Tam Le is set to make her mark on Saigon’s food scene
Everything about the night so far has been surreal. Our table comprised of furloughed Americans, cousins from London, a PhD student from Hue and a Saigonese photographer are listening to a spirited account of how one diner unexpectedly found himself locked in a martial arts battle with a Thai prisoner. In the kitchen, the bartender is dusting margarita glasses with Vietnamese chili salt while MasterChef Vietnam Season 1 runner-up Quoc Tri places the finishing touches on Hue-vos Rancheros, a hand-pressed corn flour tortilla topped with an umami bomb of bun bo Hue-inspired braised beef and a fried quail egg. Above a soundtrack of Gipsy Kings, our hostess is regaling the room about her personal hero, Richard Montañez, the janitor-turned- inventor-turned-executive who came up with the idea for Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Hijinks ensue.
The whole evening feels like an episode straight out of Ugly Betty, the beloved American TV comedy about an unlikely Mexican-American heroine who ends up conquering the fashion world with her humor, irrepressible optimism, and wisdom beyond her years. The star of tonight’s Saigonita, a home-hosted concept restaurant reinterpreting Mexican cuisine using Vietnamese ingredients and dishes, isn’t quite Latina, although her high cheekbones, sun-kissed complexion and gauzy peasant dress seem more Honduran than Hue.
“I’m 100 percent Vietnamese and I’ve got the DNA test to prove it,” laughs Tam Le, long accustomed to Vietnamese and non-Vietnamese alike questioning her ethnicity on a daily basis. Vintage, black-and-white photos on the fridge offer up further proof that her family indeed hailed from Hue before her parents immigrated to Texas. Growing up in Houston, home to the third-largest Hispanic and Vietnamese populations in the US, Tam felt at ease among her Mexican friends, sharing similar family-centric values and aspects of “non-White” culture. She also found similarities in the food, growing up on pho and fajitas, a culinary kinship born out of “lime and cilantro” as opposed to “lemon and parsley.”
Her fascination with food intensified when she moved to health-conscious New York City. “I started making my lunches from scratch and a co-worker asked if I could make him one, too. That was the first time I realized that people would actually pay to eat my food.”
After stints in Turkey and the UK, Tam eventually landed in Singapore. Regular business travel to Saigon rekindled a love for Vietnam, a country in which she had never lived but nevertheless felt like home. “I just love Vietnam so much,” she gushes. “Each city or region will have a dish so specific to it that elsewhere people may not have even heard of it. The climate allows us to grow so many different types of produce and raise different types of animals. It’s like having access to a farmer’s market every day, and being able to pick up things based on the season. In America, people don’t really think about the farmer or the vendor. Here, you’re more conscious of what’s seasonably available. It’s not like everything is available everywhere all the time.”
Me Gusta Mucho
Entirely self-taught, Tam applies her self-styled “Hermione-like determination” to devouring cook books and kitchen memoirs, experimenting with some of her favorite ingredients and flavors like tonight’s TAMaLe (see what she did there?), a filling of pork and prawn modeled after Hue’s steamed banh nam cakes, but wrapped in masa and corn husks she brought back with her from a recent trip to the US.
“People often talk about authenticity in food, but with food, everyone’s borrowing from everyone,” she says as she serves up Al Pasteurs on an eclectic collection of mix-and-match plates. “Just look at the Al Pastor,” she says of the iconic pork tacos found everywhere on the streets of Mexico City. “The spit- roasting of the meat was actually brought over by Lebanese immigrants to Mexico where Mexican shepherds adapted it using pork instead, all served over a tortilla.” Tam’s version uses fish sauce- marinated pork, similar to what you’d find on com tam, along with chunks of pineapple caramelized with brown sugar. Much like her looks, it’s hard to pinpoint where Tam’s love for all things Mehico and her obsession with food came from. “Both my parents are computer programmers, and my dad’s thing was instant ramen noodles,” she sighs. “When I proposed a family trip to Mexico City, my sisters were like: ‘What are we going to eat?’”
Tri Tom Tam
Undaunted, Tam recently quit her job working in branding for the food and beverage industry to pursue food full-time. “I was really scared at first, but thought it through and realized that I probably wouldn’t get this chance again. Living in New York or Singapore, you’re focused on survival without a lot of extra to buy dishes and kitchen equipment. But I want to do this and see where it goes. If it doesn’t work out, I can find a job here or in New York, and if that’s the worst case scenario, that’s okay.”
Just before we get served a dessert called “You Go, Flan Coco” (extra points if you get the Mean Girls reference), a pandan-coconut flan layered over an espresso brownie, Tam drops a bombshell that tonight would be the second-to-last Saigonita.
You Go Flan Coco
It turns out that this Latina-esque girl from Texas who speaks Vietnamese with a Hue accent will finally be able to bring her exciting brand of cooking to a wider audience as Head Chef of a brand new restaurant called Dialect. “It’s set to open by the end of March next to Renkon on Hai Ba Trung and will be designed by The Lab who also designed Anan, Nest by AIA, and Bunker Breakfast & Bar, so we’re in good hands,” she enthuses. “I know I’m not the traditional candidate for Head Chef, but I’ll bring the passion as well as the curiosity to discover my own heritage via food to this New Vietnamese restaurant with a small, well-thought out tasting menu.”
No longer confined by the four walls of her apartment, Tam hopes to make an impact with her refreshing take on New Vietnamese cuisine. “I do want more people to experience my food and hopefully rethink what Vietnamese cuisine is. It doesn’t have to be cheap or any less complex and respected as, let’s say, French cuisine. I’ll be able to tell the story of the richness and beauty of Vietnamese cuisine and ingredients to a wider audience and hopefully showcase the country’s diverse range of dishes.”
But what about the stories, the passion, and the endearing quirkiness that have been a trademark of Saigonita these past few months? “Don’t worry. The dish names will still be playful and punny,” she assures. “But instead of fusion, this New Vietnamese food will really profile our country’s beautiful and diverse resources and flavors.” Viva Vietnam!
Images by Ngoc Tran