Golden oldie

SAIGON CAFÉ

Pasatiempo - - AMUSE-BOUCHE - Kris­ten Cox Roby I For The New Mex­i­can

THE Saigon, as folks around here call the beloved Viet­namese restau­rant on Cor­dova Drive, started way back in 1983 as a Chi­nese restau­rant and buf­fet, of all things. In the early 2000s, hus­band and wife own­ers Phuoc Chung and Cindy Quach, who hail from Saigon, saw that Viet­namese cui­sine was miss­ing from the Santa Fe food land­scape and de­cided to ditch the Chi­nese cui­sine in fa­vor of of­fer­ings from their na­tive coun­try. But, as their daugh­ter Hoa Chung said re­cently, they in­ten­tion­ally crafted a west­ern­ized menu, of­fer­ing less ex­otic ver­sions of their South Viet­namese sta­ples.

Thirty-five years af­ter it first opened, Saigon Viet­namese Kitchen proves that some­times play­ing it safe pays off. You’ll find a small­ish set menu here with nary a bite of the usual ten­don or tripe in Viet­nam’s fa­mous pho, but with dishes that nod to the café’s Chi­nese restau­rant ori­gins.

Though there are now other Viet­namese places in town, on two re­cent vis­its to Saigon Café, it was ev­i­dent that its Amer­i­can­ized of­fer­ings re­main pop­u­lar with the lo­cals. Lunchtime clients in­cluded fam­i­lies and re­peat solo din­ers who had no need of a menu, along with plenty of take­out cus­tomers. If it’s not too crowded, you can choose from an eclec­tic ar­ray of seat­ing op­tions: a tiny two-seater ta­ble by the door, two com­mu­nal ta­bles, a few stools near the kitchen, two banks of booths, and — my fa­vorite — a half-booth with seat­ing just on one side.

Dishes came quickly de­spite the lunchtime rush; our first meals ap­peared less than 10 min­utes af­ter we or­dered. Spring rolls had a bright pop of cilantro that com­ple­mented the rice-pa­per cas­ings. But the ac­com­pa­ny­ing peanut sauce lacked a peanutty punch, with bits of chopped nuts on top of­fer­ing the rich­est fla­vor.

Dishes on Saigon’s menu are de­scribed in English first, with the Viet­namese name be­neath them. (The menu, and the prices, are the same all day.) Then there are the Chi­nese dishes that ap­pear: fried rice, won­ton soup, and chow fun and lo mein noo­dles among them. The star of the menu should be the pho (pro­nounced “fuh”), the soup that’s con­sid­ered the na­tional dish of Viet­nam and named for the tan­gle of white rice flour noo­dles found within the soup’s rich broth (typ­i­cally beef or chicken). Saigon’s pho bo (beef pho) is ex­cel­lent, with am­ple amounts of thin-sliced beef, rice noo­dles, sprouts, scal­lions, and peas. The South­ern Viet­nam-style ac­com­pa­ni­ments to the pho and other soups are an ex­tra two bucks (ex­cept for the beef pho). Don’t con­sider it op­tional, though: The ad­di­tional herbs, bean sprouts, lime, and jalapeño add im­mea­sur­able zip, zing, depth, heat, and crunch to the soup. The rice ver­mi­celli with grilled chicken, bun ga nuong, is es­sen­tially a cold noo­dle bowl with sliv­ers of tooth­some meat stud­ded with sesame seeds and tiny,

tight curls of onion. The meat and noo­dles rested on a bed of let­tuce, and the ad­di­tion of mint, cilantro, bean sprouts, and gar­licky dip­ping sauce made for a bright and in­vig­o­rat­ing med­ley of fla­vors. I added tofu for a mere $2, and the large cubes were ex­pertly cooked, crisp out­side and creamy within.

Un­less you’re in it for the In­sta­gram, skip the pork buns, which had a bready, al­most dry ex­te­rior with a stingy dol­lop of bar­be­cue pork in­side. They’re adorably pho­to­genic, though, tucked as a pair in a small steam­ing bas­ket. The gin­ger chicken, or ga xae

gung, is listed un­der the menu’s Viet­namese spe­cialty sec­tion. The dish is a rush of fla­vor, with am­ple salt, spears of onion, and shards of gin­ger. Chicken here is but a supporting player to the heady burst of its ac­com­pa­ni­ments.

An­other spe­cialty, the cat­fish cooked and served in a clay pot (ca kho to), was mem­o­rable, and more than mer­its the red “spicy” font the dish bears on the menu. Four gen­er­ous pieces of fil­leted cat­fish came in a thick, fiery sauce with chili and scal­lions, served with rice, pickled gin­ger, and sliced cu­cum­bers, which helped com­bat the heat, but only just.

As for the rem­edy to that heat, reach for the Viet­namese iced cof­fee you or­dered with your food. A tall glass of iced sweet­ened con­densed milk is brought to the ta­ble un­der­neath a sin­gle-serv­ing cof­fee press in which strong hot cof­fee is slowly perk­ing. When the cof­fee has fully brewed, pour it into the glass and stir un­til the sweet­ened con­densed milk has fully in­te­grated into the drink and worked its magic.

A spicy-food quencher, a caf­feinated pick-me-up, and a sweet-tooth sat­is­fier all in one, the iced cof­fee is like Saigon it­self: a clas­sic go-to that may not be rev­e­la­tory, but al­ways hits the spot. ◀

A spicy-food quencher, a caf­feinated pick-me-up, and a sweet-tooth sat­is­fier all in one, the iced cof­fee is like Saigon it­self: a clas­sic go-to that may not be rev­e­la­tory, but al­ways hits the spot.

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