A carnivorous feast that will satiate any hungry stomach
“Prepared with love, served with passion” is the slogan printed on the menu of JJ’s Brazilian BBQ Restaurant and Bar. It’s a promise that creates a high level of expectation when you take a seat at one of its tables, yet a promise well delivered on in Oi’s experience. The restaurant is located at 279 Pham Ngu Lao in the heart of the backpacker district, which at first seems surprising for a quality dining experience. “This is a travel hub,” says owner James Heng, explaining the location. “Everyone who visits Ho Chi Minh City comes here. I want to give them memories of great food and service.”
James, a Singaporean who has lived in the city for a decade, ran a seafood exporting business before realizing his dream to open a restaurant. JJ’s originally opened last September but he was unhappy with the execution so he closed it at Christmas and reconfigured the concept, reopening on May 12, Mother’s Day. The concept is Brazilian barbecue Churrasco, where meat is barbecued over charcoal on metal skewers and carved directly onto the plates of diners at their table by roaming staff. The meat is prepared in a spotless open kitchen visible from the street and the downstairs dining room, creating a sense of theatre. It’s common to see passing tourists stop and pose for photographs outside the window as chefs prepare meals through the glass behind them. An open kitchen in itself is rare in Vietnam. “Most Vietnamese restaurant kitchens are closed,” reflects Heng. “This is somewhere they don’t want to expose to the public.”
JJ’s covers two floors. Downstairs is a full a la carte dining section with an al fresco seating area and bar deck facing the street and a warm, cozy seating area inside where a Filipino band plays Thursday to Saturday nights. Upstairs is a lighter, brighter dining area for the Churrasco Buffet, with an open salad bar and plenty of room for large groups or quieter dining. The menu is far more extensive than the Churrasco offer and the menu – and pricing – is very relevant to the restaurant’s location: you can dine on a very modest budget or opt for a far more extravagant indulgence.
Breakfast is offered from 8am to 11am, with set menus for VND69,000, including coffee. The lunch and dinner offer is extensive, including pastas and risottos (VND140,000 – VND230,000), pizzas (VND180,000 – VND220,000) and mains. The main menu is a carnivore’s heaven. The chef’s signature dish is oven grilled New Zealand beef ribs served with red wine sauce and rocket salad for VND350,000. JJ’s specialty is smoked US pork ribs for the same price. Slow oven baked beef cheek served with rocket salad and tuna cream sauce or beef rump wrapped in parma ham will set you back VND320,000.
Also on the main course menu: rib eye and T-bone steaks, pork sausages, roast chicken breast and grilled salmon – and for VND400,000 a mixed grill platter for the really hungry, with sausage, beef, shrimp and chicken wings served with salad and a choice of potato dishes. Or one can just stop by for a drink with a well-priced wine menu featuring drops from France, Italy, Australia and Chile, spirits and a happy hour from 8am to 8pm daily when Tiger draught is served in an ice-cold mug for VND20,000.
Oi was keen to try the Churrasco barbecue, so we opted for the lighter upstairs dining room which we shared with the high spirited staff of a Korean company celebrating a company milestone. On the table was a plastic disc for each of the pair of us, similar to a casino chip, which you turn over according to whether you want to be served more food or rest for a while. We ordered a house special wine – a light, moorish Sangiovese from Italy for little more than VND300,000 which proved to be one of the best value wines we’ve ordered in town and well suited to the food which was to follow. The salad bar is compact but unique. Buffets are not our usual preference, and we approached with a little trepidation expecting wilting greens and bowls of unimaginatively sliced tomatoes and onion swimming in vinegar. So it was a surprise to find an array of small plates bearing quaint and sometimes unusual styles of vegetables, such as marinated sliced beetroot, cool pastas, whole baby red tomatoes which were so fresh they burst in your mouth, grilled eggplant, mixed green and black olives, marinated mushrooms tossed in herbs and caesar salad with crisp romaine lettuce liberally doused in creamy, cheesy sauce with diced ham and cheese.
Once seated, the staff will start serving the barbecued meats at your own pace. We never felt rushed (as in similar experiences overseas) or overwhelmed with food. The servings were modest in size so one could be sure not to be full before the whole range was served. Servings are unlimited so if you enjoy one meat more than others, you simply ask for more. First up were grilled shrimps, succulent and juicy. From there the order became a blur as more and more meat flowed: beef brisket, chicken, lamb, asparagus wrapped in bacon, beef rump and sausages made to order for JJ’s with pork and oregano. And our favorite of all: ham served with roasted pineapple, sliced from its own skewer, a classic combination of fruit and meat but unique for the fresh crisp state of the sweet pineapple contrasting the slight saltiness of the pork. Heng later explained that most of the meats in the barbecue offer are prepared in a simple marinade prior to cooking and seasoned with salt and pepper before being grilled over charcoal to ensure an original taste. The ham is slow roasted for four hours to ensure tenderness. It works! I
n June, JJ’s offers an all-inclusive daily Churrasco buffet package, including free-flowing draught beer and wine for VND550,000. Based on Oi’s experience, that’s a great way to experience a unique style of cooking and distinctive South American flavor without too great an impact on the bank balance.
Images by Nam Quan