Following on from my popular story recently on where to get your hands on the world’s most-adored sandwich in Saigon – the Reuben – I’ve decided to dedicate a post to each establishment that was featured.
So I hit up Tristan Ngo, founder of The Elbow Room Bistro & Bar on Pasteur Street in Saigon’s District 1, to get the skinny on what makes a great Reuben sandwich.
True to form, Tristan, considered an “OG” in Saigon’s hospitality scene who also established the well-known and much-loved Skewers, a Mediterranean-style restaurant on Thai Van Lung Street, way back in 2000, is quick out of the blocks:
“Freshly made sauerkraut, slow cooked pastrami with lots of spices,” he says when asked what the secret is behind a good Reuben. “We use thick multigrain bread (instead of the traditional rye bread), but most people won’t notice the difference.”
Tristan’s The Elbow Room has been serving up American-style comfort food on Pasteur Street since 2009, long before the strip of shophouses standing cheek to jowl along the same section of pavement turned into a stumble of boisterous dive bars serving up suggestive-sounding drinks like Tequila Licks and Blow Jobs.
The late night party set migration from nearby Ho Tung Mau Street a couple of blocks away was precipitated by a sudden rise in rents when, of all things, bubble tea first burst onto the scene around 2016.
Suddenly, drinks that required you to lick, sip and suck gave way to more pedestrian ones consisting of non-alcoholic unusually flavoured tea that require you to slurp and chew.
The bars needed a new home.
“We make everything for our Reubens in-house with lots of love and care,” says Tristan in response to why people should try his version of the iconic sandwich that until at least 2010, wasn’t available anywhere in Saigon. “Basically, I make them for me and I’m very picky about food. When you make food for yourself, you always make the best and that’s what I apply to my Reuben at The Elbow Room.”
The Elbow Room isn’t the only establishment in the neighbourhood that has witnessed the proliferation of bars around it.
Indeed, Number 5 Bar a few doors along has been open since 1998, although it originally opened at 5 Pasteur Street, hence its name, and moved to its current location before 2010.
And many will remember the kitschy jungle-themed-cum-tiki-style Mogambo Bar & Grill (now Jake’s BBQ) that also served American-style food and was one of the few places in Saigon that made burgers until it closed down a number of years back.
While a lot has changed in Saigon over the past decade, The Elbow Room remains one of the few constants serving up memorable items like its Reuben.
It’s one of those places you go back to because you know exactly what you’re going to get, much like Johnny’s Pastrami in Tristan’s hometown Culver City in the States that he fondly recalls:
“I don’t really remember the first time I ate a Reuben, since I was very young at the time, but I remember always going to Johnny’s Pastrami and I’ve been going back there ever since. It’s a historic landmark.”
Perhaps it’s those experiences that have rubbed off on Tristan along the way that have set The Elbow Room on the trajectory of becoming a culinary landmark of its own – if it isn’t already.
The Elbow Room Bistro & Diner is at 52 Pasteur St., District 1, HCMC
For more info, visit https://the-elbow-room-bistro.business.site/
Words by Matthew Cowan. Follow Matt on Instagram at @mattcowansaigon
Feature photo supplied by Tristan Ngo