Editor’s note:Jordy Comes Alive, from the U.S., has lived in Ho Chi Minh City for three years. He is big fan of local food after spending time wandering around local alleys and markets to discover the culinary scene.
His piece has been titled, subtitled, and edited by Tuoi Tre News.
Suddenly I’ve just realized just how acclimated I’ve become to Southeast Asian culture. What I mean by this is there are some things that once seemed odd to me that have now become common in my daily Saigonese life.
This includes carts of balut coming down my street at any given hour with bullhorns announcing their wares, the smell of durian protruding from alleyways, and the sight of chân gà (chicken feet) being grilled up just about everywhere.
Over the last five years plus, I’ve indulged innumerable times in chompin’ on grilled chicken feet. I’m a proud chicken foot eater. We’re the eaters who savor our food and show it in a primitive fashion by the way we devour bones. For me, there’s nothing more enjoyable than nipping, gnawing, rippin’, and clippin’ meat off of any bone. It soothes some sort of strange primal instinct that's programmed deep inside all of us (although vegans will deny it)!
I enjoy snacking on chicken feet as an appetizer or ordering them up as a side dish at any given meal, kind of like ordering French fries or a small salad. Most of all, eating chicken feet in Vietnam is a social snack best to be enjoyed with friends and loved ones over beers.
One day I put myself on a mission for a trifecta of chicken feet, a trilogy of grilled, boiled, and fried. I know it’s quite a feat to pull off but I ain’t chicken! It was time to peck out a few of the different styles of chân gà and learn more about this Vietnamese delicacy.
There are a variety of chicken foot dishes to be had in Vietnam but by far the most common are grilled and that’s what I’m most familiar with.
I dig my claws crunchy, covered in char that was smothered in smoke. The feet are marinated in a sauce that consists of garlic, chili, salt, pepper plus other spices that chefs take liberties with. The feet are placed on a hot smoky grill while being brushed with sauce and flipped until perfectly golden brown and crispy.
|A man grills chicken feet at a shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
The grilled feet
My go-to place is Quan Oc Sinh Vien at 155 Phan Van Han in Binh Thanh District, which serves mainly snails and other mollusk delights but they just so happen to make amazing chân gà.
I ordered a pair of grilled feet and right when they hit my table, I captured a claw to begin to gnaw. I hit the toes first nibbling down on the joints and sucking away the tasty skin while chewing on the tendons then spitting out the bones. Nobody looks glamorous eating chicken feet but I continue to try.
Eating chicken feet takes time, effort, and patience, this is the zone where you savor the flavor. The grilled skin is smoky and slightly salty leaving a spicy tingle on my lips.
|A dish of grilled chicken feet is served at a shop in Binh Thanh District, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
Chicken feet are great for dipping and I stuck a toe into some funky fish sauce before getting to work gnawing everything off the bone. Next, I nibbled on the pad of the foot, it's juicy with both skin and cartilage.
The greatest dunking sauce of all time is called muối ớt xanh and it’s a bright neon green concoction of green chili, lime juice, lime leaf, condensed milk, sugar, and salt. The muối ớt xanh in itself is a rampage of flavors that reads citrus with creamy. Hits of sweetness and heat enhanced the kick to the chicken feet, making them irresistible and addictive in a sort-of-potato-chip way.
The boiled hit
I slowly finished my snack and still hungry, I made my way over to Quan Ong Ba Bi at 46 Hoa Lan in Phu Nhuan District to try a chicken foot dish I’d never had called chân gà sả tắc, boiled feet marinated in lemon grass and kumquat.
I had concerns if I’d enjoy boiled chicken feet as much as I do grilled, I was trepidatious about the texture. The dish is prepared with boiled feet that are marinated in lemongrass, vinegar, garlic, chili pepper, lime leaves, fish sauce, sugar, and kumquat.
These chicken feet look ghostly white and they’re topped off with lemongrass shards and rings of freshly squeezed kumquat, a stark contrast to the brown and black crispy grilled feet I've become accustomed to.
|A dish of 'chân gà sả tắc' (boiled chicken feet topped with lemongrass shards and kumquat) is served at a shop in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
With enthusiasm, I clucked a claw and stuck the big middle toe in my mouth, bit down to the bone then pulled. The flavor registered with me before I took notice of the texture. It’s a refreshing tart citrus sensation. There's a side of crushed pepper dip that added a wisp of spice and heat on top of the cool fresh tasting zest of the lemongrass. The texture was slightly gelatinous, exactly like boiled chicken, and took just as much effort to eat as the grilled feet.
I hung out a while working down the huge plate in front of me thinking that the next time I'm out eating and I see chân gà sả tắc on a menu, I would definitely order this dish again. This was a first-time meal for me and it definitely won’t be the last.
|A woman serves 'chân gà sả tắc' (boiled chicken feet topped with lemongrass shards and kumquat) at a shop in Phu Nhuan District, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
And the 'buffalo' sauce twist
I continued my foot food adventure heading over to Brick & Barrel, an American-style fried chicken, burger, and pizza joint at 171 Calmette in District 1. James Jolokia, the venue owner and chef, put forth an interesting twist with his 'Buffalo wing-style' chicken feet.
For any Americans who are Buffalo-wing sauce fans, this may be the right entry point for trying chicken feet. For Vietnamese chicken feet fans, this dish is just as exciting getting to experience authentic American-style 'buffalo' sauce.
Jolokia’s presentation was catchy, served on a wooden board hosting the traditional 'Buffalo wing' condiments of carrots, celery, and blue cheese.
|Fried chicken feet are served in 'Buffalo-wing' style at a restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
There’s a small mound of big-size fries in the center and resting next to them were six jumbo chicken feet. I like the size because there's a little bit more to pick at and they're easier to handle.
I plucked a claw and took a good look at it. As I opened my mouth about to tear off a toe, I could smell the tangy Buffalo sauce that shellacked the foot. It’s been years since I tasted really good Buffalo sauce.
Jolokia’s sauce had the right balance of flavors using imported Franks Red Hot for the base flavor blended perfectly with smooth velvety butter mixed with vinegar and a variety of other spices.
For a nanosecond, I had a food flashback of eating chicken wings on Saint Marks Place in New York City. My hunger pushed away my ping of homesickness and I took a bite of the pad to get more of a chew.
Jolokia told me the claws were soaked in a brine overnight before being fried, making them plump and the skin get extra crispy. I then dipped, dipped, dipped the little toe deep into the blue cheese and it relieved the burn of the Buffalo sauce while I was pecking away at the feet. I could eat many, many, many of these with ease.
|James Jolokia serves fried chicken feet in 'Buffalo-wing' style at his restaurant in District 1, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Jordy Comes Alive|
When it comes down to culinary culture clashes, this dish is the perfect working example of East meets West. American Buffalo sauce meets Vietnamese chicken feet. I’m not aware of anybody else slinging this style of feet in Saigon. It is worth checking out for both taste and fun factors.