I have tried and failed, for my entire life, to understand the chicken foot.
Every bite left me with the same question: Why would anyone opt to eat the rubbery, reptilian sticks that prop up mankind’s meat lollipop?
Chicken Feet in Saigon
There is an answer.
Mai Xuan Canh has served chicken in all forms (24/7 for 20 years) in the shadow of the central post office.
Every morning, Xuan, a sassy Hanoiborn matriarch, serves mien ga (chicken glass noodles) to a loyal customer base of northern transplants and masochists.
A number of local bloggers have dubbed her place mien chui— literally “verbal abuse noodles.” Most of her ire is directed at her own staff, but I once got chui’d out for stopping in front of her business to answer a phone call.
The night service is managed by her son Minh, who sits down every day at 2 p.m. with a sharp knife and a calloused hand and sets to work splitting chicken feet into perfect halves.
Minh sinks the split claws into a secret mouthtingling marinade of his own design.
For the next twelve hours, the feet are grilled on the home’s rooftop barbeque.
At some point in this process, the inedible claws, transform into chewy, charred meat candy that leaves the tongue and head buzzing long the after last shred of tendon has been sucked off the bone.
Achieving this transformation was no easy feat. Indeed, it nearly killed Minh. He works all day (and night) to hold his piece of sidewalk.
Rather than relying on frozen American imports, Minh bought his chickens (feet and all) from relatives in the Mekong Delta province of Long An, according to his older sister Hien. His dour squad of waiters was drafted from his wife’s extended family. Even the handicapped chewing gum vendor is a distant aunt.
In addition to helping prepare all aspects of the day menu, Minh often stays up all night to micro manage every aspect of the operation.
At one point in the restaurant’s history, a television screen provided diners with a closed circuit feed of a row of cooks fanning the rooftop barbeque.
The screen was not meant to provide entertainment, but a method of constant surveillance.
“Nowadays, he gets the feed on his laptop,” said his youngest sister, Hong.
Minh rarely slept, she said. Instead, he would return home in the backseat of a car to catch a two or three hour nap before returning to the restaurant to cut cucumbers.
“When he’s here, the food is the most delicious,” she said.
Last year, Minh collapsed from some sort of heart trouble.
“He was seconds away from being dead,” Hong said.
Stress seemed the most likely the cause. The local constabulary has forced the family to push their sidewalk seating farther back and all five of Minh’s kids are off studying in America.
Naturally, he didn’t rest for long. Minh’s back in the saddle: smoking, drinking vodka and keeping an all-seeing evil eye on his operation.
The cucumber pickles remain welltrimmed and the plastic stools are kept warm all night long by the odd mix of prostitutes, wealthy drinkers and young lovers who cannot get enough of the fantastic feet.
On a side note, Bryant Ng (of the Spice Table) was so bowled over by these feet, he took the flavor home and used it to create a chicken homage to LA legend Campanile.
MAI XUAN CANH 57 Nguyễn Du, Bến Nghé, Quận 1