Saigon Pho Style

$$$$ ($15-$24)
Saigon Pho Style photo
Olivia Boinet/For The Post

Editorial Review

Hidden Treasure
A mother and son serve up tasty Vietnamese dishes

Candy Sagon
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, March 16, 2008

You drive past the Persian kebab cafe, the Chinese restaurant, the Indian spice mart, the Greek bakery and the Asian grocery. Near the back of a small, international business park in Herndon is a cozy Vietnamese restaurant that I probably shouldn't even be telling you about. It's tiny and plain -- just 10 tables, with no decor to speak of -- but eating there is like going to a friend's house for a good home-cooked meal.

I swing by at least once a week for the amazing grilled catfish or the addictively spicy baby clams or the "happy pancake," a big, fat stuffed crepe that most assuredly makes me happy. It's a mom-and-pop type place that's actually run by a mom and son.

Oh, you want the name of it? Yeah, well, I guess that's the point of this job. To share.


This little gem is called Saigon Pho Style, so named, says 39-year-old owner Michael Lam, to reflect the menu's South Vietnamese influence. His mother, Dung, is the cook. Michael waits tables and greets customers; his sister, Natalie, works the cash register. The year-old restaurant, he says, "is our dream."

While Michael Lam's friendly warmth puts customers at ease in his restaurant, it is the superb cooking (and iron will) of his mother that elevates Saigon Pho Style above the many other family-run Vietnamese eateries that dot Northern Virginia.

The first time my husband and I visited the restaurant was a slow night, and Dung Lam came out of the kitchen to make sure we knew the correct way to eat the Saigon crepe we had ordered. These large, crisp pancakes made with rice flour and coconut milk are among my favorite Vietnamese dishes. They come golden brown and hot, folded in half and stuffed with shrimp, pork and bean sprouts. You swaddle a piece in a cool lettuce leaf, then dip the bundle in the traditional tangy-sweet dressing of lime, chilies and fish sauce. The result is hot and cool, crunchy and soft, and altogether fabulous.

But let's be honest: While I love this dish, I am not as skilled at wrapping up a lettuce leaf packet as a 60-year-old woman who has been doing it all her life. Which is why Dung Lam ended up taking my chopsticks and showing me how to stab the pancake into small chunks, then roll them up tightly in the lettuce along with the fresh basil and cilantro. She wasn't my mother, but I felt I needed to earn her approval, anyway. She stood silently and watched as I nervously dipped, took a big bite and vigorously nodded my delight. Only after my husband had dutifully done the same did she give us a tiny smile and return to the kitchen.

Dung Lam, says her son, has high standards for both her ingredients and her recipes. She also has little tolerance for those who want her to deviate from what she believes is the best way to prepare a traditional dish. We learned this on a subsequent visit with another couple. One of our friends insisted on white meat chicken, instead of dark meat, for the stir-fried chicken vermicelli bowl. Michael Lam graciously agreed to the change, but, after he relayed the order to his mother, we could hear her through the kitchen door, shouting angrily in Vietnamese about this transgression. (And, of course, Mom was right. White meat comes out drier and less flavorful than the dark thigh meat that is usually used.)

Perhaps Dung Lam's greatest talent is with fish and seafood, starting with the utterly addictive appetizer (although it's more like an entree-size portion) of baby clams sauteed with generous amounts of sweet onion, basil and red chilies, topped with chopped peanuts and served on lettuce. It comes with a platter-size rice cracker studded with black sesame seeds; you break off pieces and use them to scoop up the sweet and fiery clam mixture. Wash it down with cold beer (or lemonade), wipe your forehead, repeat. Her entree of grilled catfish, a North Vietnamese-style dish called Cha Ca Thang Long, is also a winner. The fish, seasoned with turmeric and garlic, and served sizzling on a platter, is moist and tender. It comes with the usual accouterments of greens, vermicelli and lettuce, plus crisp rice cracker, but the fish is so delicious, we were tempted to just eat it by itself (undoubtedly a no-no, if Mama Lam had caught us).

There is also grilled rockfish on the menu -- at $26 for two or $36 for four -- but it didn't seem worth the trouble. The fish was perfectly cooked, but, compared with the catfish, sort of bland. And all the bones made it a pain to pick apart for the meat, which was then rolled up in softened rice paper with vegetables and noodles. I'd rather order the caramel prawns -- fat shrimp cooked to a rosy red in a spicy-sweet caramelized sauce -- or the juicy ground shrimp wrapped around sugar cane, grilled and served with vermicelli.

Carnivores shouldn't miss the beef salad -- a heaping mound of paper-thin slices of rare, marinated steak tossed with lime dressing and generous amounts of sweet onion, basil and red pepper -- or the beef pho. In fact, if you're going to order pho here, stick with the beef. The chicken version seemed anemic. The beef broth was richer and spicier, with a generous amount of lean round and flank steak. Michael Lam said his mother made him beef pho every morning when he was growing up in Vietnam. Take that as a hint.

And here's another hint. If you eat here, don't expect the level of service you would get at a bigger, more fully staffed restaurant. It's a family place. Service can be a bit scattered and inattentive, especially when the dining room is more than half full. Be patient. Breathe. And don't order white meat chicken. You've been warned.