Ribs to die for…

Zombie BBQ emerges as Saigon’s newest American BBQ joint

Zombies are so hot right now. Nicholas Hoult played a sexy one in Warm Bodies. Brad Pitt scrambled for a cure in World War Z.
And The Walking Dead garnered 17.3 million viewers for its latest season premiere, making it the most-watched drama series telecast in US basic cable history. So it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that Saigon carnivores are chomping at the bit over the opening of Zombie BBQ (4 Thao Dien, D2, also soon to be on vietnammm.com), the latest endeavor by chef and restaurateur Geoffrey Deetz.

Oi Vietnam - Feb 2015_zombie__DSC9920_NT*Images by Ngoc Tran

Set in an expansive villa with a huge courtyard for outdoor seating hidden behind an exterior wall on busy Thao Dien, the smell of grilled meats, the sparkling lights and the low-key background music transports diners to Anytown, USA. Deetz, who has something of a penchant for the macabre (his other restaurant is HCMC mainstay, Black Cat) is trying to reanimate the restaurant graveyard that has been 4 Thao Dien which in former lives has been a tapas place, a French restaurant, and most recently McSorley’s Ale House (who are still manning the bar). With the recent openings of other successful BBQ joints around town, Deetz is betting that this is the right time and place for unpretentious American BBQ in D2.

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“There’s been an explosion of businesses in Thao Dien,” he says, “but not many are addressing everyday working families going out to eat. BBQ brings people together. This is a place to go after work and grab a beer and enjoy good American BBQ.” Deetz also theorizes that the internet has brought food trends to Vietnam much faster now, meaning people are ready to try new things. “Ten years ago, you’d have to wait five to six years before people would even try something new, but with social media taking off, people have heard of things like fried okra and fried pickles and they want to try it. That gives me the ability to put new and exciting things on the menu. It’s great living in a city with a food culture that has matured to an international level.”

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Deetz is looking to parlay his 30-plus years of cooking experience, 14 of those in Vietnam partnering or consulting in over 20 restaurants, into another winning concept. That kitchen experience together with his long-standing network of suppliers means that diners benefit from culinary windfalls ― a case of Sriracha gets made into a Los Angeles chili sauce and 50 kgs of jalapeños from Dalat gets smoked for chipotle, jalapeño sate or stuffed with bacon, onions and cream cheese for poppers. “We have the experience, space and sources to really listen to what our customers want. I’m going to bring in peri peri from Portugal, then go off to Hawaii to do a kalua pig before heading to Jamaica for a jerk chicken. New American BBQ is embracing all those BBQ trends around the world,” says Deetz.

Eat your heart out

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Playing off the zombie theme, Zombie BBQ’s cheeky menu tells a story. Starters are listed under “In the Beginning There Was.” Our Beer-battered Onion Rings (VND75,000) were crunchy goodness, dusted with sea salt that had been smoked for four hours. In keeping with the Southern motto that deep-frying makes everything better, the Fried Dill Pickles (VND35,000) were zesty and sweet, freshly made on site before getting breaded and, of course, deep fried.

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While zombies aren’t known for gnawing on salad, there is a Grounds Keeper section of the menu for vegetable side dishes, except these are wonderfully and unapologetically the kind that the reanimated would go for. Case in point, the Caesar Salad (VND50,000) replaces croutons, chicken and bacon with straight up fried pork skins. Other sides include a hearty Wood-baked Mac and Cheese (VND50,000), each individually cooked in its own clay pot, sealing in the rich cheesiness, and Buttermilk Corn Bread (VND30,000), finished on the grill and slathered with sweet butter and honey. The menu even ventures south of the border with Mexican Street Corn (VND30,000) served up with dollops of tapatio hot sauce and sour cream.

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If you’ve made it to the mains with your heart and arteries intact, expect more of the same, keeping true to the way people cook in the South ― meat-heavy with few vegetables. “Out of the Ashes” features ribs and chicken smoked over beech, a mild wood that imparts a delicate smoke flavor. The “to die for” ribs (VND230,000 for a 400g half rack, VND460,000 for a full rack) are exceptionally meaty, coming off the bone clean but still with a little bounce to it. BBQ sauce is applied to the meat while it smokes, so expect some caramelization as the sugars burn off.

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There are six BBQ sauces to choose from, including sugar-free and the “flame thrower.” Our ribs were slathered in Kansas City sauce, a tangy combination of coriander seed, chili powder, paprika, Mexican spices and cumin and served with a side of giardiniera, a host of pickled vegetables to cut through the richness, including sweet dill pickles, pickled watermelon rind, lotus root and carrots. Zombie’s BBQ philosophy is to marinate the meat for 24-36 hours before smoking for another seven to eight hours in the case of ribs and two to three hours for chicken.

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Our Half Chicken (VND288,000) was juicy from soaking in a brine of brown sugar, salt and Mexican spices before being smoked with a glaze of sweet and sour Hawaiian sauce, drawing its flavor from pineapple, soya sauce and ginger.

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While zombie movies rarely have a sweet ending, here they do. We heartily embraced a decadent death with the very rich, very sweet Rice Crispy S’mores (VND80,000), a campfire favorite of rice crispy treats smothered in chocolate sauce and marshmallows, finished on the open grill.

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Deetz’s concept with Zombie BBQ is to recreate the essence of American cuisine ― big portions at reasonable prices in an unpretentious setting where taste trumps calorie count. If this is how the ravenous undead are eating, bring on the zombie apocalypse!

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