As career paths go, from carpenter to chef is an unconventional one. “How did I get where I am today?” he asks, “A lot of hours in hot-ass kitchens and workshops, a lot of sweat…but fortunately not too many tears.”
Deonté Daniels’ journey began in Seattle – where he owned a construction company – before he settled (for the time being at least) in Saigon. Now, besides being a chef and restaurant owner, he’s added model to his CV with a number of shoots. “I guess I do look distinctive, especially for Saigon,” he shrugs modestly. He’s still spending long hours in smokey kitchens across town though. Formerly at Bark & Brew in District 2 which he co-owns and which he built his own smoker for. “Because they’re not easily available here in Asia I made my own,” he explains about the connection between his former full-time profession as a craftsman and constructing a smoker from scratch.
You’ll also see him at the neighbourhood hangout Bunker Bed & Breakfast & Bar in District 1’s cool Dakao Ward (where you’ll also find the first Wink hotel).
In fact, he’s partnered with Bunker’s co-owners The Lab on a number of projects including fashion shoots and a rap video…even though he can’t rap. “The Lab’s creative director, Tuan, went around telling everyone I was a rapper and it actually stuck for a while. Everyone was coming up to me asking about my hip-hop career. But secretly the video was marketing for their fashion brand Labels’ new jacket……”
And so you’ll also sometimes see him at another Lab project. Southeast Asia’s highest lounge, Blank Lounge in the Landmark 81 building where’s he’s also the chef. He’s about to relocate the Bark & Brew operation to Bunker, and feature in an ad for EcoFlow. So we took Deonté Daniels to our favourite supermarket, Bon Marche in the Léman building basement, to cool off beside the refrigerators while we asked him for his insider guide to Saigon.
Deonté, can you describe the city for us in a few words?
Casual (organised) chaos.
Where should we go to feel good?
Da Lat. Coming from Seattle, I miss the cold weather and fresh air the most. You can find all that and more in this city in Vietnam’s Central Highlands. Plus, it’s just six hours away from Saigon by road. Take a sleeper bus and wake up refreshed by the mountain breeze, or fly – which only takes around 45 minutes.
Where should we go for street food?
There’s good street food all over the city. You don’t have to go to a certain area to find it, you just need to know which pajama lady to go to and which one to stay away from.
I have a map full of places that I return to (and recommend), but District 3 and 4 are home to some of my favorites. Try Vinh Khanh Street in District 4 – an obvious choice because it’s so famous now – or Kỳ Đồng Street in District 3. There’s the wanton noodle shop on the corner at 14/5Bis Kỳ Đồng or the famous pho ga shop inside the same alley.
Where should we take a date?
Quince Saigon. It’s simply the best overall dining experience I’ve had in Vietnam. The cocktails, the wine selection, and the service were all exceptional.
Alternatively, go to Sake Central Saigon. It’s the Saigon outpost of a concept launched in Hong Kong. It’s kind of inconspicuous, cool, with dramatic lighting, and some tasty curated sakes. It’s a perfect date spot.
Where should we go for lunch or brunch?
Elbow Room. I would say it’s the best American breakfast in Saigon right now.
Which convenience store chain is the best?
It has to be 7-Eleven. They’re the only convenience store that sells Doritos. In the US, as an adult, I stopped eating Doritos and similar snacks. But being so far away from home makes you crave your childhood pleasures. You’ll find me at the Vinhome’s 7-Eleven between 1am and 3am on random nights of the week.
Where should we go to meet new people?
Sadly I’m the wrong person for this question. I work all day, every day – I rarely have time to meet new people, unless they’re guests at the restaurants.
Where can we drink the best coffee?
Shin Coffee is my favorite. I read that the owner studied in Japan and returned with a very Japanese-approach to making coffee. The location at 13 Nguyễn Thiếp is perfect too. On one side is Đồng Khởi and on the other is Nguyễn Huệ. It’s a great meeting spot before you head for drinks at Layla or Sake Central or simply while away some time with a cold brew and watch bewildered tourists criss-crossing the street outside.
Where should we go on a Friday night?
Bam Bam. The new venue from HypeAsia is part lounge and part club. Depending on the day of the week behind the decks there might be a grime producer, a DJ just off the plane from Bali, or one of our local favorites.
Upstairs there’s Commas Saigon too. It’s run by the same crew, and opened shortly after Bam Bam.
What should we buy as a gift?
Coffee? Shin sell their own arabica from Dalat and house blends, as do some other coffee shops here. Or cashew nuts? They’re relatively cheap compared to western prices. Find them in most supermarkets.
Which tourist destination is worth my time? Which should we skip?
For sure skip Ben Thanh Market. You can find the same stuff at almost any market in the city but you’ll pay triple or more at Ben Thanh Market.
To be honest, I can’t think of a tourist attraction that’s really worth your time in Saigon. In fact, if you ask me, stay away from tourist areas. Everything will be better and cheaper if you follow the locals.
Saigon is a place to be, more than a place to see.
Which place can be our little secret?
Bunker Bed & Breakfast. Dakao is one of the city’s coolest wards, perfect for wandering around, and you can stay upstairs. Send me a message, I’ll show you around.