It’s a hot, wet weeknight in Ho Chi Minh City.
The street is a continuous swarm of motorbikes, each one piled higher than the next with a precarious combination of people and goods. They charge toward one other, only to swerve at the last moment and, collision avoided, disappear into the fluorescent-lit night like wayward moths.
The speed of the traffic reinforces the languorous pace of life on the sidewalk, where pajama-clad women tend the stores that spill out from the front of their homes, offering random combinations of everything from padlocks, to athletic shorts, to prescription medicine.
No one pays much attention to the single, square-jawed white man in a plaid shirt, diligently slathering duck fat onto tortillas while two Vietnamese women, one wielding a hatchet, arrange them in a basket on the edge of a rotating spit loaded with browned birds.
Another man emerges from the interior with a crate of beer, bowls of his own spicy hoisin sauce, and plates of fresh Vietnamese herbs and cucumbers, and the foursome gather at a plastic table loaded with red and green salsa, corn chips, and beans. They’re about to devour some of the best street food on the planet; an out-of-this-world dish that blends as many strands of history and culture as it does sensational flavors and textures.
It was, literally, years in the making…
Robert Nussbaum (the guy in the plaid shirt) grew up on a cattle ranch outside El Centro, California (pop. 42,000); moved to San Diego to study engineering; developed a taste for tacos during trips to Tijuana; then took off for Cairo where, as a defense contractor, he spent weekends barbecuing Tex Mex with the general counsel from the Vietnamese Embassy.
Nussbaum first visited Vietnam in 2007 and, by Christmas of that year, had settled in Ho Chi Minh City. (A town, at that point, bereft of decent tacos.) He met Nguyen Thu Huyen, a northern Vietnamese business student with an armor-piercing smile, during a brief trip to Singapore, and spent the next couple of years devoting himself to two projects: wooing Nguyen, and inventing a machine that could transform the country’s highly glutinous maize into thick, chewy tortillas.
Now husband and wife, the couple remain highly secretive about the apparatus that occupies the ground floor of their factory-slash-home in District 2, a fast-growing sprawl of high-walled villas and low concrete shacks on the eastern edge of the city. The plant supplies the only fresh corn and flour tortillas in the country, and they are excellent: dense, chewy and delicious.
A couple of years ago, after a long day at work, Nguyen suggested the couple stroll down the street to get dinner at a new place selling spit-roasted duck. This, it turns out, was being sold by a family with a pretty interesting transplant tale of their own.
Tuan and Trinh were Northerners who had joined the mass migration south to Saigon in 2004. Tuan took a job as a day laborer; Trinh sold snails on the street. When Trinh got pregnant, they decided to find a better way to pay the bills.
The key to their new life turned out to be something peculiar to their old one—a citrus shrub called the móc mật that thrives in the inhospitable limestone terrain of the border area between Vietnam and China. Ethnic tribes used the leaves to treat everything from snakebites to gall stones during three thousand years of war, famine and generally tough times. The plant has proven antiseptic properties; Tuan knew they possessed another quality—the ability to infuse duck with an other-worldly flavor, from the inside out.
Tuan and Trinh bought a scrap metal spit roaster and found a pond-side stall that slaughtered fresh ducks every morning. After tinkering with several recipes, they decided to blanch the birds, then stuffing them with a blend of ginger, lemongrass, spices and the all-important móc mật.
When Nussbaum turned up with a bag of tortillas, his wife discoverd she and the duck-makers had grown up in Nam Dinh, a small hardscrabble city outside Hanoi. As they chatted, Robert broke out a bottle of red salsa and got to work assembling a combination of the two families’ products. And that is how Duck Taco Night came to be.
On this recent Tuesday night, the quartet had convened for one of their now regular encounters.
When enough tortillas had been fatted and toasted, Trinh pulled a duck from the fire and stripped away all the bones with a few swift strokes of her cleaver, yielding neat rows of moist, rich, tender meat.
As the table tore into the meal, Tuan hoisted an ice-cold bottle of Saigon Red and made a toast: “Now we’ve got enough money to eat, keep a roof over our head and send our daughter to school,” he said. “That’s enough.”
Nussbaum swallowed the last piece of his taco and intoned, “Not bad for ten bucks a duck.”
Practicalities: Like all the best things in life, Duck Taco Nights can be elusive. They tend to happen on Tuesdays, when fresh corn tortillas have just come off the line, but it’s best to call ahead: http://www.saigontacos.com
To get there, you follow Nguyen Thi Dinh, a long, meandering street named after the first female Major General in the Vietnamese People’s Army. The address is 554, though be warned, the numbers are not consecutive. Avoid duck imitators and enticing seafood/beer emporia and keep an eye out for the grill — and a white man, usually dressed in a Hawaiian shirt.
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