A number of Saigon purveyors tried to replicate the American burger but failed. It was their beef. It tasted like muddy water buffalo.
After a back-numbing, 16-hour flight, first thing an American soldier sought arriving in Vietnam was a good burger and a cold beer.
He soon found those words were an oxymoron in Saigon. The indigenous beef was terrible, stringy stuff. The Grade D garbage imported from Australia tasted like it. What’s that floating in the warm beer? Let’s just leave it on the table.
Our trooper is perplexed. It’s beginning to look like a whole year without a burger.
Look closer, buddy. Down in Cholon, you see these little food stalls with charcoal grills. Dozens of umami patties are sizzling, sending out an incredible aroma you’d swear was a burger on your dad’s grill at home. And where did they get the Kraft Velveeta? Don’t ask.
What’s that in the ice tubs? Can it be? Budweisier!
One bite and soldier is hooked. It’s cemented in his memory. He’ll never forget this.
A number of Saigon purveyors tried to replicate the American burger but failed. It was their beef. It tasted like muddy water buffalo. All they needed was to rename their pork umami sandwich a “banh ambogo” (hamburger in a bun), and they raked in a fortune. It’s that good.
This has created a cottage industry back here. We have Vietnam vets pestering food writers for umami recipes, especially around Memorial Day when memories are stimulated. The advice is to fly out to Little Saigon in Los Angeles. Or, try to replicate one at home. (It’s cheaper, no bag fees.)
Ground pork subs for the beef. It’s accentuated with purely Asian flavors of fish sauce, lemongrass and sweet chili sauce. You’ll need to find an Asian grocery for these. Note that the original umami was made from grilled pork slices the vegetables on a baguette roll. It’s more like a Cuban sandwich.
The main mistake is using bulk sausage for the pork. Then you get a sausage burger, good, but hardly a banh ambogo. Ask your butcher to ground a pork shoulder, or do it yourself.
While you’re at the store, get a jar of peppery do chua, (pickled vegetables), mainly cabbage. This is the “relish” for your burger.
Serve with lettuce on a toasted bun. (Make your own nuoc cham sauce with equal tablespoons of lime or lemon juice, fish sauce, sugar and water.)
The taste is everything you remember about Vietnam. Lemongrass offers a slightly citrus tang, tempered by the salty fish sauce. All that’s needed is a slice of good, old Velveeta and a cold Bud, and you have it.
1 pound ground pork
1 tablespoon minced lemongrass
Page 2 of 2 - 2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Dash or two of sweet chili sauce
2 tablespoons nuoc cham sauce
Combine ingredients to make four patties. Cook as you would a beef burger, but charcoal grilled is most authentic. Spread mayonnaise mixed with mustard on four toasted kaiser rolls. Garnishes include fresh bean sprouts and cucumber slices along with the pickled veggies.