Hoai (Andy) Vo and Hoa Doan, his wife, opened Saigon Café last July. A software engineer by day, Vo, 45, runs the Vietnamese restaurant with the help of his large extended family. His greatest concern is the queue of customers his tiny place cannot always accommodate. In winter, the space seats 20; in warm weather, tables and chairs on the porch and in a rear courtyard triple the capacity.
Spring, here at last, means more diners can enjoy the café’s excellent bánh mì, the classic Vietnamese-French sandwich braced with sweet and tangy pickled daikon and carrot salad, fresh cucumber, cilantro and jalapeño slices (that the wary can remove). The sautéed tofu or grilled pork or chicken that forms the bulk of the filling melts the smear of mayonnaise, which soaks into the bread.
“I spent a lot of time searching for a baguette that was good enough,” says Vo, who fondly recalls the French bread baked daily in his native Vietnam. The suitable alternative he serves is from Bakery Espiga De Oro in Newark; Vo heats it until the crust crisps, then scoops out the inside to make more room for filling. The surprise in the tofu version is a smear of avocado; in the meat bánh mì, a thin layer of house-made paté. Adding the vegetables, the bánh mì overflows; at $7.95, it’s a wonder.
Saigon Café also specializes in grilled meat dishes and pho (pronounced fuh), the classic Vietnamese soup, each prepared in the open kitchen. Phos include a vegetarian version, scented with cinnamon, cloves, coriander, five-star anise and cardamom. It isn’t as flavorful as the richer, heartier beef pho, in which the broth is prepared by simmering the bones for about 12 hours until they become nearly translucent. The soup comes with boiled flank steak and strips of rib eye that cook in the hot broth. Neither is grilled, which deprives the soup of some excitement.
The dining room, just beyond the open kitchen, is decorated in the bare bones style of many of the area’s nail salons (co-owner Doan owns one around the block) but offers a bit more charm, because the café has a wraparound porch. The welcoming and informative staff add to the happy vibe. When Vo or his team suggest a particular dish, you should strongly consider it.
At the top of their list is Bánh Hoi wrap, which encloses grilled meat, fish or tofu with cucumbers, pickled daikon-radish salad and finely chopped vermicelli within large leaves of curly lettuce. The marinated ground-pork version is especially succulent. As for the vermicelli in the wrap, “rice noodles are usually anemic,” a fellow diner opined, adding, “These noodles, however, are creamy, light and delicious.”
The café, which opens at 9 am, features traditional Vietnamese coffee prepared with sweetened, condensed milk and chicory-flavored coffee (cans of Café Du Monde line the walls).
It also serves three kinds of acai-berry bowls; that a Vietnamese restaurant serves these trendy health foods at all is surprising (the acai palm is native to Central and South America). Even more surprising is how much better they are than the usual version. Neither too sour nor bland, they taste distinctly of the almond milk, granola and fresh mango, pineapple and other fruits from which they are assembled.
Why acai bowls? “A lot of people ask me that question,” Vo says. “I made a trip to California a few years ago and fell in love with acai. It fits right into my café, where I try to serve dishes that are freshly prepared and made with healthy ingredients.”
Equally fine are Vo’s fruit smoothies, bubble teas and mango pudding. His food is singularly fresh and mostly prepared with skill and devotion. I never had to wait more than 15 minutes at Saigon Café, but if I needed to, I would.Click here to leave a comment
Price Details:Sides, $4.95-$6.25; entrées, $7.95-$13.95; desserts, $3.95-$4.95; lunch specials, $8.95-$10.95.
Service:Devoted and instructive.