- Last Updated on Friday, 23 August 2019 15:06
- Published on Friday, 23 August 2019 13:00
- Written by Mervin Lee. Photos by Mervin Lee.
“They have bak kut teh. And what do you call that…Singaporean Hokkien fried noodles? The Korean businessmen go there for gatherings too,” a friend told me during a casual chat at a craft beer joint a few months ago.
Few words are needed to describe the establishment. Dailos is a tavern-style bar with comfortable vibes located a stone’s throw from Ben Thanh Market. A billiards table. Two capable darts machines. A cozy bar counter. A stage featuring a projector (obviously for sports broadcast purposes) and talented Filipino musicians. This was the type of place I’d see my younger acquaintances from Singapore have a drink or two with older colleagues ten years my senior. And surprise! An unexpected level of cutesy: bottles of hard liquor ‘dressed up’ in tiny polo-shirts sporting names of hardcore regulars.
The haunt is run by an unexpected duo. Eric Tang, a Singaporean who has spent most of his life away from Singapore as a shipping expert, and Patrick Keung, a Hong Kong-native IT professional. Both of them still hold their day jobs while managing the place at night.
“My friend advised me, ‘Eric, if you [are] gonna [be] station[ed] in Vietnam, the first place you need to find is Underground,’” Tang shared. He first moved to Saigon in 2000 after almost 10 years in the Philippines.
He continued: “Took me two months to finally find it. [The] first two months in Ho Chi Minh [City] was really hell. I didn’t know where to go. [I was] staring at the ceiling in my room after work, every day. Then finally I found Underground. People speaking languages I was familiar with. That was where I met Patrick.”
The Underground was a bar which Keung and his brother, Michael, opened in 2000; arguably one of the most celebrated at the time.
“We came to Vietnam in 1993. [Then] my brother Michael started our first place, The Gecko Bar, in 1997,” Keung shared, explaining the birth of his life in the business. “It was so successful, so packed, our glass window cracked once!”
When The Gecko Bar stint ended, Michael then decided to open The Underground, known simply as TUG to old-timers. It eventually closed when the building went up for sale. Things grew to greater heights when they moved to Ngo Van Nam Street and opened a new place known simply as Red Bar.
“We hosted the first zombie walk at Red Bar for Halloween 2012,” Keung said. “It wasn’t just our party, but all the zombies did make-up and started from our place. I think we had over a thousand zombies!”
When Michael died suddenly in 2013, something had to be done. This was when Tang filled the void and Dailos began.
“The Legend lives on,” Keung said, reciting Dailos’ slogan. Michael’s legacy in the industry is unmissable: three framed portraits of him surrounded by signatures of friends, acquaintances and expats in Vietnam are the guardian angels of Dailos.
But something unique happened when Keung and Tang started Dailos: a diverse range of Asian food was introduced. “I didn’t know how the response was going to be like when I started doing these,” Tang said.
Among Singaporeans, Dailos’ most celebrated dish has to be a classic: stir-fried Hokkien noodles. Made with both yellow lye noodles and thin rice vermicelli stir-fried then slow-cooked in a wok with seafood broth, pork, shrimp, eggs and fishcake, its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is effectively both a sauteed and stewed dish by western standards.
Char kway teow, another popular Singaporean dish which is surprisingly unknown to many foreigners, also makes a grand appearance at Dailos. Large, flat kway teow rice noodles, or hủ tiếu mềm in Vietnamese, are the key ingredient in this version of noodle stir-fry. Combined with yellow lye noodles, fresh vegetables, Chinese sausage, squid and other goodies, it is a rendition that is slightly different, yet heartier and healthier, than what I’m used to in Singapore.
Both styles of noodles are served with Singaporean-style sambal chili; a classic which Eric makes with dried shrimp and a secret technique.
It doesn’t end there. What makes the food at Dailos unforgettable is Eric’s fried lard, generous amounts of which are added to many dishes. I particularly enjoyed this feature while digging in to their sizzling sisig; a Filipino chopped-up liver and pork classic that needs little introduction. Dailos also serves crispy pata, or Filipino-style pork knuckle, a dish that takes great effort to prepare: the knuckle has to be cooked tender and then dried in a fridge overnight, and finally deep-fried slowly for 45 minutes the next day.
“I love eating, I love cooking,” Tang explained. “If you want to cook, cook with your heart. If the food cannot pass yourself, don’t serve it!”
The Singlish expression ‘cannot pass’ originates from tests and examinations to describe an effort or item that is lacking in performance.
“You should also try our latest item: Taiwanese beef noodles!” Keung exclaimed.
When the duo shouted Dailo’s signature chant in spoken Taiwanese, a response was immediately received from the opposite table filled with salarymen chugging glasses of beer. It was a camaraderie of foreigners living in Vietnam; ones who have made Dailos their nighttime haven in a land where their native languages were seldom understood. Beyond Asians, Dailos also sees to sizable group of Europeans on a regular basis; the founding duo speaks numerous languages, including English and Chinese, fluently.
After a few beers and a few more mouthfuls of lard, I dropped a big question to them: how different does it feel compared to being in the business back in the early 2000s?
“You felt [like] you were kings. Now more like servants,” Keung said without hesitation. “I’ve seen the whole history of Saigon’s F&B.”
To sum up:
Mervin has serious Camera Gear Acquisition syndrome (GAS) and has bothered to acquire multiple books about pre-75 Saigonese pronunciation.
17 Tran Hung Dao, D1
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