Authentic Southern US BBQ in Saigon?Tak's dispatch released on 27 October 2014

Quan Ut Ut American BBQ, Saigon

Quan Ut Ut / Quán Ụt Ụt, Saigon, Vietnam

So you are sitting in an alleyway, eating a fine meal of rice & vegetables (which you somehow ordered in broken Vietnamese) and thought, “they have a lot of pork in Vietnam, it would probably be great to experiment with American-style BBQ here.”

Well, by odd chance, the following evening you stumble across Quán Ụt Ụt, which, you later find is an American BBQ restaurant opened by a guy from Chicago, a Frenchman and an Aussie in early-2014. Anyways, it is located along the canal at 168 Vo Van Kiet in District 1.

Now usually when you visit a foreign place, you prefer to drill into exotic flavours, cultural differences and things unknown; in short, you aren’t ending up at the McDonalds, Subways and Burger Kings of the world. Likewise, you’d happily visit a French bistro in Paris but sudder at the thought of a French-themed bistro in Beijing. However, there you were in the alleyway under flickering flourescent lights and white plaster, pondering a novel idea and the following day, the option arises.

Since the American pork industry has pretty much lost its way in raising fatty well-marbled pigs, maybe the “American-style BBQ” in Saigon could be extra rewarding. Perhaps Vietnamese pork is still being raised with an old-school mindset. Further, because your stomach had just recovered from you being a wild cannon in the Saigon streetfood scene, you figured you’d use the evening meal eating something familiar and comforting as a way to make amends. Time for an adventure.

So you walk through the light drizzle, the whirring motorbikes and the thick humidity until your face is dimly light in the glow of the Quan Ut Ut signage. It is now that you are immediately devoured by a swarm of Vietnamese waitstaff. Of course, having familiarity here, you realize this employee flood is par for the course.

They point out a table, which tops out at approximately knee-height, perched just inside the overhang of the restaurant (and not in a Paris bistro sidewalk-eatery kind of way). You ask if they have another table available, preferring to be in the middle of the action, out of the rain, and at one of the larger tables that exist inside. One of them notes that you are in luck because there is a spot upstairs.

As you quickly approve of that option, another waitstaff cuts you off noting that you will have to share with other patrons (standard community eating you imagine). Overruling this non-issue, you again note preference with that upstairs regular-sized table seating option but are once again reminded that there is a better option, meaning that mini-table on the outdoor periphery.

As it now stands, your full menu of available options are now communicated—leave and come back later, or take the lonely micro-table nearly in the rain. You try one last light attempt for the upstairs table but are again over-ruled. You agree to the solo table. But rather than count this as a negative aspect of this establishment, you clearly note this to be in-line with what you’ve experienced elsewhere as it relates to Vietnam’s service practices. Employees don’t seem to have a great deal of range to express creativity here. It is as if they are reading from a very specific playbook where alternatives and options are mere fantasies. As such, no harm, no foul. Life goes on.

You are quickly presented with the menu. You first ensure, several times to avoid confusion, that the pork is from Vietnam, which the waiter confirms. (Post-meal, you come across this review which notes they are “imported”?!? Who is to know). Yet, quickly after noting the ribs are from Vietnam, the waiter quickly informs you that everything else came from the USA (except for the things that aren’t?).

For instance, you note the burgers are made of USA-beef. You also note that they are very proud of their bacon, which is made in Vietnam (in house). While Vietnamese service in these types of places typically folows a robotic-feeling protocol, you roll the dice to test things out.

You note that, of the burger options, there are two with which you will play a little mock simulation. One is a cheeseburger with pickle, ketchup and mustard. Another is a cheeseburger with bacon, onion and BBQ sauce. You ask the server if you can get the first option with bacon. “That is not possible,” he nervously replies multiple times. Then you ask if you could get the second burger, but instead of the onion and BBQ sauce, if you can substitute in the pickle, ketchup and mustard. He notes you can get the second burger option and withhold things from it, but putting on ketchup and mustard and other such premiere toppings, ah, you are a crazy instigator.

For a restaurant wanting to be known for its bacon, and a place that sells bacon by the plateful, and a place that has sold bacon ice cream, you would think you’d have an option to add bacon onto all of the sadly-appointed burgers as an add-on. Lettuce on these burgers? Nope. Tomatoes on these burgers? Nope. Can you put onions on the classic burger? Nope. That first burger only gets you pickle, ketchup and mustard. But alas, being in a foreign country, you let happen what happens. So in any case, that whole simulation comes crashing down to earth in a heartbeat. Key takeaway—stop trying to convert North Korean-styled burgers into American-styled burgers in the American-styled BBQ joint with your fancy toppings and substitutions you creative wizard.

(If only you had wanted to be more confused. Why is this, you ask? Because on their website exists a photograph of a burger with, what is this, tomatoes, lettuce and onion. Of course, actually ordering such a creative trifecta of perplexing wonder (given that it is not on the menu) is surely quite the arduous proposition, if even possible. In fact none of their burgers on their menu came with lettuce or tomato. And if they did, well then the menu and the waiter were lacking information. Anyways…)

You end up ordering a quarter-rack of their “cashew-smoked pork ribs”, ensuring to the affirmative the sauce comes on the side while hoping that the cashew tree, which shares the same family with poison ivy, is a tasty and safe word to burn.

Cashew Nut Tree: Chemically skin-irritating and allergizing. The plant’s sap from bark, leaves and particularly the nutshell can within one day cause painful skin alterations which resemble second-degree burns. This sap is brown and oily and becomes black when exposed to the air. The fumes which emerge from roasting the nuts are skin-irritating and can even lead to blindness.

The quarter-rack of ribs come with an included side of fries and an additional side salad that you add-on. You dance fleetingly around the beverage menu, thinking about Sprite, or maybe Sweet Tea or perhaps the beer. The waiter informs you that the beer on the menu is made by an Australian brewery in Vietnam. Not having had great experiences with Australian beer in the past, you demur. The waiter then notes that the limited run of house-made Quan Ut Ut IPA was available. You ask him how much that is costing. He has no idea and notes he can go track down his boss to ask. You save yourself the 10-minute delay and order one.

After what feels like surely less then five minutes, the IPA appears, followed by the fries and seconds later the ribs & side salad. Let’s jump into this.

Presentation-wise, everything is looking great, with the food arriving on thick butcher-block wood slabs. The portion of french fries is just about the perfect-sized compliment, yet the side salad is microscopic. And the ribs, contrary to what you were told, showed up with sauce poured all over its surface. But, like previously, you do understand you are speaking a foreign language here and so this mix up you also let go and don’t count it against the establishment.

As for the IPA, you explain why you put your chips in that corner. First, you note that IPA’s are one of the more forgiving styles to shoot for when making a homebrew, this is no Tripel. Point one, tolerance for error. Second, the restaurant’s chef (remember, the one from Chicago) is the guy who is homebrewing this stuff for Quan Ut Ut and noted in an interview at some point that he “know(s) how to brew. I made some batches and they were all good.” Point two, confident and seemingly experienced brewmaster. Third, the IPA is very limited. Point three, try it while you can. Last, IPA’s are not the easiest things to find in developing nations in Asia. Point four, variety is the spice of life.

“What isn’t to like about your decision,” you offer as you grip your fingers around the cold glass. You take a sip and notice the necessary hops upfront, but then immediately the IPA flops. The aftertaste is empty, lacking in complexity. Where is the malt-backbone? Was the hopping over-simplified? You have tasted a plethora of IPAs, and this one needs work. It lacks any kind of richness or body. Great try. Great idea. You really want to like it, but it isn’t very good.

And, as a help to the reader—especially since the menu didn’t tell and the waitstaff didn’t know—that IPA may have been $3 for less than a pint found on this review, but in October 2014, you paid 90,000VND ($4.50USD), which, in Vietnam is equivalent to 9 pints of local brew. The price doesn’t bother you so much, as the ingredients are hand-carried and you acknowledge the effort, but a worthy IPA? No. Limited? Maybe. Hard to get? Seems so. Competent home-brewer? Too hard to tell off a single beer, but this one didn’t make you confident. However you slice it, that IPA needed work.

Moving along to the food, the salad—as noted—was small: a single handful of lettuce (you’d estimate it would be about the equivalent of one leaf of romaine chopped), a full cross-section hunk of onion (that is right, a FULL CROSSSECTION of onion), a small dollop of dressing and a quartered tomato.

Small, yes, yet it surely loomed very large in your conclusions on this establishment. First off, the salad arrived pretty wet, as if it had just been washed. Washing is good to do, you note, but drying leaves in a salad is a great thing to do before serving as well. (Is the water the substitute for a well-dressed salad?) But the most curious of kitchen choice rested with that, proportionally-speaking, giant full cross-section of onion. If you were to summarize the flavour of the salad, you’d simply say, “Tasted like watery onion,” and what a shock that would be to anyone who has used large amounts of them with delicate things before.

Not well put together, at all. In fact, you find that this is the biggest head-scratcher, and least defensible scar of the whole place; it is an unforgiveable act of culinary negligence. As for price, the salad ran 35,000VND (which for value equivalency, 35,000VND can buy you 1 to 2 main courses from a small Vietnamese restaurant) and, despite sounding trivial and hyperbolic, was one of the saddest salads you’ve ever had (although at least it was fresh!).

The fries were the standard fries you might come across at any place that doesn’t take fries too seriously. On the upside, they were cooked properly and not soggy as some places sadly produce. A nice touch you did note was that you asked for ketchup, quickly received said ketchup in a small metal tin, and noted that you were not charged for it. So as for the fries, they did what they needed to do to skate by.

And then the BBQ ribs, ahhhh, the lukewarm (if not air-temperature) BBQ ribs. You were indeed impressed that these lukewarm ribs were very meaty and of a nice uniform thickness, so generally a nice cut (wherever ultimately they are coming from which would be nice to know, no?). A quarter-rack, as mentioned, was a nice portion and you were appreciative that the restaurant allowed half-portions. The spice rub or BBQ sauce (you couldn’t tell because the sauce came slathered on despite your earlier confirmation that the sauce would come on the side) didn’t blend right, there was something peculiar peaking out in the flavour profile on the backend. It was subtle in nature, and so not a real showstopper, but it tasted like someone tried to get cute with a spice. But, to keep things in perspective, “this can also be overlooked,” you add. Get the pattern?

How many people think that ribs should fall off the bone? If you do, then you might love this place. But you instead subscribe more to the southern American BBQ ideals that ribs should cleanly pull off the bones when gently pulled with your teeth, etc. The meat should absolutely not just fall away in a heap when you pick them up by the bones. You shouldn’t be able just to pull a bone and have it slide right out. You know that this most likely means that the ribs are being boiled or steamed into oblivion which is poor (or we can say different) form. So when you picked these ribs up by two of the rib bones to begin your meal, you were remiss when both bones you were holding detached while the rest of the quarter rack of ribs fell back to your plate (as seen in the photo above).

The meat, outside of one dry bite, was moist (as over-steamed or over-boiled ribs should be), but the texture far too mushy (ahh, the trade-off). The flavour was not very admired, seemed disappointingly one-sided (outside of that strange note). The pond of BBQ sauce on the ribs, not appreciated. The ribs were, despite the hype, sadly, just okay.

You finished everything—even that onion-laden salad—and then sat there while forcing down the IPA. Luckily, as if on cue, two large black rats appeared and ran back and forth on the property’s perimeter, not far from your isolated seat. One rat would appear, run back into hiding and appear again with a bluster. Eventually, the employees saw this happening and ran towards the rats, which scared them into the neighbor’s property for a half minute. They mentioned that they do their best to keep the rats away but the rats keep coming back. Even this, you don’t hold against the restaurant. It was oddly entertaining.

Now, where does this all leave us?

Quan Ut Ut is a new, popular restaurant with a great concept, that, unfortunately, falls very short of the ideals of authentic southern BBQ (and note the usage of authentic, because it does extraordinarily well as a make-believe southern-American BBQ concept and shows that the owners have worked very hard to at least get it to that point). I predict that Quan Ut Ut will continue to do very well because most people (whether from Saigon or Berlin or Michigan) do not really know real southern-American BBQ and are in a country (Vietnam) where this makes for a very rare and fun concept. Afterall, the presentation is well-done, the location is relatively convenient, and the food is close enough to the necessary stereotypes in order to win uneducated hearts. In fact, with better beer and someone that knows how to make a properly-sized and dressed side salad without blasting the tastebuds with a full cross-section of onion, I’d say that this place could probably even survive just fine in a BBQ-ignorant state in the Northern US.

So, for what it is, I get it—I like the concept and I like the attempt. If you are confused as to what American BBQ should be, you might like this place just fine. If you are demanding and intelligent about your American BBQ and get a hankering for such while in Saigon, don’t expect this place to register against any credible competition that you have experienced in the US. If you just want something vaguely familiar and comforting, with the quality of an upscale chain-restaurant, this should do the trick. In all honesty, you safely note that it isn’t terrible; it is okay. It can be a fun gimmick. But you note it is a very high-priced way to enjoy mediocrity, and that is even before you talk about the 250,000VND ($12.50USD) hot dogs.

In conclusion, you give Quan Ut Ut about 2.5 stars out of 5 based on your lackluster experience, and I think that is about right. You wish the owners the best of luck, because they have a lot of the pieces in place, including a great concept.

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