Clark Gable and Nachos in Vietnam

What in the great wide world could Hollywood heart-throb Clark Gable, nachos, and Vietnam ever have in common? Hey, this is Vietnam. Never be surprised at anything!

In 1932, Gable, the then reigning “King of Hollywood,” and Jean Harlow made a flick called Red Dust. Gable played a rubber planter and Harlow a hooker. And the red dust referred to in the title was the soil of southern Vietnam. Yeah, you got that right. The action took place in the Mekong delta. Many movie goers of that day first became aware that there was a place called Vietnam through that movie. And the movie was quite a hit.

Now fast-forward 21 years. Harlow had died young, but the king still reigned and people wanted to see him reprise his role as the plantation owner in love with the “soiled dove.” So Director John Ford hired Ava Gardner for the prostitute part, and gave her and Gable the old script. Little had been changed, except the title and the location. The scene had moved to Africa, and the title had been changed to Mogambo. But it was still the old Indochina tale, redux.

Now fast forward to 1994. A yank named Michael, who happens to be an old movie fan, opened a restaurant on Thi Sac Street and called it Mogambo, for the movie. It’s now at 50 Pasteur, Q1, but it’s still decorated in the old movie theme. A poster of Gable graces the wall opposite the bar. The walls are paneled with bamboo. There are skins and stuffed beasties, and paintings of wildlife, and the pattern of the floor tiles recalls the zebra. So what has all this got to do with nachos? First let me tell you what a nacho is.

It is a bastard child conceived of the Mexican kitchen, adopted by the Tex-Mex kitchen, and embellished and beatified by the Cal-Mex kitchen. Sainthood should not be far away. At its most elemental it is nothing more than a corn chip dressed with cheese, tarted up with salsa, and perhaps besmeared with fried beans. It may be further cloaked with sour cream, bejeweled with jalapenos, enriched with meat, decked out with slices of olive and perfumed with cilantro. It can be either the temple virgin or the painted lady of Cal-Mex cuisine. At ballparks in the USA it is the neighborhood tramp. You will not find it in Mexico except where Americans and Canadians tend to loiter. Although northern Mexicans do enjoy a breakfast “torta” similar to the nacho, a semi hard roll sliced in two and toasted. Then it is spread with frijoles refritos and topped with cheese or avocado or both, maybe a bit of salsa. Not exactly a nacho, but “same same only different.”

The nacho’s origin is largely unknown to the general population, but through the labors of the diligent researchers of the Oxford English Dictionary, and the archivists of the Church of the Redeemer in Eagle Pass, Texas, I have learned it. It was in Texas in 1943 that a certain group of “ladies who lunch” went on a shopping trip to the Mexican town of Piedras Negras, just below the US/Mexico border. They decided to lunch at the Victory Club, where Senor Ignacio Anaya reigned over the kitchen. As with Caesar Cardini and the Caesar Salad (see a few issues back) he was short of goods at the moment. So he cooked up some corn chips, slathered them with what he had, no doubt liberally lubricated the ladies with liquor, and served them his famine fare. The ladies loved it. Either they or he, the record does not specify, named the dish for Ignacio. But they used the diminutive: Nacho.

And what does all this have to do with Mogambo? Well, to my mind, “Mogambo Mike” as I shall call him, is one of the two guys who serve the best nachos in town. And he will even build your plate of nachos to order. You want want more of this or less of that? You want vegetarian? You want lime scented chips or plain? Half order or full? (Be warned, a full order requires four diners and eight beers.)

And that other guy who serves a good nacho? That would be Geoff Deetz of the Black Cat at 13 Phan Van Dat, Q1 . Of course everything Geoff serves is top notch (or should I say top nacho?). And he’ll serve you a great big Margarita to go with your nachos. Yay! But when you’re jonesing for nostalgia, and that nexus of Gable, nachos and the red dust of Vietnam, head to Mogambo. See you there.

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