Jul 2008


I’ve been wanting to try Pepperonis restaurant in Saigon for a while. This Hong Kong-based “Italian” chain sells a wide range of pizza and pasta, but they’re known in particular for their cheap lunch and dinner buffets. As recently as two years ago, you could gain access to an endless supply of pastas and salads for a mere 28,000 VND. While this price has since increased (along with the cost of everything else in Vietnam), the 42,000 VND lunch buffet is still quite a deal.

On a recent visit to Hanoi, I happened to walk past a Pepperonis branch on the way to my hotel from the airport shuttle stop. Although I typically resolve to eat nothing but novel northern Vietnamese delicacies when I visit the capital, on this day I was in the mood for something different. I had followed up a longish run in the morning with a meager breakfast, and after skipping out on the disgusting sandwich on my Vietnam Airlines flight, I was unusually hungry. In these situations, there’s something about stuffing yourself with Italian pasta that just hits the spot—Vietnamese food can’t quite match it. Besides, I couldn’t see myself dragging The Gastronomer to an all-you-can-eat luncheon of questionable quality during our final two weeks in Saigon. It seemed appropriate to go at it alone.

It was 12:55 PM when I stepped inside. The advertised lunch buffet hours were 11:30-1:30, so there was no time to dawdle. I chose a seat upstairs by the window (might as well give my camera a fighting chance), grabbed a plate, and headed back downstairs to the buffet. It wasn’t the most impressive spread I’ve seen… just one table of entrees in metal cafeteria-style tins, and one table of salads with slightly more appealing presentation. The selection was also a bit strange—I had been hoping for a choice of several pasta shapes and a nice range of sauces, but I was instead presented with a mismatched hodgepodge of Vietnamese and Western food.

I threw caution to the wind and started filling my plate with a little bit of everything. The end result didn’t look so hot, but I was ready to eat. I started with some glass noodles from the salad table. These definitely came from the Vietnamese end of the spectrum. Dressed with a sweet, nuoc mam-based sauce, they were tasty, if not exactly what I had come for. I grabbed some corn on the cob, which was terrible—cold and slathered with way too much butter. I struggled to finish two small sections.

Things began looking up with a carrot and daikon salad. A classic Vietnamese goi with peanuts and herbs, it looked like do chua but wasn’t sour. I also sampled an excellent baked pasta—a bit like lasagna but with made with spaghetti and lacking runny cheese. This one confused me at first, but I eventually identified it as the baked Bolognese from the menu. It was really satisfying—different than anything I had eaten in months.

I rounded off plate #1 with some stir-fried vegetables on rice. They were solid, with lots of onions (not too raw) and a hint of lemongrass, but it was a super-weird thing to eat after the baked Bolognese. The words, “What am I doing?” came to mind.

Nevertheless, I was still hungry, and it was nearly 1:15. I went back for plate #2. I came back with more goi (ironically probably my favorite dish of them all), some penne with white sauce, a section of veggie lasagna, and chicken curry with rice. The penne was a huge disappointment. Since it was the closest thing to my original vision for the meal available, I filled up a full half-plate with it, but the sauce was bland and tasted too much like pure cream with a hint of mushrooms. The veggie lasagna turned out to actually be potatoes au gratin, or perhaps some other creamy dish with potatoes, onions, and herbs. It was decent, but it didn’t leave me yearning for more.

The chicken curry was probably pretty good, but this time the shock of the transition from creamy pastas to Vietnamese food was too much. I was getting full, and I just wasn’t in the mood anymore. This had to be one of the strangest meals I’d ever eaten.

It was almost 1:30, so I went back for one more helping of my favorites—the carrot and daikon salad and the baked Bolognese. I finished off the meal with some papaya chunks from the dwindling fruit salad. I had eaten too fast, but I felt alright. I had found a few winners among the selection of mediocre offerings, and I had satisfied my curiosity about Pepperonis. It’s not so different from one of the cheap pizza/hoagie/pasta joints in Pennsylvania (albeit with a bizarre Vietnamese twist), or perhaps the Swarthmore dining hall on a good day. Clearly somebody likes it—according to their business card, there are 5(!) locations in Hanoi. Guess it wasn’t such a coincidence that I ran into one.

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9 thoughts on “Pepperonis

  1. Interesting mix of food. But at that price for a buffet, what more can you ask for? My kids are taking notice of this place already, they are not that picky about Italian food. I see that you did not try the pizza or the ribs, so I may have to give my two-VDs in a couple of weeks.

  2. Nước mắm and rice is very common plebian grubs. Plain rice actually tastes pretty decent with nước mắm (from a good bottle), a squeeze of lime and a few slices of red chili. I think pasta with nước mắm, basil and chili could work. It is not that far-fetched. In Ancient Roman society, garum (a type of fish sauce) was a popular condiment. And there are plenty of anchovy pasta recipes.

  3. Beautran, can you explain “I may have to give my two-VDs in a couple of weeks”? Vietnam đồng or venereal diseases? If the latter, then no thanks. I already have mine two.

  4. You deserve a medal for eating the Pepperoni’s buffet! It’s the lowest rung on the Al fresco’s/ Jaspa’s group, who are down HCMC way too. Pepperoni’s has really taken off with the young Vietnamese in Hanoi in recent years (though it started out catering to expats). These local kids are dead keen to eat pastas and pizza, supplemented with local stuff judging by your post, BUT — warning! sweeping generalisation incoming… — don’t have a clue what good pizza or pasta is about and so Pepperoni’s gets away with serving a large spread of cut . At that price you couldn’t expect much I suppose. But next time you need a pizza, pasta fix in Hanoi just go to Luna D’Autunno and spend three times the amount of money on a pizza or pasta that you remember for all the right reasons.

  5. Chris – Glad you liked it. Unlike the Gastronomer, writing is not my first love, so sometimes I need a little positive reinforcement to inspire me to blog more.

    beautran – I would have loved this place as a kid. The pizza looked better to me than the pasta, but I was there for the lunch buffet deal, and it’s unlikely I’ll be going back. Anyway, I’d be interested to hear if you try it.

    Long – I agree, rice and nuoc mam alone make a pretty adequate meal.

    Teddy – Nobody forced me to do it, so I don’t know if I deserve a medal, haha. But I have felt compelled to try a number of places in recent months in order to gain a more complete picture of what the Vietnamese population is eating these days. Curiosity has led me to a lot of gems, but it can be dangerous.

  6. I knew there would be some understandable confusion. VDs = Vietnam dong, not the other one, if it were I would not ” give” it to anyone.

  7. John – Clearly, you haven’t been an expat for long enough 😉 Stay for a couple years in Vietnam, and that pizza will rock your world!

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