Filipino cuisine finds a foothold in Saigon
Don’t be too surprised if you happen to notice some expensive vehicles pulling up to an unassuming little canteen on one of the more anonymous stretches of Dien Bien Phu. Although the venue may seem indistinguishable from the many cheap, outdoor-eating binh dan diners that exist to serve the Vietnamese everyman in this town, look a little closer and you’ll see that the cuisine on offer at this restaurant is anything but the common fare. It’s probably the only place in Ho Chi Minh City where you’ll find 100 percent genuine dishes from the Philippines – and if you happen to know any Filipinos who live here, chances are that they probably already order a good number of their meals from this tiny kitchen. Even the most successful among Filipino expats – and there are more of them here than you might think – drive right across the city to find this little diner, just for the privilege of squatting on a plastic stool by the side of the road and enjoying a little taste of home.
Beneath the Vietnamese camouflage, this is a real panciteria of the kind you’ll see everywhere on the streets of Manila, the kind of place affectionately referred to as a ‘turo-turo’ venue. As the restaurant’s proprietress Marie Malit tells me, “Turo- turo means ‘point-point’ – you just point through the glass at the dishes you want. It’s food for the masses, the common people. It’s the way we Filipinos like to eat, very casual. We just love to gather, eat and laugh. It’s nothing fancy.”
The name of the venue is a bit of a mouthful – Loriekot’s Lutong Bahay (193 Dien Bien Phu, D3; 093 742 0716) – it means “Little Lorie’s Home Cooking.” Lorie is Marie’s little daughter, who I see hopping around the stools begging for a hotsilog. That’s a cross between an American hot dog and a plate of egg and rice that looks very similar to a Vietnamese com tam, a prime example of the crazy mish-mash of cultural influences that has made modern Filipino cuisine the extraordinary hybrid it has become. Just as Chinese as it is Hispanic and just as Central American as it is Austronesian, the taste of the Philippines is very much like its people – a complex blend of polar opposites made warm, simple, and really, really likable.
That’s the one insight you’ll need if you’ve never tried Filipino cuisine – it’s a mash-up. Take the pancit, one of Loriekot’s signature dishes – an easy stir-fry noodle that’s essentially a local twist on a Chinese vermicelli. “The secret to pancit is that it’s highly adaptable,” says Marie. “You can almost put anything you want in it.”
What gives it its Filipino kick is the vinegar marinade and the thick, gravy-like sauce. We try a chicken pancit (VND40,000) that has a creamy texture almost like a pasta sauce, but with bold soy and pepper flavors. It’s nicely paired with a plate of adobo, a preserved marinated meat you’ll find on the tables of every restaurant in the Philippines. Although it’s named after a similar Spanish dish, adobo actually predates the European presence in the Philippines and is about as close as you can get to truly native cooking.
Loriekot’s other Filipino staple is its series of silogs – traditional breakfasts with rice (sinangag) and eggs (itlog), hence the name. Marie provides silogs at any time of the day – we try a tapsilog (VND50,000), the original silog recipe with beef marinated in garlic, soy sauce, sugar, and pepper. It’s intensely aromatic, made even more fragrant by the dipping sauce (a delightful mild vinegar dip with onion and calamansi lime) and a side dish of bulalo soup, infused with pork bone marrow and as rich as any thick, creamy broth – although it’s actually a clear soup.
We went a little deeper into Filipino territory with a couple of small side dishes – a bopis meat salad (VND50,000) made of diced pork heart and lungs, and thus incredibly soft and tender, and a dinuguan pork blood stew (also VND50,000) that was viscous and tangy, the sharp undertones of the blood brought into fine relief by pureed tomatoes and onion. Perhaps unusual preparations for the modern Western palate, these are hardly among your typical Asian fear-factor dishes – both of them are European in origin.
Loriekot’s has been open since last November, but Marie has been serving the local Filipino community since long before that. In the seven years since following her husband here (an engineer whose company transferred him to HCMC), Marie has taken on an increasing role in catering for various Christian groups from the Philippines that the family was involved in. “I started out just cooking at home for friends, and then for parties,” she says. “It was mostly pancit noodle dishes and baking. Every weekend, I had a lot of orders, especially for the CLS Christian Life Program. I found myself catering to 80-100 people. When I started realizing I could handle it, I knew I had to do this as a business.”
The result of this decision was the modest Dien Bien Phu venue. There’s no indoor seating, and the drinks are provided by the café next door, who sometimes lend Maria extra chairs in return for the side business. While other international cuisine venues in Ho Chi Minh City go in for colorful décor, a snazzy website and high-end prices, Loriekot’s settles for a functional menu board, a Facebook page, and prices on a level with a side-alley pho diner.
The social media is certainly working. “I do most of my business through Facebook and my Viber group,” says Marie. “We deliver anywhere in the city, and I put up a new menu every day. People are always dropping me messages and orders, asking what’s on today, or if I can make this or that dish. If I get new customers arriving at the restaurant, I’ll take a photo for my Facebook page and tag them. The word spreads from there. I get a lot of new friends that way.”
It’s really all the business needs right now. When I ask her if the venue is successful, she answers frankly – “very.” Her husband confirms this: “It was originally just something for her to do. Now I’m looking forward to quitting my job and letting her make all the money.” He may be joking, but that day may come sooner than he thinks – Marie’s looking for larger premises along the same stretch, so Loriekot’s Lutong Bahay in its current form could well be on its way to becoming something a whole lot bigger. Watch this space.
Images by Ngoc Tran