Beyond the Familiar
A new Vietnamese restaurant offers far more than pho
By Candy Sagon
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Nov. 4, 2007
** (out of four)
Everyone's a critic, especially when it comes to eating the food of their homeland in someplace other than their parents' kitchen. So I knew what I was getting into when I invited a friend and her husband to have dinner with me at Saigon Cafe, a Falls Church restaurant specializing in central Vietnamese food.
My friend is Vietnamese and, like her mother, an excellent cook with strong opinions about other people's cooking. "I am very critical," she repeatedly warned me as we made arrangements on the phone. "She can be really picky," her husband murmured to me as we sat down to dinner.
I just smiled. I had been to this serene little restaurant near the Eden Center twice already, and I was pretty confident that I would hear little carping. In fact, most of the kvetching that night didn't come from my friend -- it came from the rest of the group grumbling because we couldn't get cold beers to go with our food. (The restaurant has applied for a liquor license and hopes to get it approved soon.) Lack of a cold one aside, the food at Saigon Cafe wowed my friend.
"So light," she marveled about the velvety, steamed rice-flour cakes. "Such good flavor," she commented after a bowl of bun bo Hue, the rich, spicy South Vietnamese beef soup. "Generous meat, good balance of vegetables," she cooed over the grilled beef with rice vermicelli.
About the only complaint she could muster was that she wished the soup were a little spicier -- a problem she quickly solved with a few dollops of chili sauce from the table's condiment tray.
Saigon Cafe opened in February -- a larger, more sophisticated sequel to the tiny takeout place that the owners, Tien Nguyen and her husband, Phuc Le, had owned in Fairfax. "We wanted a bigger place, but we wanted someplace quiet and peaceful. A place where families would come," Nguyen explains. One of their customers suggested relocating to the strip mall across the street from the red-and-gold entrance to the Eden Center, the popular shopping and dining destination for the region's Vietnamese.
The inside of the restaurant is painted cool green and warm butterscotch, with orange accents. Instead of paintings, dark green plates and blue and white teapots adorn the walls. Large groups that need room to spread out can sit toward the back at handsome picnic-style wood tables with benches.
What makes Saigon Cafe unique is not just its exquisite central Vietnamese specialties, which are hard to find in this area, but also the care and consideration it gives to the more familiar dishes from the country's other regions.
Think you know garden rolls? Try the bo bia Saigon -- the restaurant's special rice paper-wrapped rolls fat with crunchy jicama, salty circles of sausage, sweet cooked egg and cool, crisp vegetables. Or how about that Vietnamese staple, lemongrass chicken? This place has a kick-butt version sauteed in heaps of spicy ginger, lemongrass and turmeric. Those ubiquitous vermicelli-and-grilled-meat dishes that often have too much of the former and not enough of the latter? You won't find that here. The meat is plentiful, tender, and full of smoke and spice.
For sheer communal fun, try the bo nhung dam -- a hot pot for cooking thin slices of raw steak in bubbling broth seasoned with rice vinegar and lemongrass. While the beef cooks, you can soften rice paper wrappers in warm water, then roll up the hot tangy beef in the rice paper with cucumber, pineapple, basil, cilantro, bean sprouts and noodles. Dip in vinegar sauce, eat and smile.
But let's talk about the dishes that are lesser-known (at least to most Americans). As with any country, Vietnam's cooking reflects its geography. The beefy, peppery dishes of the North, such as pho, exhibit more of a Chinese influence, while Southern cooking reflects flavors from India, Cambodia and Thailand. Central Vietnam, and in particular the ancient imperial city of Hue, is known for sophisticated dishes that favor pork and seafood, as well as lots of vegetables, herbs and chilies.
Nguyen and her husband are from central Vietnam, and her parents are from Hue (pronounced Way). She uses her mother's recipes to make banh, the steamed rice flour cakes sprinkled or stuffed with either shrimp or pork that are a Hue specialty. Although the menu calls them "rice cakes," their consistency is more like soft, slippery pasta in the shape of delicate white disks that take nearly half a day to make. Other varieties of banh come steamed inside banana leaves, where the dough turns translucent with a firm, smooth texture that's a nice contrast with the crunchy filling. Order No. 32 on the menu, and you can try some of each.
From Hue also come patties of steamed pork or shrimp, which have a compressed texture similar to hot dogs, but with better flavor. They're not much to look at -- thick rectangles of brownish pink and pinkish brown -- but after the initial bite, they were all devoured, despite our waiter's skepticism that "Americans don't usually like this."
What Americans do like is pho, and, of course, Saigon Cafe obliges. But consider instead the famous Hue imperial beef noodle soup, called bun bo Hue. Dark and complex, with layer upon layer of flavor, it's like pho's older, more experienced cousin.
The soup's long-simmered oxtail broth is heady with lemongrass and generous amounts of chilies. The noodles are also different from those in pho -- they're heftier, like really fat spaghetti. Sliced beef shank and pieces of pork contribute to the rich flavor. For $2 more, you can add shrimp patties. Served on the side for stirring into the soup: bean sprouts, banana flower, shredded cabbage (purple and white) and the slender, slightly spicy green leaves of rau ram, also called Vietnamese coriander. Come flu season, I'm convinced this soup will cure whatever ails you.
Nguyen says she uses more chilies and less chili oil in her soup than typical versions, to provide punch without adding as much fat. She also refuses to add the cubes of congealed beef blood to the soup that are traditional in her homeland. "They're scary to me," she says. "I don't think they're very healthy for you."
Although we liked almost everything we tried, the restaurant trips up on a few things. Fried items are one. Avoid the crispy spring rolls (called cha gio). They were dry and overcooked both times we tried them. Also, the flan was bland and rubbery. Stick to coffee with sweetened condensed milk for your sugar fix.
Service also can be a bit inattentive, and a few waiters were skeptical about whether non-Vietnamese would enjoy some of the more unusual central Vietnam specialties. But co-owner Le is more than happy to answer questions about any of the dishes his wife has prepared, and the general feeling in this sunny cafe is welcoming and friendly.