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Salt n' Lime adds zest to Ha Noi dining

Update: August, 10/2014 - 02:26
That's a wrap: Diners can watch owner Adam Bett prepare burritos in the open kitchen.

Anew Mexican eatery inTay Ho serves up tacos and burritos that showcase fresh local ingredients. Elisabeth Rosen reports.

Demand for Mexican food in Ha Noi is intense. When Salt n' Lime opened, the tortillas ran out in three days.

Chef-owner Adam Bett demonstrates that Vietnamese ingredients are so amenable to Mexican cuisine you wonder why there aren't more burrito stands in the capital. His tacos (VND30,000) feature fillings like pork slow-cooked in tomatillo sauce and barbecued beef, placed atop corn tortillas and garnished with cilantro, diced red onions and a wedge of lime. Like Vietnamese food, it's all about freshness.

Although he attended culinary school, Bett attributes much of what's served at Salt n' Lime to the Hispanic cooks he worked with in restaurants across the US.

"There was this old lady at a small half-pizza, half-Mexican place. She taught me a lot of recipes," he recalls. "Green chili, enchilada sauce…"

Multipurpose: Fresh tortillas provide a base for tacos (top) and addictive chips, served with guacamole and a spectrum of salsas made in-house. — Photos Duhwee Pham

His training as a manager at Qdoba is also evident from his insistence on keeping order: even when the open kitchen is overwhelmed with burrito tickets, he remains methodical, a lesson that more Vietnamese kitchens would do well to take in.

The convivial spot on a secluded stretch of West Lake is small but cosy, with soft lighting and a handful of wooden tables. It's ideal for long nights in the rainy season, where a group might linger over warm, freshly made tortilla chips (VND30,000 small, 60,000 large) and a bottle of Chilean red (VND300,000). It's not so ideal for single diners, who linger forlornly at tables for four -- if there's room.

Luckily the burritos (VND140,000) are designed for takeout, shielded American-style in aluminium foil as if they might explode at any moment. Substantial in girth, they provide a broad canvas to showcase local ingredients. That slow-cooked pork disintegrates into tender threads over black beans simmered with onion and a hint of cumin, while marinated grilled chicken is served in more substantial hunks. (For vegetarians, there is a sauteed vegetable option).

Salt n' Lime

Address: 6 Tu Hoa (6/1 Au Co)

Tel.: 0126 613 4178

Hours: 5-10pm

Price Range: VND50,000 - 300,000

Comment: Authentic Mexican food

Rice is scooped from a steamer and seasoned with fragrant fistfuls of cilantro, along with the eponymous salt and hand-squeezed lime juice. Salsas are made from ripe mango and tomato and red onion, most of it from the market down the road.

The food has enough salt n' lime, but it would benefit from a bit more chili. Some like it hot, even in Ha Noi; even the salsa roja -- the hottest one on the menu -- packed less burn than the pickled chilis served with sidewalk pho. And while mango salsa is meant to be mild, were it not for the occasional chunks of mango, I couldn't even detect it on my pork burrito.

But the guacamole is a redeemer. Unbelievably creamy and roughened with avocado bits that prove its legitimacy, it pairs well with the addictively crispy chips. A local supplier guaranteed to provide avocados for a year. "She couldn't believe how many I wanted," Bett says.

Like most Vietnamese restaurants, Salt n' Lime is family-run. Bett's wife, Pham Ngoc Luong, and her mother also work in the narrow space; her mother left her job in Hai Phong, the northern port city where the family comes from, to be Bett's sous-chef.

You can watch them in the open kitchen, multiple generations slicing mangoes and peppers. The arrangement is generally agreeable, although there is some inevitable generational conflict. "She goes crazy when I throw things out," Bett says. — VNS

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