Lunch Review: Rico Saigon Cafe (updated)

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!

Metro: Patronato

Pushchair/disabled Access: poor but possible!

Price: CLP$4.500 – CLP$6.500

Address: Santa Filomena 207, Recoleta

Phone: 09 8986 3369

Follow their active Facebook page here


Similar foodie blogs to read:
* Chinese menu at I Ching Review,
* The best and ONLY place to eat real Indian Food,
* Vegetarian delights at Quinoa Vegetarian Restaurant, 
* Delicious fine pastries and cakes at Pasteleria Lalaleelu

Church of the Chorizos, La Vega and Patronato

With our pull-along shopping cart laden with berries, nuts and vegetables, I am walking with my family along Avenida Recoleta on a particularly smoggy Saturday. We had just been to La Vega – Santiago’s biggest indoor market – to do a long overdue shop (I DO NOT recommend going there on a Saturday and certainly not with a pushchair). We’d stopped at my favourite eating spot in Chile, the Tirso Molina, which is in front of La Vega Chica, and lunched on an overflowing plate of mixed crumbed seafood called Jalea Mixta. It’s always an enjoyable experience going there and especially for natural juices, but this time our strawberry juice was swimming in so much sugar that we literally had to do away with the straw and eat it.

7000 pesos! Enough for two plus drinks and entrada

You can buy almost anything in La Vega, and what you can’t find there you can usually get somewhere else in Patronato. I found a gorgeous straw hat for only 1500 pesos which would have been four times that at least in New Zealand! It was suffocatingly busy  so, naturally, when we returned to the fresh air we decided to walk home.

Wicker heaven in La Vega Chica

There are three metro stops between Patronato and our home close to Dorsal, and the bus takes a good 20-30 minutes so it’s not a short walk. Around Cerro Blanco in particular there is a lot of character, particularly when you walk towards and around Avenida Peru.

Cerro Blanco

There is an old rather Arabic looking blue church with walls partly falling away from so many years of earthquake damage that is locally called “Church of the Chorizos“.  This church was originally ordered by Ines de Suarez, the lady of Pedro de Valdivia, but over the course of several hundred years (and earthquakes!) it has fallen down and been rebuilt. This is where the patos malos go to pray, and they do so outside in front of a shrine with hundreds of candles. I didn’t really get it but after observing it many times it is true – every single unsavoury-looking person will stop in front of those shimmering lights and pray while everyone else just walks past. Maybe they were praying for a nice rich gringo to walk past – which unfortunately would not be me!!


There’s a huge church that was originally built for the Los Recoletano sect of Christianity, and which Recoleta was named after. This is also the church where Chile’s only winner of Miss Universe, Cecilia Bolocco, had a showstopper of a wedding in 1990 that saw the Avenida in front closed and was broadcast on television. Luis remembers the chaos of the moment fondly, saying “she was more famous than anyone else in Chile for winning that competition!”  She went on to have a strong television career after that, I suppose because she was blonde (I couldn’t resist sorry!).


Old observatory

12144778_10153619863855097_2069327452649086215_nBefore the Cementeries there is a grey, derelict building that I had always assumed was empty but as we walked past some older women came out and I got to peek through the open door. To my surprise it was like looking at a picture of the Middle East or Spain – there was a big courtyard filled with plants with lots of doors coming off of it. I wish I could have taken a picture because I have not seen anything like it in Chile. Luis laughed when I said that I’d thought first it was the Catholic Cemetery,

“Can’t you see all the balconies and the washing?”

The answer is yes, I can see them now. He also told me that the building is very, very old and is typical of the flats that were originally built to house migrants from the country who wanted to live close together. One day I promise you I shall go inside and take some photos because it really was like a glimpse into another world.

Speaking of the Cemetery, most people don’t realise that directly opposite the General Cemetery is the Cementerio Catolica (opens on the side street). This is just as interesting as the bigger one but maybe more so because many of the rooms are pitch black and underground – it’s like the catacombs of Lima –  and worth a visit if your not scared of spooky places (or stumbling upon a homeless person in the gloom).

We walked down Cuccuini to Luis’ brother’s house where we were going to a party.  It must be the day for seeing into other world’s because FINALLY the famous drug lord of the area had opened his front doors and was even standing outside. This was exciting because he lives in a completely window-less house that is always dark, and is used on the street as something akin to an opium den. I’ve also heard so many stories so it was good to put a face to him. He said hello and to be honest looked so completely ordinary albeit for his clothes. He just looked a bit bored and sad.

And so has passed another day, another adventure in my comuna!

Santiago Away from the Beaten Path

Bored with doing the same old shizzle in Santiago? Hopefully this list will perk things up!

  1. Museo al Cielo Libre – Created to stop the building walls from deteroriating further, this art feast for the eyes took over four years to complete. Read more here.
  2. Maipu – a suburb that saw great battles of Chile once play out in its boundaries, and today has memorials in its honor. Visit the Templo Votivo.
  3. Museo de la Solidaridad – Begun during the presidency of Salvador Allende, today this is an interesting art collection that has become a symbol of the resistance. Worth a visit to understand more.
  4. Barrio Concha y Toro – so eeriliy quiet that it is like stepping back in time, the small streets that make up this section near Metro Republica make for wonderful photo (and romance) opportunities. While you are here, visit Zully.
  5. Cementerio Catolico – opposite the General Cemetery, this little visited burial site is at times quiet and frightening, with narrow passages and little light.
  6. Museo Colo Colo – A site for true football fans, its also worth a trip to learn more about a team that has followers from all over Chile.
  7. Parque de Los Reyes – Wonder for antiques and marvel at the lagoon and Santiago’s best skatepark.
  8. Parque Natural Aguas de Ramon – now that the sun is shining, make the most of the weather in this spectacular park close to La Reina.
  9. Patronato – although it is on the tourist path, it’s still possible to find something interesting and new when you get lost admidst Patronato’s jumble of streets, stalls and food stands.
  10. Love Motel – take a rest and while away a few hours in one of Santiago’s premier love motels (not for families!)

Feel free to make this list grow with your suggestions!


The Amazing Street Art of Santiago

Beneath the Mapocho River
Bellavista. 3rd eye drawings are very popular with artists here.
Bellavista. This is a tag rather than “art” but I’m including it here because I see it graffittied everywhere
Indigenous art, Recoleta
All art celebrated here in Patronato, Santiago
Chicha store, Recoleta
Corner store, Recoleta
Down a Recoleta street. Interesting because it advertises the work they do inside … but not so sure if they are affiliated with the Ninja Turtles or not.
Vitacura Peace Bear Exhibition, Santiago
Parque Bicentennario, Santiago
Quinta Normal, Santiago
Bellas Artes, Santiago
Barrio Lastarria, Santiago
Plaza de Armas, Santiago
Plaza de las Esculturas, Santiago
Valparaiso creativity
Frutillar theatre, Frutillar

Querida Recoleta

The Andes mountains loom like unforgiving sentinels over Santiago, their icy tops glistening with fresh sunlight. Beneath them, I see pole after pole of Chilean flags flying high, their blue, red and white colours flapping listlessly in the biting winter breeze. They stand perched above the haphazard houses that line Emiliano Zapata, my street in Recoleta, for no reason other than that Chileans love their nation.The homes here have no uniform standard, so you may just as easily find a bungalow painted pink as you would a three-storey beast of modernity, or a property that has grown substantially from its humble beginnings as occupied land. This is a place where the middle-class rub their shoulders with everyone.  The streets come alive on Dieciocho (18th September national holiday) when neighbors enjoy the cueca together or during a televised football game during summer when couches and TV’s are brought onto the street. The elderly sit on their front steps for their daily cahuin (gossip) and visits to the local corner store involve long waits while the store owner checks up on the latest happenings in the neighborhood.

Luis dancing cueca in 2014


I have lived in Recoleta for two years, down Zapata and also in El Salto, an area close to the hills with tiny brightly colored houses . When I first arrived I saw only the potholes in the roads that caused the traffic to constantly stop and start, and the broken pavements that made walking with a pushchair more like a lesson in off-roading.  I saw the street dogs -the real Don’s of the barrio – dictating the passage of both cars and pedestrians by either refusing to move or by chasing and biting holes in the tyres of cars they did not like. I saw the flaites on the corners with their baseball caps and Nike knock-offs, lolling about purposelessly until their after-dark misdemeanors began.  In short, I felt dirty and more than a little scared here, particularly because then I could not understand a single word anyone was saying …

Underneath my window

But there is more to Recoleta than just the modification of a Spanish that is already difficult to understand.There is also much more than the street dogs and the rather enthusiastic bureaucracy of the Recoleta municipalidad.  Recoleta is a place with a long history, from being an early settlement of indigenous (Mapuche and Inca) to the growing district of La Chimba under Spanish rule, through to today where it thrives as a residential area that is dominated by migrants. Patronato, where you will find the La Vega market and an assortment of imported-from-China clothes shops, is said to be home to the largest population of Palestinian’s outside of Palestine, along with people from many other nations. It abounds in stores selling foodstuffs from Korea,  takeaway kebab restaurants, and even high end dining experiences (such as Vietnam Discovery).

Vietnam Discovery

Recoleta is also home to the national cementary, both of which make wonderful ways to while away a few hours (and a good place to buy cheap flowers!). There is a top-quality park (lovingly maintained by workers who have done an excellent job) known as the Parque de la Infancia that will delight children of all ages thanks to its water fountains, train ride, tree huts and ginormous slides.

Parque de la Infancia


13500_10153283177190097_2801260293221211555_nEven the local council, despite it’s difficulties, is going the extra mile by developing its Escuela Abierta programme to offer more opportunities to the Recoleta youth.  They constantly organize events in the local estadio, such as the recent Indigenous Festival, and they have also implemented a small recycling centre and worm farm.

First worm farm!
Onazu nightclub, Bellavista

Bellavista is also (mostly, as half is technically Providencia) in Recoleta, an area famed for it’s nightlife and restaurants. My favorite eating spot here is Como Agua Para Chocolatewhich is a restaurant so dripping with romance it has a flower-filled fountain.

However, my number one place to eat is not in Bellavista, or in Patronato’s Tirso Molina. It is, in fact, close to my home and so tiny that sometimes you knock your chair against the next table’s. It’s staffed by the same people everyday who live above and it really feels as though you are eating in their dining room (because technically you are!). “Santa Rosa de Lima is a Peruvian restaurant that offers an all-day week-day colacion for 2.200 pesos that includes breads, starter, main and side dish. The food is Peruvian and delicious, but the desserts – especially the suspiro Limeno – are truly heavenly. This is not a five-star experience, but in my opinion sometimes the best food spots do not have menu’s containing trout and foie gras or lots and lots of numbers at the bottom of the bill.

Santa Rosa de Lima, Avenida Recoleta

I do not see the poor side of Recoleta now. This is not to say that I am blind, because it exists here as it does everywhere else. I know that my neighbors struggle and that many sell drugs. I know that many people here work long hours and gain little monetary rewards. I also know that some cause problems and that my window that faces the street sometimes witnesses knife fights and even gun shots. But I also know that people often throw meat over our gates for our dog – just because they care – and that my tattooed neighbor has cleaned himself up completely for his new daughter, who is Emilio’s age and lovely.  Every house here has a personality and many are well-tended to – even though there is no grass I watch my neighbor get up every morning in the freezing cold and fastidiously sweep the area in front of her house. This is also the place that bred my partner Luis and that, despite everything, helped him to grow into the incredible man he is today. And it is for these reasons that I refuse to condemn the people here – many of whom are victims of circumstance – or eagerly wait to move away. There are many things I do not like but there are many that I love, and it only takes a moment to find something wonderful (just sometimes takes a little searching for, that’s all). I am proud to call Recoleta my home and it truly is – my blood is English, my memories kiwi but at heart I am Recoletana.

See my pictures on Instagram: @helen_luise  #queridarecoleta

For more information about Recoleta visit:

Feria down Victor Cuccuini
Lunch in Patronato’s Tirso Molina

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Buying mote con huesillo at the feria
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Victor Cuccuini store
El Salto

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The People of Tierra del Fuego

Time for a wee history lesson!

Now I am not one who takes the history books at their word. I am sceptical of everyone and everything (hence why I am making my own volunteer organization!) but I have to admit that this does not always apply. I think we can safely say that the indigenous people of many nations had a terrible time, and none more so than the people of Tierra del Fuego, the region in the extreme south of Argentina and Chile.

It is difficult to obtain much information about them – indeed, Chileans don’t really talk about them. So I was happy to see a small section on the numerous groups at The Natural History Museum, in Quinta Normal.


Some Background

Tierra del Fuego is the bottom-most part of Patagonia, the cold, vast expanse that is shared by southern Chile and Argentina. It was inhabited by numerous indigenous groups such as the Ona, Selknam, Qawasgar and the Yagan. The organisation Cultural Survival describes this region as having each year: 80 blizzards, (up to) 5 metres of rain and snowfall and just 20 days of sunshine (1987). There is few fish, no arable land, and the Qawasgar Indians, for example, had no clothes, no musical instruments and only a few stone tools to use.

Today, small numbers of Qawasgar survive and many were brought to the island of Chiloe to work as boat hands (Cultural Survival, 1987). However, Cultural Survival reports that these workers are discriminated against and easily fall prey to alcoholism, which is encouraged by either low wages or by being paid in spirits (Cultural Survival). This prevailing attitude of racism is most likely connected to past ideologies which were noticed in 1853 by the ethnographer Samuel Kirkland Lothrop who wrote that Tierra del Fuego was viewed as a “strange and romantic land, peopled by unmitigated cannibals (…) the very distance of Tierra del Fuego from the places where most of us live is a gap (…) not only geographical, but racial and cultural as well” (210).

When Charles Darwin sailed through this region this gap would be noted down, in “The Voyage of the Beagle”, perhaps the most well known and most pervasive account of this area. Some of his descriptions may appear a little shocking to today’s sensibilities. In a 1833 letter he wrote: “In Tierra del [sic] I first saw bona fide savages; & they are as savage as the most curious person would desire.—A wild man is indeed a miserable animal, but one well worth seeing.”11 He wrote in his account that: “I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement. … Their skin is of a dirty coppery red colour. … The party altogether closely resembled the devils which come on the stage in plays like Der Freischutz.” (in Grigg, 2009).   Many of his statements were based on second-hand accounts, for example he stated that “The different tribes when at war are cannibals. From the concurrent, but quite independent evidence of the boy taken by Mr Low [a Scottish sealer], and of Jemmy Button, it is certainly true, that when pressed in winter by hunger, they kill and devour their old women before they kill their dogs: the boy, being asked by Mr Low why they did this, answered, “Doggies catch otters, old women no.” (in Grigg, 2009). This was false information but the idea spread like wildfire in the colonised world.


It is beyond sad to me that today nearly all of these original groups are extinct.  Please go here to hear recordings by the last of the Ona/Selk’nam people, Lola Skejpa.

I find it even more shocking when I go to a nightclub in Bellavista that uses images of sacred coming-of-age rituals as their decor, or when I visit museums and have the option of buying mugs and tshirts with these same pictures on.


These are the most popular images that we see of them today, in their traditional gear worn during the HAIN ceremony. In a nutshell, the Hain was a coming-of-age ceremony held by the Selk’nam. The Selk’nam had a fiercely patriarchal society that was re-enforced each year when young men would undergo a terrifying ordeal facing off demons ^. At the end of the ceremony, these ‘demons’ would disrobe and the adolescents would feel shock at the deception. This was then blamed upon the women of the tribe, who are blamed for misfortunes and as deceitful. Their beliefs can be read in more detail here.


The Natural History Museum

10931400_10153006196655097_1479809962739681015_nThe museum itself isn’t anything special but it is worth a trip even if you don’t speak Spanish. It’s one of many museums in Quinta Normal, which in itself is a lovely park to while away a few hours.  It’s also the place where I saw this shocking but evocative display:

10624823_10153006202620097_3787910348521634862_nThere is always some cool shops in front of the park gates. One of them sells lovely natural honey products such as soap.