You don’t just get great food at this place, you also get great stories from its owner, a former Miss Saigon and undercover special agent
A friend new to Bangkok recently asked me if there was a Little Vietnam in the city, similar to its Little Korea or Little India. I thought a bit and then it dawned on me that there really isn’t anything of the sort.
Perhaps this is why truly great Vietnamese food is so hard to find here. There are plenty of Vietnamese restaurants; some are good and most are average, but it’s really hard to find dishes that taste as good and fresh as they do at the famous sidewalk restaurants in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh.
But an old name in a new location is getting a second wind as more people discover its authentic Vietnamese food and hear the intriguing story behind its friendly, talkative owner.
Now located in a shophouse on Thong Lor after five years at its original location on Sukhumvit 13, Xuan Mai is run by Meyung Robson, who is quick to greet you at the door and usher you to your seat.Born in Vietnam, she won the title of Miss Saigon in 1970 when she was 20 but was forced to leave her home country a few years later, emigrating to the United States with her parents during the Vietnam War.
“My father was a South Vietnamese army general so he understood the gravity of the situation,” she says. “The day before Saigon fell to the North, we jumped on a ship to the U.S. with the clothes on our back and US$60 to our name.”
In the states Robson began working as a government translator, and soon applied to work with the FBI as a special agent. She says she became the first person of Vietnamese descent ever to make the cut.
Meyung Robson was the first person of Vietnamese descent to be accepted into the FBI.
Working as an FBI diplomat, she and her two small children traveled the world, usually working undercover on a variety of cases. Robson was part of a team that hunted down two of the FBI’s most wanted criminals — one a murderer in Vietnam, the other a pedophile in Bangkok -– and was soon transferred to the U.S. embassy in Thailand.
“I never have, and never will, use MSG in my food.”
When Robson retired in 2004 she dove into cooking, a hobby she’d had for years.
“The work I did was pretty stressful, so when I came home to my kids, all I wanted to do was forget about the job, and cooking became my relief valve,” she says.
Throughout the years she perfected her recipes, which led to the opening of Xuan Mai. Ingredients are picked up on regular trips to Vietnam, although Robson will soon begin growing some of them in her own garden.
On a recent trip to the restaurant, my dining partner — who is half Vietnamese — was skeptical of the hype at first, but changed her tune after the first bite.
We started with a superb palm heart and shrimp salad, which came with plump shrimp and huge wafers to use as edible plates.
Two types of spring rolls followed — the ubiquitous gỏi cuốn, also known as the summer roll, followed by the deep-fried variety wrapped with glass noodles.
After that came bun cha (noodles with pork in a tangy soup), which was garnished with fistfuls of herbs and spices from a large bowl on the table.
Dessert was a delicious passion fruit crème brulee, served in a coconut shell, with a cup of spiced cinnamon cider.
If you’re not sure what to order, Robson will happily go through the menu with you and let you know the ingredients and background of each dish.
Everything we ate was delicious and displayed an admirable adherence to the basics, something that Robson stubbornly refuses to budge on.
“I’m on a mission,” she says. “I never have, and never will, use MSG in my food. Vietnamese cooking uses so much of it and after several generations we’re beginning to see some very real health problems there because of it.”
In fact, she feels so strongly about this stance that she once fired her head chef — on opening night, no less – because of a disagreement over the use of MSG.
It was a fortuitous decision, because her recipes have caught on, and Xuan Mai shows no signs of slowing down.
Xuan Mai Restaurant
351/3 Sukhumvit 55 (Between Thong Lor soi 17 and 19), Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0)2 185 2619
Open Tuesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-2 p.m and 5-10 p.m. (closed Mondays). Open Friday-Sunday, 1 a.m.-2 p.m and 5 p.m to midnight.