One of the most mouthwatering weekends of the year in Ho Chi Minh City is always the Saigon Burger Festival which just happens to be this Saturday Aug. 13.
And while punters will rock up to get their greasy mitts on some of the best burgers in town at Saigon Outcast in Thao Dien, the burger joints cooking them up will be vying for one of the most coveted bragging rights in foodie circles – Best Burger in Saigon.
The space we took was on the side of filthy…it was a girly bar originally and we found a lot of, how do I say, used things on the top floor
There have been some worthy winners over the years since the event’s inception in 2018, and while “best-ofs” always cop a grilling on social media, not least among burger aficionados debating whose is the juiciest and who has the best buns, the fact we actually have an event like this shows just how far we’ve come in a relatively short period of time.
It feels a world away from the days when Black Cat and Mogambo (both long gone) were probably the best of a very small number of joints in town I can remember that offered a half-decent burger that wasn’t at a five-star hotel at a criminally expensive price.
For the most part, burger patties tasted like they came from the tough old rump of a “chopper” cow, likely from an Australian dairy farm, after it had been retired from service and found itself part of the livestock trade between the two countries.
And don’t even talk to me about the buns.
Back in those dark old days around 2010, I lived in District 5, so it was a bit of a hike into “town” whenever I had a burger urge that needed to be fixed.
Then in 2015, Relish & Sons changed things up. They opened their original store on Dong Du Street (since relocated to Thao Dien), a small double-storey joint entirely dedicated to burgers that, correct me if I’m wrong (I’m sure you will), heralded the beginning of a burger surge in our great city.
“We felt Saigon was behind in the burger category,” says chef Chris Donnellan from Tribe Hospitality, the group that launched Relish & Sons, when asked why they took a risk on opening a burger joint in Saigon back in the Dark Ages for burger lovers. “We put a concept together that originally was a bit different. It was going to be named Rebel Burger and was all about old school tattoos, burgers, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and beer.”
According to Chris (who says he could eat a burger everyday), halfway through the fit-out they changed their minds.
“The space we took was on the side of extremely filthy, it was disgusting. It was a girly bar originally and we found a lot of, how do I say, used things on the top floor,” reveals the Aussie from Melbourne who has been a constant at Tribe as they have expanded to add uber-popular mainstays like The Racha Room, Stoker Woodfired Grill & Bar, and Firkin to the scene.
“When we started grinding things back, it revealed so much moisture and mold and who knows what else growing in the walls. We made it clean, white and clinical, and after what we’d experienced in there, our gritty and grungy concept went out the window, it became all about Australian beef burgers, house-made everything, and quality ingredients.”
Since then, we’ve welcomed countless other burgers and burger joints in Saigon (remind me of the others in the comments section below), including McDonald’s a little earlier in 2014, at approximately the same time we officially gained access to Facebook.
Before then, any trip abroad couldn’t officially start until we’d polished off a Big Mac, large fries and a Coke on arrival at whatever destination we were visiting. We were burger starved, hence, the move by Tribe to open a great burger joint, although they did have their reservations.
“There’s always anxiety before opening a venue,” says Chris, who’s opened a bunch of places since arriving in Vietnam a decade ago from Melbourne via Singapore. “Are we going to have customers? Is this the right concept? Have we made the right move?”
Clearly, time has told they did make the right move transforming a house of ill-repute into a classy joint slapping yummy buns of a different kind together and for a whole different kind of hungry clientele (I best stop here).
On a less appetising note (for some at least anyway), recent news oozed through the net like the juice from a Black Angus patty does on a fluffy white bun that the future of Beyond Meat is facing uncertainty.
The company behind Beyond Burger, a plant-based burger that “looks, cooks and satisfies like beef” is on the ropes after its much-hyped release.
There’s even been suggestions by some business analysts that Beyond Meat may go bankrupt within the next 12 months as reports emerge that the “plant-based food craze” is withering after weak product test results at restaurants coupled with mediocre reviews.
As a result, it’s taken a belting on the stock market, sales are down and competition is fierce. Staff have also been cut.
Founded in 2009, Beyond Meat products, which include minced beef, sausages, meatballs, chicken and jerky, in addition to burgers, are designed, according to its website, to have the same taste and texture as animal-based meat while being better for people and the planet.
The impact of livestock farming has been well-documented over the years. Emissions from the practice are said to produce more greenhouse gases than ships, planes, trucks, cars and all other transport combined.
And then there are serious issues relating to production inefficiencies, inequities, animal suffering, human health and ethics.
Beyond Meat products made their first appearance on the Vietnamese scene just a few years ago.
In 2019, BiaCraft Artisan Ales, a Western-style craft beer pub with six locations in Ho Chi Minh City and one of the most extensive ranges of craft beer in the country, was the first venue to feature the Beyond Burger on a menu in Vietnam.
BiaCraft, established in 2014 and known for being bold and setting trends in a city considered the most open to trying new things in a country that doesn’t tend to stray too far from traditional comfort food faves like cơm tấm, bún bò Huế and cơm bình dân, introduced the Beyond Meat burger patty in the only fashion it knew how with its brash release of the No Bull Burger that came with caramelised onions, pickled tomato and rocket with the option of sliced American cheese and french fries cooked in beef tallow.
“We sold it for about a year,” says Tim Scott, an Aussie who is one of the co-founders of BiaCraft and deputy CEO of Red Wok, the group that now owns BiaCraft along with other legendary brand Quan Ut Ut. “We realised fairly quickly that while there was a niche demand for Beyond products, our venues were not top-of-mind for vegans. Imagine, if you will, being vegan and the only place to get Beyond Burger is in the depths of carnivore heaven.”
He says price was another major issue why the product wasn’t popular.
“Lots of people tried it out of curiosity, but they didn’t become return customers even if they liked it.”
James Jolokia, a Texan from San Antonio in the US who’s been living in Saigon for five years and is involved in six food establishments here, including Brick & Barrel perhaps better-known for its pizzas, including the El Diablo that he claims is the spiciest pizza in Vietnam, echoes Tim’s opinion on the price of Beyond Meat products:
“The prices are pretty high, even at wholesale cost,” says James, who likes Beyond Meat’s products, but the cost prevents him from having it on his menus.
Brick & Barrel has 10 burgers on its menu, including a vegan burger, plus James’ other venture Con Bo Map (literally fat cow) has been widely-praised for the quality of its burgers for a long time now.
Both Tim and James aren’t surprised that Beyond Meat is facing difficulties at the moment.
“Overall, (the Beyond Burger) wasn’t popular,” says Tim. “There was some appeal to foreign vegans, but we saw very few Vietnamese people understanding or caring. Burgers in any shape or form aren’t particularly popular with them, so an extremely expensive “fake” beef burger was just lost on them.”
Fortunately for vegetarian punters this weekend, they will be taken care of by two vendors – Soul Burger and Avenue Saigon – who will be offering vegetarian burgers, while Soul Burger will offer gluten-free bun options.
But you’ll have to get in quick.
The organisers expect between 1,000 to 1,300 attendees based on previous years’ attendances, which really is “beyond” belief given where Saigon’s burger scene has come from in such a short time.
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