Saigon can thank Cupid’s intervention for bringing authentic Mexican food to town
Mexican restaurant Khoi Thom (29 Ngo Thoi Nhiem, D3) has been tucked away on the quiet cafe street of Ngo Thoi Nhiem in District 3 for 18 months, but it’s a destination we would unreservedly recommend.
When it opened, Khoi Thom adopted a hybrid ‘Viet-Mex’ style menu – in part due to the Vietnamese population of the neighborhood, and also because the owners found it hard locating a chef with sufficient experience in cooking Mexican food. But now it has evolved into an authentic Mexican style cantina with a new Mexican chef preparing similar dishes to those his mother made when he was a child.
With bright colored furniture and wall decorations, a large breezy outdoor deck with an open bar and a long street frontage, Khoi Thom quickly earned a place in the style sections of local media for its adventurous hues and style after it opened.
Co-owner, Noelle Carr-Ellison, said the goal of the Viet-Mex approach was to slowly introduce Vietnamese to the joys of Mexican flavors. “Essentially there are many similarities between the two cuisines. Both use rice and black beans and chili. Mexicans use avocado in guacamole, Vietnamese drink avocado shakes. Vietnamese eat red beans in sweets, Mexicans eat red beans in savory dishes.”
But while the Viet-Mex worked slowly on the Vietnamese palate, Westerners were slow to adopt the somewhat less authentic offer. All that has changed with the appointment of Alejandro Torres in April.
Like every foreigner who finds themselves in Vietnam for other than career reasons, Alejandro has his own story to tell. From San Luis Potosi, located between the central and northern regions of Mexico, he went to Oregon in the US to further his studies in restaurant management. It was there he fell for another student, My, from Vietnam. Romance blossomed and when the studies were complete he followed her to Vietnam where they recently married. After completing a contract with French restaurant La Villa in District 2, he joined the Khoi Thom team and set about building a Mexican menu that is “authentic and original”.
“I cook all mum’s flavors – all the things I grew up eating at home,” says Alejandro. The new menu was introduced in early September after much trial with customers. His challenge was – and still is – hunting down the right ingredients in a land so far from Mexico.
“One of the hardest parts of my job is trying to create the same flavor. Back home we have 100 types of chili and in some Mexican dishes we use five chilis that go together in one dish. I have to play around with flavors and go to the markets to find the right flavors. It’s never going to be the same. If you eat French food in New Zealand or Japan, it’s never going to be the same as eating it in Lyon or Paris.”
Our friendly and attentive waitress was happy to recommend her favorite dishes so, with little experience in Mexican food outside some fairly ordinary California chains, we took the advice and were rewarded with some moorish fare we are already telling friends and colleagues about.
For starters, our guide recommended Chicken & cheddar taquitos, (VND75,000, grilled chicken with cheddar cheese and roasted vegetables, rolled in a tortilla and baked crisp). These are best described as the Mexican answer to Vietnamese fried spring rolls. Tasty and nourishing, quickly fried so they do not retain too much oil and served standing with a creamy dipping sauce.
We were also encouraged to try the Chori-Queso (VND85,000) – and conceded it did sound unusual for a Mexican dish. What sounded like Mexico’s version of a cheese fondue was actually a shallow bowl of melted cheese with chunks of delicious chorizo sausage mixed inside and topped with a dollop of guacamole. The best way to eat it is to spoon the semi-melted cheese onto a tortilla and wrap into a roll. Fondue is probably a misnomer, but it was a deliciously chewy and addictive pleasure for those with an addiction to cheese and avocado.
For mains we opted for the Beef fajitas (VND 165,000), served sizzling on a cast iron platter. This was perhaps the spiciest dish we ventured with bell peppers and onions giving the beef a definite bite, but it was not too hot for those who struggle with chili. The fajitas dishes are served with homemade tortillas and four dips, from spicy to mild, encouraging you to wrap the beef and dip it, mixing and matching and experimenting with the taste.
We were advised by a regular to make sure we tested their quesadillas, so we tried the Fried chicken (VND 90,000) from a selection of eight. The papaya salsa, cilantro pesto, bacon and cheddar cheese were an imaginative and sumptuous combination of sweet and savory contrasts. Next visit, it will be a tough decision deciding whether to repeat the joy or be adventurous and try one of the other quesadillas.
Khoi Thom has come of age with a new chef and a commitment to authenticity. If you are new to Mexican cuisine you can be sure of experiencing ‘the real deal’ here and is undoubtedly a genuine Mexican dining experience close to the heart of the city.
Images by Quinn Ryan Mattingly