The idea of puerta cerrada restaurants conjures up a hidden treasure behind the tightly-closed large doors you see here in Buenos Aires. As my friends and I walked down Corrientes in Almagro to A Little Saigon, I wondered what we’d find. The brightly lit lobby, Ben’s eager greeting, and the amazing smells that greeted us as we stepped into the elevator all gave a delectable hint.
The lights were fairly dim, but tea lights dotted the dining room, casting a wonderful warm glow. The table was laid, ready for the meal to come. Shoes were removed, as is customary in most Asian households. Thuy (pronounced “twee”) Lam came to greet us all with her bubbly energy. Thuy was born in Saigon in the aftermath of the Vietnamese War. She and her family fled Vietnam, and in 1980, they all ended up in the United States in North Carolina. Growing up, she spent many hours cooking with her parents, listening to their stories of the home country. She and Ben came to Buenos Aires to explore the many cultural offerings, and they contribute their many talents back to the community.
The dinner guests gathered round the small table in the corner where drinks and a scrumptious starter graced the table top. Small talk ensued as we got to know our dinner partners and had a taste of what was to come. Fried dumplings filled with pork and bamboo were accompanied by two dipping sauces, a simple soy sauce, and a hot sauce for people who wanted some kick.
A dozen people from Argentina, Australia, Europe and the US had congregated to have a ‘Meat Lovers’ Vietnamese family style dinner. The conversations started to flow more easily as the wine loosened up the group. Then, Thuy motioned for us to take our seats as dinner was nearly ready. We were treated to a short, intimate speech. It felt much more like we were friends in her home rather than paying guests at a restaurant. This was to be their last dinner before returning to the US for a month to celebrate their wedding. Many congratulations were given, and the happy couple served dinner.
The first course was spicy cabbage salad with shrimp and n??c ch?m dressing. Conversation died down as we tucked in with our chopsticks. The juices combined to make a zesty and fresh dish, with the cabbage and carrots giving the dish a nice light colour. The prawns peppering the salad were a delicious treat.
Serving plates piled high with meat of three varieties were placed on the tabletop for the second course. There was salty grilled pork ribs, caramelised pulled chicken, and sweet and spicy grilled beef accompanied by bowls of jasmine rice. The burst of flavour combinations delighted my taste buds. The Argentine aversion to the flavour combo of sweet and sour had left me lacking. We filled up on protein and eventually took a break to make room for the dessert that followed: chilled mung bean soup paired with cups of jasmine tea. This dessert was a light and palate-cleansing end to an excellent meal made and served by Thuy and Ben. I felt so welcome that I had to struggle not to rise up and do the dishes as I do in my friends’ homes.
This feeling of comfortableness is what they strive to bring to their guests each weekend as they open up their home and kitchen to a dozen strangers who share a delightful home cooked meal. Mission definitely accomplished.