CAFE SAIGON -- 1135 N. Highland St., Arlington. 703-243-6522. Open: daily 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. MC, V. Reservations accepted on weekends only. No separate non-smoking section. Prices: appetizers $3.25 to $3.75, entrees $5.25 to $10.95. Full dinner with beer, tax and tip about $15 per person.
IT LOOKS LIKE MY AN, IT COOKS LIKE My An, it acts like My An. But the name is Cafe Saigon.
So popular was the original My An, an inexpensive little Vietnamese restaurant on North Highland Street, that a few years ago it spawned the fancier Nam Viet on Hudson Street. Then its block of North Highland was razed to make way for redevelopment, and My An relocated to Eden Center. Its departure was a blow to Arlington's Little Vietnam, which sadly has been disappearing.
Now My An has popped up again in its old neighborhood, under the same management but with a new name. It's added soft ice cream to its specialties, and the atmosphere isn't quite the same (I've yet to see any Vietnamese diners when I've been there). But the Saigon Special Muffin Shrimp Cake, the Beef With Little Bacon on Skewers and the "Funny" Rice Noodle dishes are back. It's a victory for Arlington.
Cafe Saigon doesn't look like much, but then My An never did either. It's just a storefront cafe with hardly any decoration other than the neon signs in the window promising noodles and soft ice cream. Fifty people would crowd the place. And it's still inexpensive -- nothing on the menu costs more than $10.95, and most of the entrees are hefty portions for less than $7.
Cafe Saigon has a small but appropriate list of beers, and wine by the glass or carafe. But its iced coffee -- dark, strong, creamy and sweet -- is justifiably the most popular drink. The menu lists more than 40 entrees, from family-size soups to platters of skewered meats to be wrapped in translucent rice paper and eaten by hand.
Not all of the staff can communicate well in English, but if necessary you can find someone to help you order and show you how to peel apart your rice-paper sheets and wrap them around the meats and accompaniments. The serving staff is gracious and hospitable, though you'll probably have to forgo such niceties as having time to finish your appetizer before your main dish is brought.
By now Washingtonians are so familiar with Vietnamese restaurants that they can knowledgeably compare versions of cha gio and pho. At Cafe Saigon, both the former (crisp fried rice-paper rolls stuffed with ground pork, crab and translucent noodles) and the latter (beef noodle soup with slices of barely cooked tender beef and an undertone of anise) are perfectly good but not the best in the neighborhood. That's no deterrent; you are certainly likely to enjoy even these standard versions. But if you are jaded by ordinary Vietnamese cooking, seek out Cafe Saigon's more exclusive dishes.
Among the appetizers, Saigon Special Muffin Shrimp Cakes are pretty esoteric. They look and taste like what you'd expect from fried oat-bran muffins studded with mung beans and topped with a baked-on shrimp in the shell. Heavy. Greasy. But they grow on you until you can't resist finishing every crumb. Don't try to eat an order by yourself, though, or you'll be unfit for eating a main course.
The shrimp toast is also greasy, but its subtle flavors of minced shrimp, sesame seeds and fried bread are seductive. For a lighter appetizer, try the garden rolls, which are shrimp halves, sliced pork, thin noodles, mint and lettuce wrapped in cold rice paper and meant to be dipped in a tiny dish of pungent peanut sauce with hot red chili paste to stir in as you like. The Special Hue Spicy Beef With Noodle soup is too exotic even for my taste; it's a strong broth reeking of innards with odd bits of meat and red chili oil floating in it.
As for the entrees, the best of them are food you can play with. You slide grilled meat or seafood off their skewers and wrap them in sheets of the thinnest rice paper, enclosing sprigs of watercress and shreds of marinated carrot and radish, maybe a couple of cucumber slices and strands of thin, wiry noodles. You can include some lettuce -- or wrap it in a whole lettuce leaf. Then you dip it in sauce, sometimes the clear golden sweet-hot nuoc maam, sometimes the cocoa-brown chili-spiked peanut sauce. The tables are set with bottles of soy sauce, brown-bean paste, fermented fish sauce and red chili puree to spice up the sauces or fillings to your taste.
All the grilled skewered meat and seafood entrees are delicious. Whether chicken, beef or shrimp with scallops, they are marinated or brushed with sweet, spicy mixtures, perfumed with lemon grass or lemon peel, and beautifully cooked so that they are crusty and juicy. And all are accompanied by rice paper, raw vegetables and noodles to mix and wrap. The most unusual of these skewered delicacies is Beef With Little Bacon, its thinly sliced tender beef rolled around onion and bacon, brushed with a sweet soy glaze and grilled so the beef caramelizes at the edges but is left rare inside.
For no reason I can fathom, pork dishes are not skewered and wrapped in rice paper -- they come already wrapped in rice crepes or, even better, piled atop a bowl of rice or noodles. My favorite is a combination of grilled pork and cha gio with "funny" -- which means wavy -- rice noodles with shredded cucumbers, bean sprouts, carrot bits, shredded lettuce, scallions and chopped peanuts. On the side is a dish of nuoc maam sauce to pour onto the noodles. As with the Korean bibim bap, everything is meant to be tossed together so the sweet-tangy bits of pork and the nuoc maam flavor the noodles, and the vegetables add crunch to each bite. It's like a meat/noodle salad.
While those are the dishes that give My An its distinction, there are also stir-fries, sautes and curries worth trying. Heading the chicken list is juicy chunks of dark meat bathed in a lemon-grass-scented chili sauce whose pepper gives more flavor than heat; in fact, it is more sweet than hot. Spicy shrimp is less sweet and hotter, and a bargain at $8.50 for a platter of seven large, perfectly cooked shrimp. Orange beef resembles the Chinese version, with thick slices of breaded and deep-fried tender meat in an orange-scented sauce, but this one is lighter, sweeter and less peppery than the Chinese. While some dishes warn you of their sweetness -- such as caramel chicken with ginger sauce, and caramel fish -- almost all have a sweet edge. Yet in such light, unthickened sauces, with such a subtle use of garlic, scallion, ginger and pepper, the results are not cloying.
For dessert you can join the crowd with soft ice cream, risk a more exotic fried banana with rum or take a middle ground with cheesecake or caramel custard. It's a flawless caramel custard.
Thus it is a fitting end to dinner at Cafe Saigon. There aren't many kitchens that produce $15 dinners with so few flaws.