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Apr 13, 2009 08:37 AM

Birmingham: Banh Mi mania

Dax, we finally got another place to eat Banh Mi, and I think you'll be happy.
Saigon Noodle House is a new restaurant on U.S. 280 at the Target plaza (the end near Best Buy and World Market).
They offer five kinds of Banh mi sandwiches, complete with that crisp crusty bread and some really nice pickled carrots (which have a sweet taste similar to pickled daikon radish). Peppers are included only upon request (they Do ask, though). They had jalapenos, and I forgot to ask if they kept some bird chiles back in the kitchen for the Vietnamese customers).
I had a variation of the Banh Mi Pate Thit Nguoi. They were out of the pork loaf, but the pate, roasted pork and especially the Vietnamese ham (lots of char su sauce) made for a great sandwich. The girl behind the counter recommended the Banh Mu Xiu Mai, the pork meatballs, which I plan to try today for lunch.
Each sandwich is $3.50, a great price.
They also offer six versions of spring rolls (although I did not see any fresh rolls, which would be a shame; I'll ask next time I'm in). The Cha Gio springrolls are not as meaty as those at Pho Que Huong in Homewood, but the shaved carrots help add to the crunch of the crispy spring roll wrapper. They also do shrimp, pork, combo, charbroiled pork and charbroiled pork patty spring rolls -- all at 3 for $3.95.
The entree menu includes your typical bun (rice vermicelli) and com (rice dishes). One that sounds especially intriguing is the Bun Bo Hue -- thick noodles in beef soup with well-done beef brisket, beef shank and pork hock. Sounds like one rich meal ($6.95).
I did not give the pho $6.95/$8.50; seafood regular bowl is $7.50) a sufficient chance to be properly assessed, because I got it to go (and it cooled when I had to make another stop so the rest of the family could eat). I think the tendons would have been softer and the rare "thinly sliced beef" would have cooked perfectly if the broth had been hotter when I added everything into the bowl. The pho comes with three types of herbs: cilantro, basil and anise-flavored leaves of rao ram.
Saigon Noodle Bowl does have a children's menu -- all real basic Vietnamese dishes (I had hungry children who weren't up for a challenge; we'll see another night how that portion of the menu rates).
Also, there's nothing overtly vegetarian on the menu. I hope to be able to work with the people there to develop something for my wife to eat.
No alcohol. Just teas and Vietnamese/French style coffee (including drip coffee), sodas, iced lemonade and iced soy drink, coconut drinks and tapioca smoothies (one of which is avocado?!?!?!?!).
Saigon Noodle Bowl is open seven days and does not close after lunch. Mon-Sat opening is 10 and it's 11 on Sunday. Closing is 9 Mon-Thu, 10 Fri and Sat and 7 on Sunday.
The staff is very helpful; a young group on Sunday. If you need advice; they'll be able to help.

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  1. OMG. I am totally pumped about this. Much more convenient for me than Pho Que Huong (which, incidentally, was "out of" banh mi the one time I went there specifically for that purpose). When I was in Tuscaloosa, I lived about 2 blocks from a Vietnamese place and miss having easy access to the cuisine.

    11 Replies
    1. re: bovinekid

      Update: They do have summer rolls (wrapped in rice paper but not fried), even though they're listed as spring rolls on the menu. Order the shrimp and pork "spring" roll. There may be others on that list, too.
      The rolls (3 for $3.95) were packed, including two shrimp. One of the cool things was they insert a rolled-up fried spring roll skin, which adds a nutty crunch into the mixture of flavors and textures.
      I tried the pork meatball banh mi, which seems to be a universal favorite among the front-of-the-house staff. It was alright, but nothing a decent meatball hoagie couldn't beat. I learned that I prefer my banh mi unheated to take full advantage of the crusty bread.

      1. re: Big Daddy

        Most of the places I ate Banh Mi in Boston and a few in Brooklyn would heat the assembled sandwich in a toaster oven for a bit which crisped the bread even further. Loved that, especially on a cool day walking away with a warm crunchy dac biet sandwich .

        1. re: Dax

          That's what this sandwich was lacking: the crunch in the bread. Toaster oven crunch I'll take any day. The pork meatball in the banh mi seemed to steam the bun.
          The other banh mi I've tried rock. I promised myself that next trip I'll sit down and try a noodle dish, probably the wide noodle with beef broth, beef shank and ham hock. I expect one rich dish.
          BTW: The pork "spring" roll and presumably the "shrimp spring roll" actually are summer rolls (fresh; not fried), in addition to the shrimp and pork "spring" roll.

          1. re: Big Daddy

            The non-fried pork and shrimp sprummer (spring+summer) rolls are awesome, although I definitely spiced up the peanut dipping sauce with sriracha. Love the crunch part. An order of 3 for $3.95 is fairly large - I could only eat two and the banh mi (dac biet basically, but they were out of the pork loaf still) at one sitting. The bread is good, but the actual rolls are a little too large as far as filling to bread ratio. Still quite good with lots of julienned lightly pickled carrots, a few pieces of sliced cuke, and some cilantro - no daikon that I tasted and while fine on the other meats, they were a little skimpy on the pate. Neither here nor the Greensprings place slathers on the mayo/butter spread to which I am used to tasting and which helps to moisten the sandwich. Oh well I can attempt that at home if I get takeout. Definitely will return to try the other version.

            1. re: Dax

              Big Daddy, thanks to your tip, we tried Saigon Noodle House for takeout this week. Very pleased -- and haven't even tasted the banh mi yet. Dax is right, the summer rolls (I got the shrimp) are great and very generous. Had the bun with fried pork spring roll, which is going to be a summer staple: cool noodles, a fresh sweet/spicy/vinegary dressing, chopped cucumbers and lettuce, and crispy spring rolls. I'll definitely ask for extra pickled carrots next time. Thought the pho broth was better than Pho Que Hong's; a little on the sweet side, but not so heavy on the star anise.
              An added benefit: the two women behind the counter were super-friendly (maybe because we mentioned the recommendation?). They told my husband to microwave the pho broth when he got home and goaded him into an avocado tapioca smoothie. It was quite sweet and not particularly avocado-y, although definitely green, with huge, deep purple tapioca bubbles. It was very rich and creamy, but I think I'd try mango or guanabana (soursop) next time.

              1. re: Mediumgoof

                Just ate lunch at the place. Very tasty bahn mi. Got the chargrilled pork and added fresh sliced jalapenos. Shrimp and pork summer rolls were a meal in themselves. Cohorts got steak and rice and loved it. Definitely going back.

                For noodle bowls I like The Noodle House on 150 at 459, in the Publix shopping center.

                1. re: SkippyLeBeef

                  I wonder why The Noodle House never decided to offer the banh mi they have llisted on their menu.
                  Are the noodle bowls you referred to there made with chilled noodles?

                  1. re: Big Daddy

                    Chilled noodles? They have a hot pot I am dying to try.

                    1. re: SkippyLeBeef

                      Today I had the Bun Bo Hue -- thick noodles in beef soup with well-done beef brisket, beef shank and pork hock. Fantastic.
                      It's made in a spicy broth flavored with lemon grass and what seemed like chile oil. It was as rich as I had expected. The noodles were like small udon, about half as thick as a pencil. The beef was flavorful.
                      Not much meat on the ham hocks, but they yielded soft chewy tendon and skin. I kept thinking of that scene in Apocalypse Now when the general serves the river shrimp and says, "Eat these and you'll never have to prove your manhood again." I left partially proven.
                      The summer roll (billed "spring roll" with chargrilled pork was great, too. I really like that crunch from the fried springroll skin inside.
                      The black drip coffee is strong. They use a metal device that covers the cup, and not the drip bag system I've seen in some Vietnamese restaurants.

                      1. re: Big Daddy

                        Finally made it for lunch today. Bahn mi with the char-broiled pork. Very tasty. Also got the pho tai nam with thinly sliced beef and brisket. For $3, the bahn mi is the cheapest, tastiest lunch I know of in Birmingham.

                        1. re: eatyourveggies1

                          Saigon Noodle House has expanded its menu and added lunch specials (one a day). The other day I had the salted squid (which had this tasty, savory stir-fry of bell peppers, onion and celery under it and a spicy/sour dipping sauce for the squid). I also had the banh mi with pork loaf, roasted pork and meatballs. Those sandwiches are a real bargain and their quality continues to be high.
                          New items include soups(seafood pho; and although not as old some curried soups), stir-fries (standards like the curried chicken with onions and ginger) and noodle dishes. They seem to be doing a decent business, given the economy and the rain. I was there at 2 p.m. on a Wednesday and they had four more sets of people eating there -- both Asian and Westerners.

                          Saigon Noodle House
                          4606 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

    2. I happened to be sans kids today, and after doing a little Christmas shopping at Target, I finally stopped by the Saigon Noodle House. I have to say I was quite impressed. The woman working up front was very helpful, offering suggestions, explaining ingredients, asking how hot I liked things....So that kind of good service already gets one of my thumbs up, and after trying the food, my other thumb was definitely in agreement.
      I ordered the tofu spring rolls -- very fresh and tasty, served with a yummy dipping sauce on the side.
      The bahn mi pate thit nguoi -- the bread was crusty and the meats were rich and delicious. My only wish is that they were dressed a little heavier with butter and had more veggies, then it would have been perfection.
      Bun Nem Nuong -- this was my favorite, noodles mixed with porky patty and chopped peanuts, served with a side of shredded lettuce and cilantro to mix in, and a little cup of vinegar/carrot dressing to top everything off. I really liked how the different flavors played with each other. Very satisfying.
      All in all, this was quite worth the visit, and I'll definitely be back. Can't wait to try the Pho and one of the bubble smoothies.

      Saigon Noodle House
      4606 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

      1. I went back just before Christmas and ordered a dac biet banh mi only to be disappointedly told they were out of all of the sandwiches. I assume that means they ran out of bread. Bummer. Since I was there, I settled on the pho with rare beef and tendon. Well when the pho arrived, there were no sprouts with lettuce substituted. I was in a hurry so didn't say anything but heard upon leaving they were out of the sprouts - to me you should tell someone that when they order pho! Lame. Anyway, those were the gnarliest chunks o' tendon I have ever seen - maybe from a rhino and way too thick and chunky to eat. I'm used to more shaved tendon in the pho. I did like the broth and it was lighter on the anise, which is great. It was fine but I will stick to the banh mi in the future.

        1 Reply
        1. re: Dax

          Saigon Noodle House went up on its prices recently, but at $4.50, the banh mi is still a bargain. I had the chargrilled pork version this week and it was great. A nice alternative to the #2, with the pate, pork loaf and ham.

          Saigon Noodle House
          4606 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

        2. Stopped by QPH for a banh mi as I was in the area. I noticed their sandwiches do not include the pate, which can be a love/hate relationship for me on a bahn mi as if it is overpowering, it can be a turn off. Anyway, the loaf/char siu-type bahn mi was good, but nothing special and I definitely missed the pate found in most dac biet versions, such as everywhere else.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Dax

            I like the pate, and that is one of the main attractions to the #2 banh mi at Saigon Noodle House (banh mi pate thit nguoi). I think SNH also has more substiantial sandwiches than QPH. There also are more choices.
            QPH, however, makes very good food and its prices in general are lower than SNH.

            Saigon Noodle House
            4606 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242

            1. re: Big Daddy

              That is the on I usually get at SNH too, although I tend to think of that one as a Dac Biet (at any other place) rather than the one with meatballs which is the dac biet at SNH.

              1. re: Dax

                Yeah, some things translate differently at Saigon Noodle House.
                I'd always believed (from eating at other Vietnamese restaurants and from cookbooks) that "spring rolls" were fried (and distinguished from egg rolls in that there was no egg in the wrapper that would make it all puffy and grease absorbing).
                But the unfried versions wrapped in softened rice paper were "summer rolls." Sometimes they'd be known as "fresh rolls."
                At SNH, the fried version in an eggless wrapper is called "egg roll" while the unfried versions wrapped in softened rice paper are called "spring rolls."
                Pho Que Houng uses the spring and summer roll distinction that I am accustomed to seeing.
                Coincidentially, one of my favorite things about the unfriend spring rolls at SNH is that tube of rolled up wrapper that is fried and inserted in the middle for some crunch.

                Saigon Noodle House
                4606 Highway 280, Birmingham, AL 35242