Meat the Maker

A Canadian expat opens a sidewalk food cart selling meatballs

With all the late-night clamor and bustle of Bui Vien, you might walk straight past Nana Marie’s (60 Bui Vien, D1), tucked away against the side of a wee souvenir shop a short bitumen waltz away from the Crazy Buffalo. It’s the simplest of start-ups;a cart, a few sidewalk stools retired from a local preschool, a stovetop, a fridge – and presiding over all of these, a fairly decent looking brand-new sign. For Colin Coats,these elements are all he needs to make the smooth transition from seven years of English teaching, with all its cruisy hours and late mornings, to the adventure of entrepreneurship.

It’s been a rough start – business was knocked out for a month just after opening when the stall’s premium bread supplier renovated without warning – but the fledgling gourmet meatball sub business is finally on track. “I already have regulars,” says Colin. “And at least half of them come back once a week. You’d be surprised how many of them finish their sub and then immediately buy another one to take home.”

Colin has been scoping out the backpacker location for some time. “I didn’t want to be another hamburger/hot dog guy. I’ve seen the stands come and go. They didn’t really do well here. There’s been a lot of curiosity about Nana Marie’s so far, but most of the sales rely on the split-second decision of hungry passers-by.”

“My stand isn’t exactly about fast food. It’s gourmet fast food. I cook the chicken fresh on the pan right here, with butter and herbs.It’s a good, spicy chicken. Even my fries are seasoned fries. The point is just to make good food,” he adds. “I understand the backpackers are looking for their dollar meals. I’m offering a great two or three dollar meal instead.”

Meat the Maker - Photo by Nam Quan 1

Who is Nana Marie?

Colin is no stranger to rough starts. Taken from his birth family at a very young ageand used by his abductor to gain entry to a Malaysian refugee camp after the war, he was physically scarred from the experience by the time he was adopted by Canadian parents.Marie, his adopted mother, was his inspiration to return to Vietnam as an adult to find his roots, and the cart is opened in her memory.

“It was my Mom’s signature dish. She’d buy meatballs at the store and jazz them up with her own sweet and sour sauce.Whenever we did family reunions or weddings, that was her thing.”

Meat the Maker - Photo by Nam Quan 2

His own meatballs, however, are made from scratch. “I’ve always been good at making hamburger patties, and the technique’s more or less the same. The secret is not to work the meat too much. You don’t want it to be too dense, or it won’t feel as good on the tongue.This kind of food has to be easy to digest,easy to chew.”

“I love to cook, so I know what flavors are good with beef and pork. I have a good pasta sauce that I make, which I changed a little to complement the meatballs. I use ingredients like wine and bacon in it to keep it rich like a Bolognese. I don’t like local meatballs, like those giant pork balls they have here with the com tam. The pork’s so fatty and they use too much filler. I went and bought some meatballs not far from here that were so dense and garlicky. I could taste the garlic three hours after I ate them. Mine, they’re very fresh,the right firmness, and they’re cooked in the sauce – that helps the meatballs to absorb some of the moisture.”

Meat the Maker - Photo by Nam Quan 3

Looking at Colin, however, there’s no obvious signs of the panic or concern you’d expect from a first-time business owner who’s just lost a month of trading. By contrast,Colin’s down-to-earth, casual manner seems a perfect fit for Bui Vien.

“I don’t have any plans to go back home quite yet,” he says. “I’d really like to have a life here. I just love doing this.”

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7 thoughts on “Meat the Maker”

  1. Not that good off a business hard to spot, the prices are too expensive for that area local banh mi places are cheaper and better tasting then the so called meatball sup he sells. My tip is move location or change the price.

  2. I liked the subs he makes but there is just a few things that I don’t like.
    For 1 he is arrogant and thinks the backpackers are too cheap yes they are they don’t want over prices food and selling meatball subs or chicken pasta French fries in that area for the price he charges too much, there are many food stands there and they sell cheap and good if you want a sub people go to subway or samkhang they have good deals there even cheaper.
    I think he should shout is stand or sell it and go back to teaching I have never met a more arrogant person in my life.
    But all well good luck with it I know he may only have 1-4 customers a day.
    Maybe he can sell banh mi or sticky rice.

  3. I really dig the meatballs at Nana Marie’s; tasty, firm, saucy balls with great bread and garnish. Sure they cost a little more than regular VN fare, but the food is good – and better than that overpriced, bland Mexican joint, for example

  4. I walked around Bui Vien street Q1 trying to find him. Is he still around? I want to see if he makes things as tasty as the pictures show it. I found the Fish and Chips place just off the corner of Q1 De Tham and Tran Hung Dao streets, across the road from the ZOOM cafe, and these guys at least can be found, with the obvious Fish and Chips small mobile kiosk and their sign and some chairs+tables in front. I can’t find this meat ball place, after walking up and down Bui Vien asking people, who say maybe he is here, and maybe not? hehehehehe

    Any idea if he is still around?

    • Colin has confirmed that although he has closed the meatball stand, there are bigger plans in the works… watch this space…

  5. He had a good product, just didnt know how to sell it and overestimated his market. I met Colin a few times after he asked about some advice for his business. And in any business, you really have to humble yourself to win customers over. I think the negative energy he displayed sometimes greatly affected his image. And thats why some people would consider his arrogant. I was looking for him too and just found out hes out of business. Shame really. Just goes to show that not every viet kieu can really bring something to the table and be successful.


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