Ah, Vietnamese food, my favorite among Asian cuisines. What I like about Vietnamese food is the emphasis on freshness -- the profusion of vegetables, the light, refreshing sauces. And now I have a new place to satisfy my cravings, Saigon Caf, located downtown on Colorado Avenue.
On my first visit to Saigon Caf, I sampled two of my Vietnamese favorites, figuring if these were done well, it would be worth my time to venture further into the menu. My all-time favorites are the bun, or noodle, dishes. Bean sprouts, julienned cucumber, fresh mint leaves and crispy shredded lettuce are topped by a bowlful of rice noodles, topped with a dusting of crushed peanuts. At Saigon Caf, you can get your noodle dish topped with an egg roll; grilled pork, beef, chicken or shrimp; or a combination of all of the above. A bowl of dressing, the house sauce, is served on the side, tangy and flavored ever-so-subtly with fish sauce. (Fish sauce is incredibly strong, odorous and pungent on its own, but used with a sparing hand, it adds depth and flavor to many Vietnamese sauces.)
Not given to temperance when it comes to bun, I ordered the "combination special." I was not disappointed. The vegetables were impeccably fresh. The chicken and beef weren't simply grilled but were marinated before hitting the grill, the beef particularly in a sauce redolent with oyster sauce and a touch of molasses. The shrimp were juicy and firm, and the egg roll was tightly rolled and crispy, full of rice noodles and crisp shredded vegetables.
I also got to sample the pho (pronounced like "fun" without the n), and it was sublime. This whole-meal soup has a light but profoundly flavored broth, and the day we visited it was filled with small chunks of tender beef and Vietnamese meatballs. The waiter thoughtfully gave us the option of whether to include the meatballs or not, as he explained they did contain a small amount of tripe. We appreciated the warning but forged ahead with the meatballs, which were tender and tasty. The soup, full of noodles, comes with a plate of fresh condiments that you add to your liking, including mint and cilantro leaves, bean sprouts, crushed red pepper (upon request) and wedges of lime. You can add all or none, to suit your own taste.
We were so happy with our lunch that two days later, we ordered a dinner feast fit for royalty. We had summer rolls, a collection of tender pork, plump shrimp, lettuce, rice noodles and mint, wrapped in soft, pliable rice paper and served at room temperature with a delicious, earthy, peanut-topped dipping sauce.
Summer rolls would be enough to make me swear off egg rolls forever, except that Vietnamese egg rolls are too, too wonderful to resist. Smaller than their Chinese cousins, these egg rolls are filled with rice noodles, shredded carrots, beans sprouts and shreds of pork. The real fun in eating them is assembling the lettuce package. You take a lettuce leaf and place half an egg roll on it. Then add mint leaves, fresh cilantro, bean sprouts, julienned cucumber or marinated carrot slices and roll up the entire thing. If you've done a good job, you can dip it into the house sauce without the contents dropping all over your plate. It's fun, it's messy, and the burst of flavors is worth the effort.
Perfect for light appetites or hot days is the goi ga, or chicken salad. Shredded cabbage (which was tender enough to make me wonder if it had been lightly blanched or steamed first) is combined with shredded carrots, bean sprouts, mint and shredded chicken, tossed in a lemon and fish sauce dressing and sprinkled with peanuts and cilantro. This is a heavenly salad, refreshing and different.
If you like an intense curry flavor, you might try the cari ga, or Chicken Curry Vietnamese-style. The chunks of chicken are tender, enrobed in a rich, peppery, earthy curry sauce with an underlying note of lemongrass that lingers on your tongue even as the sauce leaves a trace of spicy tingle. The chicken is in good company, nicely complemented with onions and tender chunks of sweet potato.
We also enjoyed the heo xao toi, sliced pork with bell pepper, snow peas, onions, water chestnuts and baby corn in garlic sauce. Don't expect this dish to be as hot as its Chinese counterpart, or you'll be disappointed. But it does come in a wonderful, tangy sauce bursting with garlic. And, as with any dish, if you ask nicely, you can get crushed peppers or hot sauce on the side to heat things up.
There's plenty more to draw me back to the Saigon Caf. The pho changes daily and is listed as a daily special, although the waiter assured me it is now available on a daily basis. There's a nice selection of vegetarian dishes, and the shrimp and lemongrass soup calls out to me, as does the beef salad with marinated beef, lemon and sliced onions. I might even try the Vietnamese take on fried rice someday -- if I can get past ordering the noodle bowl.