There’s something about the south of Vietnam that invites big feelings and free spirits. One would certainly think so sitting in Soul Burger, with the Ben Thanh market going at full blast outside the balcony; the endless numbers of funk, R&B, and soul music; the badass graffiti of Ray Charles on the wall; and next to it, the name of the equally badass Burger of the Month (BoM) – the Carlos Santana. This month marks Soul Burger’s three year anniversary, and to celebrate, Gabe Boyer, the owner, asked people to vote on Facebook for their favorite from the previous 35 BoM’s. The winner was the Carlos Santana, a Mexican-themed burger so tremendous there was no way I could eat it gracefully. “Good!” Boyer merrily and resolutely declared. “A good burger should be barely held together.”
One could say that “burger” was written into Boyer’s gene map. A Chicago native, he has been a chef in restaurants since the tender age of 15, but his love affair with this American staple predated even his birth. His family used to own Goldy Burgers (now Goldyburgers), an old-schooled Chicago dive bar opened by his grandfather in the 1930s. It’s still open these days. “We thought about buying it back, but I just don’t have the time,” confesses Boyer. After he came to Vietnam seven years ago, he worked as a chef for several fine-dining restaurants, but his root eventually came calling. “I kind of fell out of love with fine-dining. I got bored of feeding rich people who didn’t know anything. I still respect the cuisine and go dining myself, but it’s not what I’m all about.” So what is Boyer all about? Well, Soul Burger can give you a clue.
The menu alone can make you chuckle. Names of Motown and soul artists leap out at you, except these are actually burger names. You see cheeky word plays like the Diana Ross for a burger with sauce Diane; or the James Brown glazed with brown sugar BBQ sauce. You also see celebrity impressions in food forms like Hulk Hogan, which was a July’s BoM, packed with everything orange from Buffalo sauce to cheddar cheese, Doritos, and pickled watermelon rind.
His sense of humour aside, Boyer has worked for years just to refine what a burger can be, making them as anti-fast food as possible. “This is not my grandfather’s burger. His was very simple. I’m a chef, he wasn’t,” as summed up by Boyer. Soul Burger does have a bar, but its unpretentious setting overlooking the touristy area of Ben Thanh market belies the sophistication on offer. For one, only American beef, not Australian beef, is used here. “When we grind all the beef, we take all the tendons, the sinew, so that it should be tender, almost falling apart beef.” Almost, but not quite, as evidenced by how nicely my Carlos Santana held up.
Saigon foodies seem to agree, as Soul Burger is consistently mentioned as one of the best burger joints in town. Obviously, this inspired Boyer and his wife to come up with the hashtag #worstburgerinvietnam. A sign with the phrase hangs proudly outside the first floor entrance.
When they first started, about 15-20 percent of Soul Burger’s customers were Vietnamese. Now the number has increased to 50 percent. “Burgers never go out of style. Once people understand what a burger is, they like it,” Boyer explains.
Well, for a carnivore like me, it’s pretty hard to imagine not liking burgers in general. Pair that with some sweet soul music and a cold beer – I’ll settle for the #worstburgerinvietnam anytime.