11 Freshwater Rd.
Some of you may remember the Saigon Café.
If my memory is correct, it used to be located on the western end of Water Street, roughly where Blue on Water is today. It was a mom and pop operation regularly frequented by downtown residents, who also made up the core of its loyal clientele.
No doubt, like me, those folks are delighted to be able to now visit Saigon Bistro at 11 Freshwater Rd., just up the street from the landmark, Ches’s Famous Fish and Chips.
Not only is the name (Saigon Bistro) similar, the family running it is the same one that owned the Water Street restaurant.
While the Ly family are all still involved, this time round it’s the children who are running the show.
Tuan Ly, the son, told me that he and his sister own Saigon Bistro, with his parents working as principal chefs.
The Lys are Chinese. However, they moved to Vietnam before Tuan was born.
When Tuan was five the Lys moved to St. John’s. They have a strong knowledge of Vietnamese cuisine.
Study in red
Saigon Bistro offers dine-in service and take-away. A few people were seated at the counter waiting for their take-away orders when we arrived.
The counter is located at the back of the predominantly red room — red counter, mostly red walls and red chairs. Red is a significant colour for the Chinese. They believe it brings luck and wards off evil.
Saigon’s small, varied menu bears the words “Authentic Vietnamese Cuisine” on its cover. (I thought that was a given, that they served authentic Vietnamese food, but I suppose a little reinforcement of the brand never hurts.)
Inside, all dishes are described in Vietnamese and English.
The appetizers comprise a number of different types of rolls, a steamed bun, stuffed hot peppers and Vietnamese hot and sour soup.
Even though it was a sweltering day, I ordered the soup. I find Vietnamese (and Japanese) soups irresistible.
What a refreshing soup it was, a hot and sour creation (famous in the Mekong Delta I’ve learned) and called, canh chua.
The mild stock contained fruits and vegetables found in that area of Vietnam: pineapple, tomato, scallions, cabbage and the sweet and sour tasting tamarind.
Goi cuon or salad rolls are popular in southern Vietnam. This finger food is served at gatherings and is usually dipped in any of a number of different sauces.
Saigon Bistro makes its own sauce, a red concoction of moderate heat. They also serve traditional peanut sauce.
The rolls are fresh, not fried, and are made by rolling up lettuce, cucumber, carrot, rice vermicelli, cabbage, shrimp and BBQ pork in soft rice paper.
They turn out cigar shaped with a taut, pliable skin (the rice paper). When you bite or cut into one, out flows the filling which tastes great on its own, but even better with peanut sauce.
Banh bao thit is a steamed bun stuffed with BBQ pork. I love the texture of dough that’s cooked by steam.
Remember those dumplings we’d plop into pea soup?
Now imagine them filled on the inside with smoky bits of pork coated in sticky, delicious, sweet and tangy sauce.
Entrées at Saigon Bistro range from various hearty soups, such as the famous noodle soup, pho bò and its various chicken, beef and meatless versions, to several noodle dishes, and either meat or fish dishes with rice.
Bun bi is an excellent tasting noodle dish served with a topping of shredded pork. You could describe it as a kind of warm noodle salad containing, in addition to the pork, all kinds of fresh herbs, spices and crushed roasted peanuts.
What ties the entrée together is the sauce permeating the noodles and other ingredients. You have a choice of Vietnamese fish sauce, nuoc cham, or ginger sauce, nuoc gung. I prefer the fish sauce. On its own it is strong, but when added to enhance a dish it contributes that wonderful sixth, savoury taste element, umami.
The plate of bun bi also contained a crispy spring roll, cha gio. The roll had been cut into four pieces causing some of the outer skin to break as it does into ultra-thin, crispy shards. Although deep fried, I didn’t find the roll to be at all greasy. The generous filling of shrimp, minced pork, carrot and vermicelli made one of these beauties more than enough along with the bún bì.
Being crazy about duck, I had to try Saigon Bistro’s roasted barbeque quarter of duck or co’m vit quay. It was served quite simply with steamed rice, an excellent way to contrast the flavours of the duck and make them stand out.
A quarter duck isn’t enough for me. By the time I got through cutting or chewing the meat from the bones, there just wasn’t much to quell my appetite for duck. Some of the meat was also a tiny bit dry. Flavour was in abundance, though, both from the meat and whatever sauce was used on the skin. I detected hints of soy, vinegar and five spice.
One of Vietnam’s great morning drinks is iced coffee with milk, ca phe sua da. Saigon Bistro make it by using three scoops of coffee and filtering hot water through it over a glass with about one quarter cup of sweetened condensed milk in the bottom.
You then stir the coffee and pour it into a beer glass filled with ice cubes. If you like sweet, milky coffee, you’ll be very impressed.
I enjoyed my coffee with more steamed buns.
This time, dessert buns, dau xanh banh ngot, filled with sweet mung bean paste. Filling pastries with sweetened mung bean paste is quite popular in Vietnam and other countries in that part of the world. The paste was light tasting and fruitlike.
Saigon’s buns and coffee capped my meal nicely, but I’d bet the combination would make an awesome breakfast.
Saigon Bistro does not open until noon, so it would have to be a late breakfast. Maybe on Saturday?
* * *
Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $100 (approx.)
* Fair * * Good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Karl Wells is an accredited personal chef, author of “Cooking with One Chef One Critic” and recipient of awards from the national body of the Canadian Culinary Federation and the Restaurant Association of Newfoundland and Labrador. Contact him through his website, www.karlwells.com.
Follow him on Twitter: @karl_wells