As it turned windy and more brisk here last week, it was a pleasure to pop into the Saigon Cafe for a steaming bowl of pho dac biet, the cafe's version of the traditional Vietnamese beef noodle soup, pho tai. In just a few minutes a veritable tureen was set in front of me, a healthy portion of thinly sliced beef, cilantro, scallions and onions floating in a lightly spiced, cinnamony clear beef broth, a mountain of rice noodles lurking below. On an accompanying plate were a mound of crispy fresh bean sprouts, citrusy Thai basil, a sliced jalapeno pepper and a wedge of lemon.
Taking my cue from the several Vietnamese expats and Vietnamese Americans in the cafe, I pushed most of the bean sprouts and a couple of the pepper slices into the bowl. Then I tossed in all the basil and squeezed in the lemon juice. Finally, I doctored it up with squirts of table condiments: soy, hoisin and two kinds of pepper sauce--hot, and infernal. A swish of my chopsticks, a sip from my porcelain soup spoon and voila, I had a piquant contender to any soup around and a meal unto itself, all for the absurdly low price of $4.95.
Hoang Nguyen opened the Saigon Cafe five years ago in the Parc City Center strip mall in Countryside, just a few doors down from Cheng's Chinese restaurant. It is a small, brightly lit room decorated with a few pastoral paintings of Vietnam and a small collection of dolls in traditional dress. The waiters provide brisk and occasionally brusque service, but I was pleased that the chopsticks came without asking. At lunch the cafe fills with office workers, many of Asian extraction and a few Vietnamese, judging by their interchanges with the waiters.
Do start out with a big pot of jasmine tea, well worth the 50 cents just for the mood it evokes, its heady floral bouquet conjuring up a warm day in a flower garden. For appetizers, the Saigon Cafe does well with both the deep-fried spring rolls, called cha gio, and the fresh, uncooked rolls, sometimes referred to as summer rolls (goi cuon). I prefer the cha gio, which is about two-thirds the size of a Chinese egg roll. Delivered crispy and hot, the two spring rolls are stuffed with a blend of cellophane noodles, minced chicken, sour carrots, sweet potato, eggs and lettuce. The bed of lettuce is not just for looks: Wrap your rolls in a leaf before dipping it into the subtly sweet and sour fish sauce. (Don't fret; although the base for this ubiquitous sauce is fermented anchovies, the taste is not fishy so much as garlic and lemon, with the anchovies providing only an indefinable underlying richness.) The two goi cuon feature several small whole shrimp, minced pork, cellophane noodles and lettuce wrapped in translucent rice paper and served with a cloying peanut sauce.
The nearly two dozen soups are also good bets; in addition to the beef noodle, my wife, Kathy, and I both enjoyed the vegetarian wonton soup, featuring wontons (small dumplings filled in this case with spicy minced vegetables), fried tofu, broccoli, mushrooms and rice noodles ($5.95). (A hint on looking expert: Try squirting a blend of hoisin and pepper sauce to your taste into your soup spoon first, then use that as a dipping sauce for the noodles or beef or whatever else you fish out of your soup bowl with the chopsticks.)
Obtaining authentic Vietnamese entrees seemed a little more difficult. The menu, in Vietnamese followed by English translations, is exhaustive and can be confusing--featuring, for example, such Chinese standards as kung pao and lemon, orange and sesame chicken. With the Chinese place mats and fortune cookies, you may begin to wonder whether you've accidentally wandered into Cheng's.
The waiters don't always help matters; Nguyen's daughter, Kathy, who manages the restaurant, said the cafe caters to American tastes, which in this case means conservative Northern Virginian tastes. When Vietnamese or other Asian patrons order beef noodle soup, for example, they are likely to get a variety of beef cuts, including tripe (stomach) and other interesting parts. To gringos, including me, the wait staff tend to serve only the sliced steak and to pitch such recognizable entrees as basil chicken or even crab cakes (of all things!), whereas Pan-Asian patrons are more likely to be directed to the grilled chicken with noodles or shredded pork with pork chop. Speak up if you prefer not to have your "American" tastes catered to.
That said, when my Kathy and I braved the place for dinner with our three young children, we did very well with two of three suggestions: shrimp in special salt ($8.95) and chicken with basil ($6.95). The shrimp are fried in a hot peppery sauce along with sea salt and served with steamed rice and a dark sweet sauce. They had a delicious salty crispness with a tangy follow-through, sort of like snacking on Fritos dipped in Tabasco. The basil chicken is white meat stir-fried with onions and basil and served in a garlic sauce with steamed rice. What makes it, though, is the garlic sauce's distinctive underbite, which Kathy Nguyen later explained was a bit of Thai curry. According to Kathy, her sauces are all distinctly Vietnamese, even the variations of traditional Chinese or Thai sauces (lemon, sesame, orange, etc.). Perhaps, but I did find the chicken with vegetables--the third dish recommended by our waiter as authentic Viet fare--indistinguishable from what I might find at, say, Leesburg's China King.
Sated, we saved the intriguing desserts, including Vietnamese flan and banana flambe, for another time. (I did top off my earlier lunch with what has become a traditional Vietnamese drink, a rich iced espresso with condensed milk, a deliciously filling afternoon pick-me-up.) In the end, we fed five for $28 excluding tax and tip--a relative bargain even if the 6-and-under crowd later cited as their favorites the rice, the fortune cookies and Sprite. (We need to get out more.)
William W. Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Address: 20291 Davenport Drive, #108, Sterling. 703-404-2424.
* Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily.
* Prices: Appetizers, $2.50-$8.95 (frog legs); soups, $1.95-$5.95; entrees, $5-$9, including steamed rice or noodles.
* Miscellaneous: Eat in or takeout; no delivery. Extensive vegetarian menu. Beer (including four Vietnamese brands, among others) and Glen Ellen wine are served. All major credit cards accepted.
CAPTION: A Buddhist prayer shrine in Saigon Cafe lends authenticity to the restaurant in Countryside.