The Vietnamese delight banh khoai mi nuong and Guatemalan quesadillas
The Vietnamese delight banh khoai mi nuong and Guatemalan quesadillas Credit: Mike Sula

Last week after Jeanette Tran-Dean and David Hollinger told me about their two-great-tastes-taste-great-together moment in the creation of their cassava quesadilla with corn ice cream, I went out in search of the ancestors of the signature dish of their Guatemalan-Vietnamese pop-up Giống Giống.

Nobody wants to use the word “fusion” in food talk anymore, but how else do you describe the cross-cultural union of Vietnamese and Guatemalan cuisine the two demonstrate in their three-weekend run, now entering its second-to-last stand at The Ruin Daily before Tran-Dean goes on maternity leave.

Hollinger, who I later remembered I’d written about when he made pastry for Manny Mendoza’s Herbal Notes pop-ups, says he can crush two Guatemalan quesadillas in one sitting. I believe it. They have all the appearance of a dense pound cake but they’re made with rice flour so they’re light and airy, with just a whisper of savoriness from queso seco. As the name of the cheese implies, the quesadillas can be a bit dry if they’ve been sitting around in the case too long at any of the city’s Guatemalan bakeries—they beg to be dunked in a cup of joe. I found a super-sized one at Panaderia Guatemalteca, 4361 N. Milwaukee. They’re more manageable at Logan Square’s Guatelinda Bakery, 3149 W. Diversey, and at Isabella Bakery at 1659 W. Foster in Andersonville. But Hollinger favors the ones at Albany Park’s 24-hour Markellos Baking Company, 3520 W. Lawrence, and he might be onto something: when I showed up, they were all sold out.

Tran-Dean says she’s never found the Vietnamese banh khoai mi nuong anywhere on Argyle, but she did come across the Filipino version at a bakery in the suburbs, which is what sent her down the Proustian path that led her and Hollinger to create the best of both pastries.

I figured with the abundance of Filipino sweets in stock at Seafood City, that would be the place, but no dice. But I did find a solitary plastic-wrapped Styrofoam tray with three thick slices of banh khoai mi nuong all by itself on a shelf at Tai Nam Food Market, 4925 N. Broadway in Uptown. They are dense, chewy, almost fudgy in texture, and also not very sweet.

It’s too bad the word fusion is so uncool these days. It indicates a seamless union of two things to form a single entity. Notwithstanding some of the worst chef excesses of the 80s and 90s, culinary history is teeming with examples of how fusion works out just fine.

Tran-Dean and Hollinger launched their pop-up to see how far they could push the curious affinity they seem to have discovered between the foods each grew up with. They don’t know if anyone else put the two together before and neither do I. But I’m hoping this isn’t the last we see of them, because when they dropped Giống Giống, they dropped an f-bomb.   v

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