Saigon has become a mecca for international chefs to recreate the flavours of their origins. Just take a look at the new crop of restaurants around town. From a French chef reliving his youth in Spain with Octo Tapas, to an American gourmet chef continuing the family tradition in Soul Burger. It is here in this city I call home the youths and childhoods of many globe-trotting restaurateurs are brought back to life. In the same vein, what would a Vietnamese-American chef bring to the table? Calvin Bui, El Camino’s owner, Saigon’s resident chef for nine years now, has an answer that would surprise you.
“On one side of Los Angeles was Koreatown, the other side had a bunch of taco shops.” Growing up, Bui admits he had more Mexican food than he did Vietnamese food. “I love my mother, but she was a really bad cook. I became a chef in part just to eat better,” he adds in a light-hearted tone. As Bui spent his younger years eating out, it seems only logical then that the flavours of his childhood would then, in his own interpretations, merge into the Korean-Mexican fusion now headlining as El Camino.
At first Bui feared that his background was not authentic enough for either cuisine. “What did a Vietnamese kid from LA know about Korean or Mexican food?” Yet his adventurous nature as a chef made him power through. After his initial training as a chef, Bui went on to have a career working in some of the top restaurants in San Francisco. Korean-Mexican fusion is a new territory for him, but the method is much the same. “I look at old recipes of Kalbi or Bulgogi and see how I can twist those recipes to make something familiar but new for people growing up with it. I love experimenting with different flavours, testing out new techniques and ingredients. Sometimes I get lucky, and things work.”
That’s how El Camino wound up with unique combinations like the Kalbi beef shoulder kimchi tacos and the nacho queso Gochujang fire chicken dip. “These are Korean flavours wrapped in Mexican packages,” says Calvin. “What could possibly be more Californian?”
With El Camino, Bui decided to go all out in paying homage to his rather complicated roots. On top of the rather distinctive fusion food, El Camino is a speakeasy tucked behind Cuba la Casa del Mojito. Here, only doubles are served in cocktails. “The drinks here are meant to get people drunk and let loose like mother goose,” the young chef declares. With the music of his younger years, 90s hip-hop, blasting all night, he wants to carve out a corner for young people to carouse and party. Indeed, the interior, complete with horse head masks on the bar counter, looks almost like the set of an American sitcom where you witness foolish things happen. Bui himself is a bit of personality. Between cooking for guests, he likes to pose for funny pictures, fool around behind the bar, and sometimes even sit down for a long chat with guests.
In fact, after a few times at the speakeasy and seeing him talk to the crowds that come and go, you’ll get the impression that he knows almost everybody in town, which is probably true. During his nine years in Saigon, Bui has opened three restaurants in total and guest-hosted a national television food show for VTV4. Given his enormous charisma, one finds it hard to believe that he used to work in finance. A character such as himself can make the world seem small – as California and Saigon, Korea and Mexico, food and finance are all woven into the rich tapestry of his story as a Vietnamese-American. El Camino is how he chose to tell that story.
“I was focusing on the business side of the restaurant but now I’m back full force in the kitchen, cooking, tasting and experimenting,” concludes Bui. “This food tells you who I am.”