Does Chile Con Carne usually go over rice?

Sozo Cafe is a pleasant two-story cafe on Ho Chi Minh City’s Bui Vien Street, right in the middle of the backpacker district and just down the block from Lam Cafe (a wildly different beast).

I spend a fair amount of time upstairs, where you don’t have to do reconnaissance on outlet availability before you settle in and you’re guaranteed an environment where you won’t hear Vietnamese pop music or anything with Celine Dion – lots of piano, jazz, and old Standards from the ’50s and ’60s.

It’s a lot of things. It’s a reliable local organization that helps pull young and/or disabled Vietnamese and their families out of the cycle of poverty, has a great selection of western desserts (including, I must mention, that phenomenal brownie, DO GET WARM WITH ICE CREAM), is a really nice place to get work done in the AC on hot afternoons, and is super cheap and more quiet than many other comparable cafes. The ca phe da is sweet and the coconuts are cold – my tastes in cafe drinks are simple and this place delivers reasonably well.

Is the food that great? Well… it’s nothing outrageously special..

But if you’re in the mood for something serviceable without being pretentious or expensive, put this on your list of places that provide a ‘home vibe’ and stop in… or simply click through for my review below.

First of all, some more background on their mission. From their former menu [sic in advance]:

The SOZO Story

SOZO was established for the purpose of helping disadvantaged Vietnamese families break the cycle of debt, be trained for employment and have the opportunity to a new start in life. 

This is the story… Since 1997, we befriended many of the children and families who worked on the streets for their living, We were concerned for them and looked for a practical way to give them a more stable life; there had to be more we could do. 

We had the idea to sell American style Cookies to the growing number of foreigners in the city. In the summer of 2004 we bought a small steel cart that housed an oven, and began to teach one woman how to bake and her son to sell. The small dream to help was happening at last.  

The cart turned into a success but how could we help more people with such a small operation? We knew we had to dream bigger. In April 2005, we opened our first shop in Bui Vien St, district 1. In September 2005, an article appeared in a national student magazine telling the vision of SOZO. The response to the article was overwhelming, many students shared with us their desire to help the underprivileged. We started “English Corner” where 150+ students would come to practice their English and we would encourage them to get involved with us helping the poor & needy. Today SOZO facilitates many community projects that are run by the students who are excited about doing something to give back to their country & their people!

In april 2006 we opened a second shop specifically for students and in March 2008 we opened 2 additional floors at SOZO in Bui Vien amalgamating the 2 shops into one large one. 

We currently have 20+ staff giving them training & further education when needed. They are learning how to bake, handle money and run a business. Our aim is to change lives, restore hope and be available for any who are in need hoping to make a different in their lives. Our goal is to do all things with excellence and for the glory of God!

It is clearly a place that has a heart and wears it on its sleeve. I, personally, am not involved in their charity operation, and simply do my part as a patron.

Exquisite panini grill marks.

The good news: It excels as a cafe that happens to have food. With enough variety in their plates to fill that empty hole in your tum-tum on longer computer work sessions, you won’t go broke on coffee or a light lunch and no one’s going to come up and ask if you want to buy sunglasses or a variety of tacky hand fans.

It is not the most astounding place flavor-wise, but it’s comfortably boring in its output – dishes are generally small- to medium-sized with no frills, coffee and juices are cheaper than other cafes, and, if you don’t mind listening to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” three or four times during your stay, it’s a relaxing and relatively chill place to work.

Pretty great Beehoon Noodles.

There’s an attempt to capture the form, if not the spirit, of several different kinds of Western and Asian dishes. They offer such diversions as cottage (shepherd’s) pie, breakfast burritos, omelets, sandwiches, salads, pasta, and rice.

Predictably, the Asian options lead the way in terms of tastiness, with the fried rice with chicken being particularly good.

The Malaysian beehoon noodles are good, but, in a motif running through the entire menu, lack much in the way of seasoning. Frankly, everything could use a little more salt.

The chicken curry is a bit on the gritty side.

The reason the food lacks character is difficult to pinpoint. It’s as if someone asked a bunch of Vietnamese, “What is Western Food?” and someone said “Let’s do a google image search and imagine what the flavor profile might be from the color of the food” and we wound up with the idea and presentation of western dishes, but lacking any kind of recognizable spirit.

The chicken curry is a little gritty and flavorless, but comes with either a side of beehoon noodles (as in left) or a baguette. I’ll refrain from reviewing a baguette. Baguettes in this country are almost uniformly fantastic (Thank you, The French).

…Really?

Seasonings are slightly off or minimal. Interpretations of western dishes are reliably Vietnamese in execution – Chili Con Carne is a few ounces in a bowl of white rice, and you can tell that no one has been presented with the worldview-shattering revelation that is Cumin – as my friend Erin says, it’s the Magical Mexican Spice. Please investigate and use liberally when appropriate, Sozo.

Bagel sandwiches are solidly, comfortably straightforward. Nothing special, but great calorie input for your after-gym coconut juice pairing. At least it’s pressed in a panini grill – a visual indication that it has gone through some kind of kitchen process is reassuring.

Weirdly good. Maybe I just had a really great morning workout?

Crazily, and I have zero idea why this is, the burger here are pretty good. I’m fairly sure that it’s simply a frozen patty thrown on the grill, but it works. Maybe my many years of sub-standard burgers in college have had more of an insidious effect on me than I realize, or maybe it’s just that it’s slightly better then most of the other offerings around town (which tend to the  unnecessary and ill-advised ‘fancy’ burgers, which are almost uniformly ‘misses’ rather than ‘hits’).

It could also be that the fries they serve alongside are some of the best I’ve had in Saigon (in a region that fries virtually anything on demand, it is very, very hard to get really great fries. I’ve never understood this discrepancy). They’re hot and crispy on the outside, and soft and creamy in the middle – just what fries should be. All too often the wedge-type of fry is underdone. Who the hell knows what magic they’re using to avoid this, but whatever it is, it seems to be working. Keep it up.

The biggest disappointment was the breakfast burrito. I have only had ONE decent tortilla in Vietnam, and it was not here. I was so spoiled with great variations on Mexican flavors in Chicago that when confronted with this tomfoolery of a dish I just had to sigh and look away. It was more of a crepe with an egg and some weak salsa.
Simplest Granola.

My problem – and, to be clear, it is MY problem – is that I expect artists in the kitchen (as well as pretty much everywhere else, actually). I want chefs to be more than money-handlers and business-runners. If you’re going to make food, put some of yourself in it (haha, but not in a Hannibal kind of way, please). Let’s not even get into the fact that Lam Cafe is turning out consistently AWESOME Mexican, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, Thai, European, and American dishes, and they have a menu the size of the NYC phone directory. Somehow, they get it.

Perhaps this disconnect from the soul of the food is due to cultural distance, or perhaps it’s a lack of focus in the kitchen. The other explanation could be that the cooks are constantly being trained and then transferred to other duties (I ate these dishes over the course of three months, FYI). I don’t know. All I know is that the cafe has a bafflingly high TripAdvisor score.

Quite excellent chicken. The fried rice is, unsurprisingly,
incredibly bland.

One very gratifying thing about the menu is the feeling that you’re doing good by patronizing this place. This is like a condiment that people slather on their dishes to make up for how boring they are… and it works. It’s low in sodium, releases positive endorphins in your brain, and genuinely does help people. It doesn’t make that food taste any better, but it’s low-fat and guilt-free, so that’s something.

So yeah. It’s not Astounding. It’s not even Really Good. But it’s competent enough, serves an excellent purpose, and is comfortable, convenient, and cheap.

Got some work to do? Check it out, but don’t look for craveable food. You won’t find much here. Stick with the chilled coconuts, pressed juices, and coffee… and the baked goods, of course.

And, for the love of god, go get that brownie. WOW.

So, what do you think? Am I expecting too much from what is essentially a philanthropic non-profit organization? Too snarky? Or isn’t it too much to ask that a dish provide something the average Joe can’t make at home? I’m torn. Sound off in the comments.