I had lunch with Brenda Sexton a couple of weeks ago. We decided we’d do Asian.
Brenda Sexton is the kind of woman who would turn a lot of heads in Asia. For Brenda Sexton is what my Dad used to call “a long drink of water”. And not only does she stand tall, Brenda Sexton walks tall. Chin high. Shoulders back. Long strides. Even in flipflops.
The restaurant we chose was Chao Ban. It’s a restaurant that transports you all over the Asian map. You can overnight in China. Take a long layover in Vietnam. Spend a weekend in Thailand. And make quick stops in Korea and Japan.
It was my first visit to Chao Ban since they crossed the calle to a pleasant patio on top of what I used to call a beauty parlor but now I’m told I must call a spa. Once you get your eyes over a few raggedy roofs, there’s a pleasant view of the hills to the south. The mismatched furniture gives a humbling effect to the decor that I like (but others might not).
While I’m waiting for Brenda to arrive (she wasn’t late; I was early), I ordered a cucumber water. I’d never had a cucumber drink without gin or vodka or, back when I was still trying to look sophisticated, Pimm’s No. 1 Cup. It was good enough to order a second one.
The menu has grown considerably since Chao Ban first said chao ban (it means hello in Vietnamese) to San Miguel de Allende. And, even though a larger selection should mean a smaller dilemma in making decisions, it actually works the opposite way. We were humming and hawing right from the appetizers on.
There are four soup choices. There’s a chao tom from Vietnam, an udon from Japan, a tom kha kai from Vietnam, and a curried carrot with possibly Indian origins. I could eat any one of those soups. I could eat every one of those soups. We decided on the chao tom.
The broth was very citrusy but not at all tart. At the bottom of the bowl were grape tomatoes, crisp sprouts, firm shrimp and glass noodles. Cilantro and peanuts swam on top.
Chao Ban’s soup spoons are about as deep as a puddle on the sun and I was dying to pick up my bowl. Then, all of a sudden, I see Brenda Sexton lifting hers to her mouth.
“This is, after all, an Asian restaurant”, she said.
Why didn’t I think of saying that?
Ducks seem to do flyovers when they see San Miguel de Allende. So they’re hard to resist when they land on a menu.
Chao Ban’s duck breast comes seared and splashed with plum sauce. It’s served on a bed of Swiss chard, snow peas, spinach and a rare San Miguel treat, turnips. On the side are glass noodles sprinkled with sesame seeds.
Would Brenda Sexton attempt to eat the slippiest, slidiest of all noodles with chopsticks. She would and she did.
The taste of the duck was a little lost from overcooking but, overall, the noodle bowl was a pleasant mixture of flavors and textures that worked separately and in harmony.
When I think of Chao Ban, I think of rolls. There are eleven different on the menu. Five of them include seafood. Six of them are strictly vegetarian.
Again we had a hard time knowing what we wanted. Though we did know what we didn’t want. Mexicans have a passion for putting cream cheese on their rolls. Brenda Sexton and Don Day and just about every other expat in Mexico that I know has an intense dislike for cream cheese on their rolls.
Brenda played the “you’re the big foodie” card and made me decide. I chose the tuna and the Vietnamese vegetarian.
If we ate with our eyes, the Vietnamese roll would be the tastiest dish in town. I thought if I was a vegetarian, I might adore this dish. Spinach, carrots, cucumber, cabbage, soy sprouts. But I am an omnivore and thought how it could be improved with the flesh of an animal or fish.
The tuna roll was another visual delight. Spinach was wrapped around cherry tomatoes, arugula, carrots, yellow peppers and yellowfin tuna. I would have liked a little more of the centrepiece and a little less of the wrapper but when dunked into one of three different sauces that come with each of the rolls, there’s a nice combination of crisp and creamy.
When you go to Chao Ban, you don’t order dessert because, on the way out, you have to pass Chao Corazon. And Chao Corizon is as difficult to pass as Go (and collecting $200) when you land on the Go Directly To Jail square in a Monopoly game. The tiny shop sells French style pastries and the most difficult to resist Belgian style chocolates in peanut butter, chile, and other flavors. Despite the extreme risk of it making our clothes shrink, Brenda Sexton and I chose the chocolates.
There are not a lot of restaurants in San Miguel serving Asian fare. There are no other restaurants in San Miguel serving the rolls and bowls that Chao Ban specializes in. The emphasis in almost all of their dishes is on fresh vegetables. If I was a vegetarian, Chao Ban just might be my favorite restaurant in this town.
Chao Ban is located at Pila Seca 5 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. They’re open from 1:00 to 9:00 pm, Monday through Saturday.