I was supposed to use the towel before or after the meal. I watched some of the locals and didn’t notice a trend. Some people used the wet towel to wipe off the perspiration from the humidity outside, while others didn’t even touch the thing. I just found it difficult to eat without having a paper towel to dab my mouth when I got too enthusiastic with the tasty broth. I ended up packing little cocktail napkins I got from my hotel room whenever I went out to eat. Several modern restaurants catering to tourists do actually set out a paper napkin on the table, but that’s rare. So when eating in Vietnam, be careful not to splash any food on yourself because you’ll have to use the back of your sleeves to wipe yourself.

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