My mother cooks a righteous potato latke. My old roommate Elisa pulls greens from her garden, and eggs from her chicken coop. Deborah gets out the whiskey when we’re pouring coffee. John likes to experiment — his last try was a bacon grease-soaked French toast challah slice, filled up egg-in-the-hole style.
If there’s anything expats are missing in this land of culinary delights, it’s that most subjective of meals, breakfast.
And something’s happening on the expat front that will bring anyone who feels the way I do some comfort.
“I had the idea maybe when I was 18 or 19,” Christian Taylor, owner of The Hungry Pig (144 Cong Quynh, Q1), tells me. “I’ve always wanted to do it. But I’ve had maybe a thousand ideas since I was 18 or 19… it’s strange the ones that end up happening.”
Christian’s two-month-old bacon bar has been a work in progress since then, at some points more actively than others. “I remember talking about it with my dad, maybe five or six years ago, and he said it was a brilliant idea. That was when we were on holiday in Sri Lanka. And that was the first time I remember really voicing it. The name was already ‘The Hungry Pig’.
“I had what you see in my mind six years ago, everything you see right here pretty much. The combination of steel, wood, concrete — black, red and white. This colour scheme and everything has always been in my head, it’s been the idea I’ve always wanted to run with. To see it finally created is really quite a strange feeling, to see your thoughts, and the reality.”
The aesthetic of Christian’s brainchild is a bit cleaner and classier than your typical bacon butty takeout. “The concrete was inspired by Sri Lankan interior design,” he says. “I think a lot of the interior design was inspired by Sri Lanka. People have said it looks very English, but I think it looks far more Sri Lankan. The Sri Lankans have got a really quirky style, creating neat but simple interior design.”
Although the idea came of age in the west, it’s only been possible to do it in his adoptive Ho Chi Minh City home. “The main reason that I could never do it back home is just the cost, really,” he says. “It would have never been feasible. And it would have been far too much of a risk if it had not worked.”
But he got his bacon knowledge back home, cutting his charcuterie teeth at a deli in Manchester. “It was run-of-the-mill, it was really popular,” he recalls. “We’d have queues of 30 people at lunchtime. There was no attention to detail or design inside, there was no branding or quirky touches or funny jokes or anything. It was just really, really simple.”
It’s hard to say the same of The Hungry Pig, which, in its two months of operation, has already built something of a reputation for itself (#18-ranked restaurant on Tripadvisor!). Christian has worked at every angle (full disclosure: at Christian’s request, I contributed to the Tripadvisor stampede), giving out a fair amount of free sandwiches, hosting ‘Notorious P.I.G.’ nights before Friday Fix at Godmother Bar across the street, designing an oversized choose-your-own-adventure bacon option poster that hangs in the bathroom.
“We need to try and push the fun of the place, because that’s what it’s all about really,” he says, summing up his approach. “Just having a good time.”
The Unwilling Breakfaster
“To be honest? I hate eggs. I haaaaate eggs!”
Charlie Ta, the man behind Chuck’s American Eatery (27/27 Tran Nhat Duat, Q1), laughs. “But people love eggs.”
I ask Charlie, “So what is your speciality?”
“My speciality?” He mulls it over. “I love condiments. I had an idea before to make a place called ‘Condiments’. And you just order condiments and the food comes out with it.”
Charlie’s got a lot of ideas. Among the ideas I hear about are biscuits and country gravy (“stuff that I miss from home”), American coffee, frat house-type rules (“must drink with right hand. Must drink whatever you have if caught”). At some point I catch Charlie out, putting his elbow on the table. He runs to the end of the alley and back.
But, as it should be, the emphasis is on food, and on the laid-back environment that Charlie thinks is lacking in Ho Chi Minh City. “Wings and pomme frites are the main things we do,” Charlie says. “Breakfast is just for friends.”
Sitting around Charlie’s back-alley space in the western elbow of District 1, I see a few of them around. Game of Thrones is on the flat-screen, and some familiar faces are nonchalantly taking it all in as they would on a lazy Sunday in their own living rooms. The whole thing has a casual, friendly feel which I don’t expect will change.
“I’m not a big breakfast person,” Charlie says, despite earlier serving up a delicious, no-nonsense serving of French toast. “I love cooking it, but I just don’t like it.
“But everyone likes my eggs, likes my omelettes. To be real, I only cook to see people smile.”
Gorilla Meats (Pun Intended)
“The best breakfast I’ve ever had in my life was at St. John Hotel in London,” says Bryon Ramsey-Leonard Rudd, the percussive engine of Joy Oi!, one-half of Space Panther (“I’m half space, half panther”) and sausage supplier to The Hungry Pig, Café Palpitation (29 Dien Bien Phu, Q1) and the soon-to-be-inaugurated Observatory (corner of Le Lai and Ton That Tung, Q1).
“I’d been living in France studying charcuterie,” he says, “butchery and fresh sausage down in southwest France for nine months. And I went with the lady I’d been studying under, with her family, to England to teach at the School of Artisan Food. I taught a class on how to butcher the pigs and make their own charcuterie.
“We woke up, and I’d been out with friends till like 5am, just dancing to reggae and having a blast, you know, a true Brixton experience. I don’t even think I went to bed, but I rushed home to have breakfast with her. This lady, she was almost like a mom aside from my mom, taking care of me. So I couldn’t miss breakfast.
“I sat down and she was like, ‘You’re late. I’m ordering right now.’ And she said, ‘I’ll have the blood sausage, beans and toast.’ And I had the same thing, with an egg on top.
“It was just a perfectly toasted piece of toast with incredible English beans, and then a huge boudin noir blood sausage, and then an egg — and it blew my mind. I could not believe how incredible it was. So if I ever do a breakfast out here, that will be it.”
Bryon’s not setting out to do that just yet, but he recognises that it’s lacking. “Like you said,” he says, “a good breakfast is hard to find out here. I don’t go out to breakfast, I make it at home.”
Back in Portland, Oregon, Bryon had a guerrilla sausage making operation — operated from his not-up-to-health-code basement — called Gorilla Meats Co. “I met a friend who had a similar interest. And we said, ‘Let’s see how you can make bacon, it doesn’t look that hard.’ And it’s not. And it was really delicious.
“Next thing you know I was turning my dad’s wine cellar into a meat locker. And I did that for about two years.”
In Vietnam, Bryon’s on a new trip, one less full of the artisanal antics that he practised in Portland. But he thinks Ho Chi Minh City is ready for some of the experimental playfulness that makes up the food culture of the place he once called home.
“With things blossoming and people opening shops everywhere,” Bryon says, “I think they’re eventually just going to have to try it. And I think for the most part, people will like it. It might be weird, but that’s never a bad thing with food.”
To get in contact with Bryon, go to facebook.com/dr.chillsworth
Courtesy of Bryon Ramsey-Leonard Rudd
“It’s never a bad thing to order two. If you can’t make your mind up, grow some balls and order both.”
Cook for Your Mom
“Don’t let her cook for you. Or else she’s going to ruin things for the rest of your life!
“I appreciate French toast but I can’t eat it — because my mom f’ed it up! My mom would be cooking pancakes and then she’d be like, ‘Oh, I’ve got to take a shower.’ She’d come back and flip it over and it would be blacker than the cast iron skillet it was cooked in.”
Don’t Allow Infants
“Have you ever been to Au Parc during brunch?”