I wish I could bring my 1st graders learning about color here!

*Updated!*

With a name like Fragrant Smoke, you’ve got a lot to live up to. I expected a lot, and I’m happy to say that Khoi Thom delivers in spades.

Located on a beautiful side street between the Archbishop’s house and the Japanese Embassy, Khoi Thom is easily one of the tastier restaurants I’ve visited since I’ve been here, and not just because I’ve been pining for Mexican food (it’s like a sickness!).

The atmosphere is relaxing, the al fresco dining room felt right, and the food was a spot on version of Mexican that perfectly suits the Vietnamese palette. I leave satisfied and ready to tackle another plate, every time.

And true, although it’s a VERSION of Mexican, it’s more than enough to satisfy my cravings. I’ve been three times now, and I’m sure I’ll be again soon! Here’s what I thought:

All citrus, all the time.

The first thing you notice is that this restaurant is not in the hot mess that is Bui Vien, (the Backpacker’s District). We are firmly in District 3, my home district. Thank goodness… while Bui Vien is a fantastic diversion occasionally, that doesn’t make it any less of a hot mess. Sometimes you just need something relaxing. The al fresco dining and good food and company were perfect.

The menu is intriguing, Mexican enough to be recognizable, but filled with combinations that are distinctly Vietnamese-inspired, the seafood-heavy entrees, smoothies, and juices lying comfortably next to the tequila, beer, and steak.

This is a pineapple, orange, banana smoothie (I always get smoothies or juices now that I can’t have beer anymore! A small consolation… but a tasty one! And healthier). It was great.

I’ve also gotten a dragonfruit, basil juice, and other things smoothie. It was interesting, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. It turns out that the exterior of a dragonfruit is a flamboyant lie – it’s actually kind of bland! The basil juice was exciting, though.

Notice the five artfully-laid actual tortilla
chips on the bed of sweet potato
chips (I think sweet potato…).

For an appetizer, the house provides ‘chips’ and ‘salsas’ – sort of. They’re very, very good, but they’re distinctly Asian. One is a fantastic curry-like hummus, and and the salsa verde and rojo have distinct Asian overtones. The pico de gallo was a straight up successful rendition, though, and was just about perfect.

There were few actual tortilla chips and the majority of it looked to be a fried potato slice of some sort, perhaps sweet potato. Overall, a great local twist on what is a pretty essential part of any Mexican restaurant experience – pre-dinner chips and dips. I must confess, the hummus-y dip was my favorite, and I put the remainder on my fajitas.

Coconut-shrimp burrito – and no, that’s not mayo.

I ordered fish tacos the first time, and a coconut-shrimp burrito the second time. Both were unexpected and fantastic. It’s hard to go wrong with seafood in this country, even though I can’t have much of it anymore. Khoi Thom does not add rice to their burritos unless requested, so I did, opting for garlic rice. The other dining companion with a burrito requested Mexican rice. There was an almost embarrassing amount of lettuce in my burrito, but the mango salsa and sour cream (in perfectly reasonable proportions) helped me forget how much iron I was getting.

My most recent visit was a high note for Khoi Thom, in my opinion. This time I chose the chicken fajitas, and, by god, they were astounding. Juicy, sizzling, fresh, with red and green peppers (called ‘capsicum’ pretty much everywhere but America, I’ve discovered) and onions still sizzling as they were brought to my table. Three tortillas – flour – were enough to get it all down the hatch, and I hijacked the remaining hummus and some chips for taste and crunch. EXCELLENT.
Chicken served in a cow.

Desserts are also on the menu, although I didn’t try any of it personally. One of my dining companions chose pudding and ice cream, and it turned out to be chocolate cake and ice cream (probably for the best). The desserts look great, but by the time I’m done with all that Mexican taste, basically all I want is more Mexican food. Sad, but true. I’m a junkie.

Apparently dinner time is a little low-key, but the place gets wilder at night, featuring tequila girls and a whole mess of specialty drinks. I was ok with low-key both visits – if I go to eat Mexican food, I want to be able to enjoy it and some conversation. Come to think of it, that’s how I like most of my meals.
Marigolds… cute.

Would I come here again? Absolutely. It wasn’t straight up Mexican, but it completely succeeding in melding the flavors of Central America and Vietnam into a cohesive whole. My salsas were spicy enough and my drinks were cold enough – major points to Khoi Thom!

~SET LUNCH MENU UPDATE~

Ah, what a great surprise! I came here for lunch (saying a final goodbye to Kasia… people come and go so quickly abroad!) and, to my delight, discovered a mostly great set lunch. Awesome.

There were three tiers: Entree/Rice, Burrito/Salad, or Tacos/Dessert. All came with unlimited lime juice, iced horchata, soft drinks, or iced tea.

Ola and I got entrees, lured in by the promise of grilled meats, but Kasia had (TO MY HORROR) never had a burrito. That had to be remedied immediately – shrimp it was, with fried garlic rice inside.

We also each got a coconut, passion fruit, and honey smoothie, which was a really different type of smoothie and one I might seek out again in the future.

Shrimp burrito set lunch with a feta, sun-dried tomato, black bean and sprout salad with soy vinaigrette. It was decent.
Honey-Ginger Glazed Spare Ribs. OMG.
Grilled chicken wings. EQUALLY OMG.

The two meat entrees game with a sparse salad and choice of rice. I got fried mexican rice, which was pretty good. Unfortunately I didn’t have much time to eat it.

My one quibble (and it’s actually a pretty big one) is that this was the first time I had tried the horchata – it was not great. Not even very good. In fact, I should have gone with water – it was bad. Whatever they’re brewing up at Flaco’s Tacos is at least a million times better than this. Also, no complimentary chips at lunchtime. Booooo.

Otherwise, totally great set lunch for a decent price (between 5-7 USD). If you want fancy lunch, I’d give it a shot.