West Meets East and Comes Back With a Full Stomach
At the Food Court in Thailand
All photos by Kristy Yang
I've been away for the past few weeks tending to some family stuff in Asia and have been a tad too busy to do any blogging. I'm sure the editor's ulcer will be relieved to know that I'm back now with my one measly post a week. While away, the editor and I did some back-and-forth e-mail pitching about whether I should write about my eating exploits while in Asia. I responded by avoiding him at all costs for the following reasons: A.) I was sure that his optimism about the topic of my eating in Asia would be met by City of Ate readers with torches and pitchforks B.) Honestly, the bulk of my time would be spent in Taiwan visiting my re-hospitalized grandmother, and I wasn't really going to be in the mood for gluttony. (Thanks everyone for the kind thoughts and words last year.)
Finally, I had no interest in writing, whatsoever. Since I had no Internet (or television) in Taiwan, my laptop remained in its bag for several days. It was a refreshing respite. However, as I left my grandmother, she gave me the parting words of "Marry and have one child." I realized that my life, even without her, must move on, and that I should eventually get back behind the keyboard. Ultimately, I still wasn't sure what I was going to write about, but I knew that I was going to write whatever I wanted to write.
So, before I get back to trolling the Dallas Asian food scene next week, I thought I might compile a list of all my favorite places to visit in Asia (some I got the chance to stop by at this trip, others I did not). Many of these places carry my fondest memories of friends and family, and hopefully readers of this blog will have the opportunity for happy experiences of their own if they ever get the chance to visit a destination on the list.
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM Before heading to Taiwan, I made a quick stop in Saigon to meet up with my mother in her hometown. With my stay in Ho Chi Minh City restricted to only two days, there was only one stop I had in mind as a priority.
Established in 1925, the Hotel Majestic has survived wars and several years of historical tumult. As modern-style five-star hotels continue to go up all around the Majestic, the historical hotel opts to retain its classic French décor. Even if one doesn't stay at the hotel, the rooftop restaurant is a must-visit, if only for the view. The hotel is situated on prime location, the corner of the legendary Dong Khoi Street. From atop the roof-top restaurant, one can view the hustle and bustle on the tree lined streets below, boats lazily floating by on the Saigon River, and ferries dropping off hundreds of scooter-riding workers for the day. The best time of day to visit the Majestic is during the rooftop restaurant's morning buffets. Enjoy the morning breeze, one of the prettiest views in the city, French cheeses, Chinese dim sum, Western omelets, Vietnamese pho, and tropical fruits all for $15 USD. There really isn't a more idyllic way to start off the day in Saigon.
Hotel Majestic 1 Dong Khoi St. Dist. 1, District 1 North Ho Chi Minh City
HANOI, VIETNAM I didn't get the chance to visit Hanoi this trip, but any list of must-visit Asian cities would be incomplete without a mention of this beautiful city. To give someone a better idea of the difference between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, I always like to say that if Ho Chi Minh City is Houston, then Hanoi is Austin. The comparisons, obviously, aren't exact, but rather, a generalization. The former is sprawling and industrialized, while the latter is smaller and abundant with lakes and scenery.
With its French colonial architecture still mostly intact, narrow streets and an ever-present misty haze sheathing the city, Hanoi exudes a romanticism lacking in its southern counterpart of Ho Chi Minh City. As the epicenter of commerce and business in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh City is constantly chaotic, while Hanoi can best be described as "sleepy."
One of the best places to witness Hanoi's signature combination of Vietnamese elegance meets French Colonialism is the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel. The beauty and sophistication of the famous Sofitel in Hanoi must be seen to be believed. The five-star hotel's Sunday brunch is renowned for both its opulence and its selection. The brunch is split up into four themed buffet rooms; Chinese, Japanese, French, and Vietnamese. The hardest part is deciding which brunch to pick. All four are fantastic and have their own unique dishes, but you can only choose one dining room.
For a Hanoi experience that combines both locals and tourists, visit Cha Ca La Vong. While the Doan family of Hanoi are considered the inventors of the dish, Cha Ca is now beloved and replicated by many all over Vietnam. The dish consists of heavily marinated grilled white fish which is re-cooked at the table then eaten with bun noodles, veggies, herbs and fish sauce. The Doan's restaurant, Cha Ca La Vong, is around 150 years old and is frequented by both locals and tourists. The restaurant is highly considered to be one of the places at which a "foodie" must visit in their lifetime. The space is small and traditional, but constantly packed with ravenous diners.
Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi 5 Ngo Quyen Street
Cha Ca La Vong 14 Chả Cá Hanoi, Vietnam
HONG KONG, CHINA I only had a day's layover in Hong Kong this trip, and I didn't get the chance to visit my favorite place in probably my favorite city. In an ideal world, every visitor to the city would be fortunate enough to experience high tea at Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel.
Consistently recognized as one of the best hotels in the world, the location in Hong Kong is the flagship of the Peninsula group. Established in the 1920s, the hotel was built for wealthy European travelers. Although high tea is now prevalent in many parts of Asia, the Peninsula's high tea is a throwback to the days of English colonialism in Hong Kong. Every day between 2-6 p.m., tea, sandwiches, cakes and pastries are prepared by world-class chefs and served in the grand lobby of the hotel. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience worth shelling out the big bucks for, considering that many of us in our lifetimes (me) will never be able to afford the $500 a night it costs to stay at the hotel.
Peninsula Hotel Salisbury Road Kowloon, Hong Kong
KAOHSIUNG, TAIWAN I love Taipei for the shopping, and I love Kaohsiung for the food. With the Taiwanese bullet train, theoretically, I'd be able to do my shopping in Taipei in the morning and still catch dinner in Kaohsiung at a reasonable time. Given my certain circumstances, I didn't get much of a chance to explore on this trip, but I did get to visit the most important culinary contribution many Asian cities, especially Kaohsuing, has to offer: the night market.
The Taiwanese love their night markets - - a bazaar like gathering of food, groceries, clothing and any other purchasable items imaginable. Morning markets might be where everyone buys their breakfast or groceries for the rest of the day, but night markets can be just as much about the socializing as it is about the grocery shopping. Smaller markets can consist of a few stalls on the street, while the larger markets are located in a sprawling covered marketplace.
As my mother shopped for ingredients for the family dinner, I snacked on free samples of pork belly, fried sweet potatoes, grilled chicken and dried squid. Growing up and visiting Taiwan when I was younger, I didn't really understand the allure of the night markets, or why my parents insisted on frequenting them almost every single evening. Now, I see, that in many ways, night markets are the heart and soul of the Taiwan. It's where everyone congregates, unwinds, visits their favorite vendors and plans a family meal. It's a place to stay connected with the community, something of which we in the States don't get enough.
Night markets are available starting around 4 p.m. all over the city, one of the most famous being the Liuhe Night Market
A Park in Bangkok
BANGKOK, THAILAND While I've heard many say that Singapore is the food capitol of Asia, I tend to think Bangkok wins that title. Singapore and Hong Kong are delicious in their own rights, but Bangkok offers a certain hedonistic, gluttonous and varietal quality (for cheap!) that is incomparable.
Football field-sized food courts offer everything from pad Thai to Nutella-slathered toast. Malls are lined with long rows of restaurants, offering a diner more than an ample amount of selection: It's not uncommon to see al dente Italian cuisine sandwiched between a sushi bar on one side and a Chinese hot pot restaurant on the other. When it comes to Bangkok, it's only a question of where to begin.
The obvious answer would be a food court, if only because they are everywhere. Before you begin, ask yourself how much weight you can stand gaining, and then dive right in. (Don't say I didn't warn you.) MBK mall is considered to be the city's first ever food court, but my personal favorite is the Siam Paragon Mall's massive foodie playground. Every food court is unique, but they all offer amazing food for even more amazing prices. For example, MBK has great desserts, such as the thirty-cents sugar encrusted liege waffle filled with azuki red beans. On the other hand, Siam Paragon boasts the best fish ball tom yum noodle soup out of all the various food courts around town. A pad Thai and tom yum noodle soup set me back only $3 and left me enough money to watch a movie upstairs in IMAX after dinner. Aside from a world-class movie theater (replete with recliners and foot rubs, y'all) and fantastic food, Paragon is just plain great for shopping and people watching. The shopping center boasts everything imaginable -- from Louis Vuitton to Krispy Kreme.
If you're looking for something a tad more indigenous to Bangkok, head over to Chinatown for the fried curry crabs at Somboon Seafood Restaurant. Fans from all over the world have been swooning for this intoxicating curry for the past 40 years. Large crabs are smothered in a sweet and velvety yellow curry sauce, perfect to be eaten with the copious amounts of steamed rice the waiters personally plop on your plate. Seeing as how the restaurant is newly renovated, the hoards of diners are jovial and the family-style portions are huge, any trip to Bangkok would be better with a visit to Somboon.
Sometimes Bangkok's never-ending variety of dining options can be quite overwhelming. Fortunately, however, you can have your cake and eat it, too, at the Greyhound Café. The locals call it fusion food. I like to think of it as modern-Thai meets Chinese, meets Italian, meets new-American, meets Japanese, all under one roof. So, yeah, fusion. (Apologies for my distaste of the word.)
But if this is the f-word, then call me a fan. Order the melt-in-your mouth salmon sashimi with wasabi pesto, the spicy spaghetti with fat prawns, or the robust fettuccine with seared scallops, and you'll leave plump and happy. Stay clear of the boring burger, dried-out pork with sticky rice, and underwhelming pork belly flat noodles. And whatever you do, do not skip out on dessert.
There's a lot I've left off, but hopefully it's a helpful start for anyone planning on traveling in the future. I'm always available for questions or suggestions and let me know if I've missed! I'd love to know where fellow City of Aters like to visit and what you like to eat. Somboon: 169/7-169/ Surawong Suriya Wong, Bang Rak, Bangkok 10500, Thailand
Siam Paragon 991 Rama 1 Road Pathumwan, Bangkok 10330
MBK Center 444 Phayathai Road Patumwan, Bangkok Greyhound Cafe Several Locations Lumphini, Pathum Wan, Bangkok 10110
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