I am standing in Mai´s kitchen, and she is laughing. That is the thing about Mai – her smile and energy are infectious – which makes it pretty easy to forget the real reason why I have come: the food. But luckily this is a subject never far from Mai´s mind and she never disappoints.
I am back at Rico Saigon because Mai wants me to try something traditional – something that is not on the menu – exactly how her grandmother prepares it. The result is Fried Fish with Lemongrass, a dish that is visually stunning as are all Mai´s creations.
¨You will not find this sauce outside of Vietnam,¨ She tells me with pride, before instructing me just how to eat it. The fish is cooked to perfection and goes perfectly with the sauce (fish sauce mixed with egg and lemon) as well as the usual fresh vegetables that accompany Mai´s Vietnamese food.
¨We eat a lot of vegetables. We don´t cook them a lot, just a little, and we always use a sauce. In South Vietnam we like to eat sprouts and mint – a lot, a lot of mint!¨
Mai hails from Saigon in the South and tells me that the food in North Vietnam is very different and more closely resembles China.
¨We eat a lot of seafood and pork but never beef as it is too expensive – all our beef and milk is brought from New Zealand which is why we use coconut milk so much¨.
Staple ingredients include mint, ginger, garlic, spring onion, lemongrass, 5 star anise, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and, of course, the freshest vegetables.
Mai´s husband tells me laughing, ¨She has been kicked out of La Vega [Santiago produce market] for digging around the food for the freshest! Some days she goes through 5 or 6 lettuce sellers to find the best – it´s very difficult to find the good stuff. You have to go early because by 9am all the good stuff is gone¨.
Now Mai has certain sellers that she frequents because their produce is the most reliable, and she loves the Peruvian stalls.
¨Their food is the best because they don´t use any chemicals – they don´t want to pay for them – so it´s like organic. There is so much difference in flavor!¨
Sometimes this limits Mai as to what she can cook, and sometimes she finds something that she will find a way to incorporate in the day´s menu. It took her a while to find all the spices and some things, like the tea, she has to bring from Vietnam.
Mai has no formal training in the kitchen – all that you see she has learnt growing up or by experimenting. The idea for the restaurant was inspired by the famous cafes of Saigon which Michael describes as, ¨so cool and unique. Each one has a different motif – some have water like creeks running through and fountains, others might have a cat theme or a jungle … they are just quiet zones where you can go and have a coffee in an interesting spot¨.
When Mai and Michael decided to make their own Saigon cafe they had a lot of ideas in mind. First they found the property – a derelict house that was devoid of plumbing, electricity and a kitchen. Mai then started buying plants and planting her own but found she couldn´t compete with the quality at La Vega. When a building site down the road began throwing out crates they scooped up as many as they could lay their hands on, eventually becoming the deck and tables you now see. Mai was originally planning a dessert cafe but her ideas quickly grew.
¨Mai was always cooking at home and people started telling us how phenomenal her food was – it wasn´t just me saying it¨ Michael says, ¨She began doing cooking lessons and then when we were putting the cafe together it was clear that Mai´s passion was in cooking these beautifully designed dishes¨.
And so Rico Saigon Cafe was born, and today it is a place with a cult following. Customers come for the food and stay for Mai´s vivacious personality. It really is like being inside Mai and Michael´s home – which is exactly the feel that they want. They host a lot of birthday parties and beam at the knowledge that people are having fun there.
Mai is the sole cook and most days she is the waitress too.
¨I try my best – I don´t want to hire people and make it more expensive for people. It is homey, casual, really healthy food and we want to keep the place like this¨ Mai shrugs with a smile, and this is a recurring theme I keep hearing.
¨Tasty, fresh and healthy food¨ Michael describes Rico Saigon Cafe and Mai laughs,
¨That´s right – he´s in my mouth!¨
What To Try
- Southern Pho Bo, made with sprouts unlike the Northern version of the soup
- Bun Bo Hue Soup, beef soup with shrimp, tomatoes and rice noodles
- Cha Gio Nem Ga, chicken and vegetable rolls
- Cha Gio Nem Tom, rolls with shrimp and vegetables
- Fried Fish with Lemongrass (not on the menu, available on request weekdays)
Special offer for all my readers: FREE Vietnamese tea with your meal when you say you read this blog!
Pushchair/disabled Access: poor but possible!
Price: CLP$4.500 – CLP$6.500
Address: Santa Filomena 207, Recoleta
Phone: 09 8986 3369
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