But according to my editor, there was a theme, although a more personal one. He decided to explain.
Back in 2001 the most popular teachers’ bar in The Pham was The Gold Brickyard. Located next to the long-running Margherita, an Italian-cum-Tex-Mex-cum-Vietnamese restaurant that just refuses to lose its edge, the alleyway known as Hem Chua was then the main party area in the budget expat scene. On its Pham Ngu Lao end sat Backpackers (later Lost in Saigon), Long Phi and the notorious but fondly remembered Sahara. But, smiles my editor, The Gold Brickyard was the place.
Unfortunately the bar — ran by the mother of well-known actress and singer, Bang Lang — had a short lifespan. And by 2002 it had changed hands and been converted into La Cantina, the first dedicated Tex-Mex restaurant in the city. The varnished bare brick walls remained — The Gold Brickyard was the first bar in the city to use this now-popular design element. But otherwise the former hangout had gone.
La Cantina has been resilient. Its owner, Thanh, started off from humble origins as a waiter. Now, along with his flagship restaurant he owns a total of seven eateries in The Pham. A success story.
I hadn’t eaten at La Cantina before and was in for a surprise. Thanks to a recent makeover, the décor is eye-catching. Very eye-catching. It says much for the development of The Pham. ‘Budget’ may still be the catchword, but the quality of bars and restaurants is on the upswing.
The bare-brick walls, some painted gold, remain. But now the ceiling is constructed out of varnished, uncut wooden branches, with noose-like ropes hanging down. A large map of Mexico sits on the wall next to the shell of an old Lambretta and elsewhere, Mexican icons abound. And together with the Latin tunes on the sound system and the rainbow-coloured sombrero on the wall, the theme is complete.
I avoided the Vietnamese section of the menu and started with a personal favourite — the mini tostadas (VND79,000). The taco chip base was wonderfully crunchy, each tostada coming with a different topping. Particularly good were the beef and chicken tostadas, which burst with flavour in every bite. The vegetarian version, however, was flavourless rather than flavourful. But overall, it was a good start to the meal.
The beef burrito (VND120,000) measured up in a similar way. It was part fantastic — the steak, the flour taco, the rich and buttery Mexican rice, all were cooked perfectly. But by cooking the dish without the standard spice, it just slightly fell short. I’ve eaten Tex-Mex around the world — I’ve even eaten the Mexican version in Puerto Vallarta (it comes from Texas, after all) — and there’s one thing I believe about this type of cuisine. It should come with spice included. Fortunately the tomato salsa and the addition of some Tabasco added the required balance.
Like elsewhere in The Pham, there are a number of vegetarian options and beers remain cheap — local beers start at VND15,000 and a Corona goes for VND55,000. The atmosphere is also decidedly Tex-Mex. And although the service was a touch lackadaisical — the quality of English here is also an issue — a decade of faithful service has certainly not jaded La Cantina. With its latest makeover, it seems to have given this canteen a lift.
Time to stop the complaints. I’ll go with my editor on this one.
La Cantina is at 175/3 Pham Ngu Lao, Q1
Food, Decor and Service are each rated on a scale of 0 to 15.
13 — 15 extraordinary to perfection
10 — 12.5 very good to excellent
8 — 9.5 good to very good
5 — 7.5 fair to good
0 — 4.5 poor to fair
The Word reviews anonymously and pays for all meals