HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM -- John Russack stares at his lunch. His lunch stares back.
On his plate is a whole fish: scales, fins, eyes and all. In his former life in the United States, Russack wouldn't have touched it. In Vietnam, however, he's game. He forks a piece of fish containing an eyeball and pops it in his mouth.
"It's not what I expected," he says with a laugh. "It's like a Tic Tac."
And so begins Russack's research into his 41st entry for his blog. Every day for a year he's trying a new dish and then detailing it on getoffthetrail.com. It's led to some winning dishes like soft-shell crab lightly coated in rock salt and barbequed eel flavored with chili and lemongrass.
It's also led to some losers.
"I ordered a bowl of soup a couple weeks ago," he explains. "The broth looked amazing with pieces of chicken and noodles on top. But as I started eating the broth I noticed some kidneys, intestines, stomach, everything left over from the bird."
In an era of reality television where competitors consume the grossest of the gross for money, the last thing Russack wants is to blog about meals purely for shock value. Instead he aims to give readers a taste of a culture most will never experience.
In some regards, Vietnam is ahead of the curve. The so-called "tip to tail cooking" Russack describes in his blog is just becoming popular in some Western kitchens.
"Everything here is fair game," he notes.
Russack has quite a history, both personally and culinary-wise. Born in a suburb of New York City, he moved to Germany with his family when he was in high school. At last count, he's visited a staggering 106 countries, boosted in part by his career as a commercial pilot. He currently flies for Air Mekong, a start-up airline in Vietnam funded in part by Utah's SkyWest, Inc.
Throughout his travels, Russack aims to collect experiences instead of visiting typical tourist landmarks. He cites a trip to Jordan as a prime example. He was on a bus bound for Amman when the driver suddenly stopped at a small restaurant. As Russack and the two other Western passengers grew increasingly frustrated, the driver motioned for them to join him.
That's when they realized it was the breaking of the daily fast during Ramadan. The trio didn't speak Arabic and the driver didn't speak English but everyone dug into the aromatic stews placed on the table.
"That's when I started realizing food is the one thing that can bridge cultural gaps," he says.
He motions to the spread before him now.
"I don't speak much Vietnamese and these folks don't speak much English but we can stand over a pile of food and I can order and they can recommend," he says. "It's something we all share."
Although Russack appeared to be the sole Western customer at lunch, he quickly became just another diner slouched in his small plastic stool. He favors traditional street side cafes over anything found in a guidebook or travel website. To find blog-worthy meals he relies on word-of-mouth recommendations or places that catch his eye on his daily walks around Ho Chi Minh City. He doesn't worry for a second about running out of options.
"You can literally eat your way through the city. The food here is amazing," he said. "I'll try anything once." As if to offer proof, he holds up what's left of that whole fish at the end of the meal. The bones are picked clean of the white fish he describes as having a salty, soy sauce-marinated taste.
"It was actually pretty good," he says standing up to leave. "I'd eat it again."