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Feb 18, 2009 10:29 AM

Saigon Cafe - Central Vietnamese Cuisine

Hi Guys,

This is my first post in Chowhound and I'd like to introduce my favorite Vietnamese Restaurant in NoVa area --- Saigon Cafe

Apart from its very generic names, Saigon Cafe does have some excellent dishes on the menu and the dining room has a warm and casual atmosphere, which is completely different from many other Vietnamese restaurant across Wilson Blvd in Eden Center.

Vietnamese cuisine could be divided in 3 parts, Northern, Central, and Southern Vietnamese. What most of us have been enjoying for a long time here in NoVa are Central and Southern Vietnamese cuisine, with Pho as an exception. However, only Southern Vietnamese food made it to restaurants, where Hue' food are mainly sold at Vietnamese Deli, ex: Song Que, Huong Binh... in Eden Center and several other places, which I think is a big mistake.

So... I was a great day for me when my boss took me to Saigon Cafe, I never noticed the place since it used to be a crappy Pho restaurant. I was so fed up with the genetic offerings from numerous Vietnamese restaurant around the area, since I was born in Saigon and only came to the US 6 years ago. I thought finally this place might introduce something new about Vietnamese Cuisine to the locals.

Try all the rice cakes at Saigon Cafe, some might become your favorites, some might not, but definitely ask for "Banh Beo Chen". These are freshly steamed rice cakes (or dumplings??) serve right in their ceramic molds, topped with shredded dried shrimp and "mo hanh" ( green onions cooked in hot oil), serve aside with fish sauce. Despite being a simple dish, Banh Beo Chen at Saigon cafe is very delicious and surprisingly better than some I have had back home.

Bun Bo Hue - thick round rice noodles in Beef Broth. This is the "Pho" of Central Vietnam. Many ingredients from Bun Bo Hue are similar with Pho, but the extra lemongrass, shrimp paste, chilli peper, and colorings (a special red oil) give it a whole new character. The protein in this dish is a lot different than Pho as well. While Pho is topped with a variety of steaks, flanks, tendon.... Bun Bo Hue calls for shanks. These are the "biceps" of the cows and other parts that have similar texture, after being cooked for a long time, they become tender yet there's still a distinctive "chewyness" to them - no worries you wont hurt your mouth eating it.
Along with the shank cuts, you might get a small cut of pork leg, these are mainly skin and fat, ask your server to leave them out if you're not used to this type of texture. Many places serve Bun Bo Hue, but none achieve such balance in spices and flavoring such as Saigon Cafe.

Jack Fruit and baby clams salad, great texture, light flavor, definitely a good starter, but be careful if you're not the adventurous type.

The Hue Style Crepe (or pancake), I'm sorry I totally forgot how it's called in English. But the dish is their newest addition and is taped to the back side of the front cover If I'm not mistaken. It's call "Bank Khoai" in Vietnamese. It's somewhat similar to Vietnamese pancakes (Banh Xeo) you might have tried, but with a thicker shell, slightly different filling, and a completely different dipping sauce. Try it to love it !!!

I have other favorites, too, but I'd let you find out for your self.

By the way, their price is moderately low and service is ok.

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  1. Actually, please post all of your favorites. In fact, please post whether you've been to Present and what's good and not good there as well. Thanks.

    2 Replies
    1. re: Ericandblueboy

      yeah, it's nice to get a perspective from someone who grew up in VN rather than an aficionado who loves what's been found so far, but with no real reference point to judge it by (ummm kind of like me)

      1. re: Ericandblueboy

        Sorry I haven't been back on Chowhound in a while. I've just posted a review on Present. Next time I'll list all my favorites. Enjoy your "present" for now!!!

      2. Which Saigon Cafe is this? The one in Sterling?

        1 Reply
        1. re: r0cc00

          "...across Wilson Blvd [from] Eden Center."

        2. Thanks for the post. I went there for the first time last month and we absolutely loved it. The service was kind of slow, but the food was delicious and a good value. The waiter tried to steer us away from some of the less known dishes and we were a little confused by some of the menu such as the "Hue's delicacies" page. Have you tried any of those?

          We enjoyed the Bo Thai Chanh (#19) a beef salad , Bún Th

          1 Reply
          1. re: hamster

            oops, got cut off. We enjoyed the beef salad #19, the vermicelli with spring rolls and grilled chicken #67, and vegetarian summer rolls #83.

          2. I got the Hue rice cake sampler, which consisted of steamed shrimp patties (not so good), and three kinds of savory steamed rice flour delicacies. The bahn beo were my least favorite of the three, but weren't bad by any stretch. The version with grilled pork (bahn uot thit nuong) was really good, with a nice slippery rice sheet around savory pork. But my favorite by far was the Bahn It Ram, which was a steamed sticky rice flour patty with shrimp and a crunchy fried rice cake underneath it. Really awesome textures and totally savory and delicious (a similar texture to those chinese fried sticky rice balls with sesame seeds).

            I also ordered the Bun Bo Hue. It was good on its own but much better when the ridiculously nice owner (who came over several times to talk to me about central vietnamese food and give me pointers on how to eat) gave me some incendiary house-made chili sauce to mix in. I wasnt a fan of the steamed pork patty in the soup but the beef shanks were yummy. And i would highly recommed mixing in loads of the cabbage, herbs, and shredded banana blossoms they give you with the soup. Their crunch and bitterness offset the oiliness of the broth really nicely.

            Overall a pretty good meal. A nice change of pace from four sisters/mihns/huong viet.

            4 Replies
            1. re: CoconutMilk

              Did you go by yourself? Was that too much food?

              1. re: Ericandblueboy

                haha....yes, i was by myself and it was definitely too much food. But I over-ordered intentionally because I planned on taking the soup home for leftovers.

                If i went again I would order the bahn it ram as an app. and try something else on the menu. The soup was good, but it wasnt the sort of thing i wanted to eat alot of, and it was quite oily.

                1. re: CoconutMilk

                  You're an inspiration to me. I think I might just duplicate your order, although I'm likely to eat the soup on the spot and take the rest home.

              2. re: CoconutMilk

                I wish I'd gotten a chance to review this thread before my return trip to Saigon Cafe last night. I was with a larger group, so I got the chance to taste one of the rice cake specialties finally. We ordered the #36, Bahn Beo Chen, which were like little rice cups with dried shrimp and some bits of pork. I'm not sure if they just weren't served freshly made, but I found them a little oddly hard and kind of lukewarm. Next time I'll try one with the "rice sheets" instead.

                Fortunately, that was the only not-so-good dish we ordered. We thoroughly enjoyed our other dishes: bun with grilled pork and fried rolls; grilled lemongrass chicken with rice; crunchy crepe stuffed with shrimp and mushrooms and bean sprouts; fresh rolls (shrimp and vegetarian versions); and green papaya salad with jerky bits. My niece also had a small seafood pho which I thought was quite tasty. The salad and chicken were my favorites.
                Wish I could get out here more often.