No joke, Little Saigon does simple things right
I’m not dazzled by celebrity culture, but when Jerry Seinfeld recently veered away from the spate of new restaurants popping up in Hamilton and chose Little Saigon, curiosity led me up the Mountain to check it out.
My dining companion and I parked in the Mall Road strip mall containing the LCBO, right across from Fortinos. A shrine in the restaurant’s foyer, about kneehigh, greeted us. It held mangos, eggs and unlit incense, among other items.
In the dining room, I was partially transported to Asia by the decorative touches, such as the mural of a large white building surrounded by a manicured landscape, dotted with trees and flowers.
Adjacent to our booth, an image of matching size: people riding on scooters in Vietnam. Tucked into a corner of each image is a photo, which suggests that someone there has a direct connection to Vietnam. Despite this, the menu encompasses elements from Southeast Asia and beyond, including Thailand and Japan.
To start, my companion and I ordered Vietnamese coffee, mine with condensed milk, hers with sugar and ice. I reminisced about when I discovered the drink, back when I was just beginning my cooking career in New York. The condensed milk had been a revelation.
Taking a sip of the coffee, though, jolted me back to the present. It was very strong and very sweet. My companion thought it tasted like a candy toffee, and I thought it tasted more like coffee ice cream, with an extra couple of spoonfuls of sugar. Either way, you get the idea.
We ordered the house tea to try as well, and it was perfect. Not a hint of bitterness, full of leafy flavour without being overbearing. The busy room retained a calm vibe. Back to the food. First out: Chå Giò, Vietnamese spring rolls with pork, carrot, taro and glass noodle. Light, thin and crispy, perfect to bite into. The taro did double duty, acting as a binder for the pork and carrot, while also adding its mild sweet potato flavour to the mix. The dipping sauce on the side was simple and perfect, essentially sweetened fish sauce, and an excellent complement to the fried snack, along with bottled hoisin and sriracha.
The mains soon followed. Three to share: rare beef satè pho, crispy roast duck, and grilled chicken vermicelli. The pho had a fairly flavourful broth, even before I added a healthy handful of basil and sprouts, and full
squeeze of lime. The little chili pepper graphic next to the item on the menu suggested it would be spicy, but for me, it didn’t even hit medium-hot. Ask for extra-spicy if you like it full-hot.
This was some of the nicest vermicelli I’ve had, thanks to the sauce. Served in a bowl on the side, it consisted of fish sauce, a touch of sugar and some vinegar. Simple and perfect.
My companion doused the vermicelli with the sauce and mixed it together, along with some sriracha. (She owns an “I love sriracha” apron, so this was right up her alley.)
Also in the bowl: a spring roll and “minced shrimp” on a sugar cane. This was like a dense shrimp mousse, shaped like a shrimp. It was tasty doused with the sauce, but biting on the cane and sucking out some of the sugar gave it a fresh, sweet finish. Delicious.
At this point, I looked up at the teardrop lamps that hung from above, because they were blinking, just enough so that it became a bit distracting.
After a short while they steadied, however, and soon after, three large metal squares that lay inside one another lit up, outlined in neon green, blue and red. It’s a quirky modern touch in the midst of a laid-back traditional dining room, but kind of charming too — and memorable.
The crispy duck was one of the more expensive entrées and I felt it could have been cooked a little less. The accompanying plum sauce, however, was a plucky contrast to the stir-fried bean sprouts, carrots and scallions in the dish.
Our server was attentive throughout the meal yet he let us eat at our own pace. When we asked about desserts, he offered two choices: green tea ice cream and cheese ice cream.
“Cheese ice cream?” We repeated, just to be sure we heard correctly.
He laughed and admitted that it was a little weird but tasty, once you got used to it. How could we resist? It arrived in a glass-stemmed bowl, with little chunks of cheddar mixed in. It was like eating cheesecake ice cream but with a salty tang from the cheddar.
After the first few bites, I decided it was pretty good.
When I went to pay, our friendly server did the honours. The tab for both of us was perfectly reasonable: $61.45; there’s also a bargain-priced lunch menu.
Leaving, I felt glad that Seinfeld had opened my eyes. I’d take Little Saigon over the sitcom’s old-school diner any time.
Alana Hudson has cooked at restaurants including Le Bernardin, Vong, and Avalon.
The disco lighting in the ceiling was a colourful and quirky surprise.
Adjacent to our booth, an image of people riding on scooters in Vietnam. Tucked into a corner is a photo, which suggests that someone there has a direct connection to Vietnam.
Little Saigon on Mall Road has a casual and relaxed atmosphere.
Fried spring rolls, with an earthy taro binding.