823 West Main Road
Open Tues-Thurs, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri-Sat, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Sun until 9 p.m.)
Major credit cards
Friends had just returned from two weeks at a Vietnamese Buddhist retreat and were yearning for Vietnamese food, so we set off for Saigon Cafe. This is one of the few restaurants in Rhode Island that focuses specifically on Vietnamese cuisine, while going beyond the famous phó, the Vietnamese noodle soup.
Located in a small strip mall on Route 114, Saigon Cafe has a warm and friendly staff; light, informal decor; and some tantalizing and unusual dishes. We began our first adventure there by discussing tropical fruit beverages with our waiter. Should we try the guanabana shake? The jackfruit shake? Or durian? He warned us off the latter because of durianís reputation for a strong, sickening smell, though he admitted that he had known a few people who actually like it (thus, its presence on the menu, one can assume). He said the Vietnamese like to have a fruit shake or fruit juice at the beginning of a meal "to wake up the taste buds." We tried the mango and guanabana, both yummy, and Bill had a fresh limeade that he liked as well.
We further alerted our appetites with hot, sweet, and sour soup ($3.95), grilled shrimp ($5.95), and an order of summer rolls ($3.95). Billed as a broth from southern Vietnam, the soup tasted sweet from pineapple chunks, sour from a touch of vinegar and very hot from red chilis. It was chockful of Asian mushrooms and a choice of shrimp, chicken, or tofu.
Though we had asked for grilled squid with lemongrass, our waiter misunderstood and brought us shrimp. No real complaint; we just felt like staying in a more exotic mode. But the shrimp were well prepared and had been marinated in a curry and lemongrass sauce. The summer rolls were rice paper stuffed with rice vermicelli, as we are accustomed to with nime chow, but instead of Thai basil, they had lettuce with just a touch of fresh mint and were served with a thick peanut sauce.
Our friend Joanne chose the lemongrass tofu with vermicelli ($5.95). The tofu was sautéed with vegetables and served over steamed rice noodles. It was a mild and comforting entree, especially after the hotness of the soup. Her husband Richard decided on ginger chicken and roasted peanuts ($8.95) and was quite pleased with it.
I looked for something different and ordered the garlic shrimp ($9.95), but the vegetables in all three of our dishes were the same, and the sauce on Richardís chicken and my shrimp tasted quite similar. Bill opted for sliced pork simmered in a caramel sauce in a clay pot ($8.95). Though tender and tasty, Bill found the sauce a bit sweet, but not fitting the description of "caramel."
Our second time at Saigon Cafe gave us the opportunity to try more intriguing fruit shakes ó coconut and avocado this time ó though Saigon Cafe also has a full liquor license. On this visit, we sampled other traditional Vietnamese delicacies, such as char-broiled shrimp paste on sugar cane ($5.95), "house simply steak" ($10.95), and the vegetarian hot pot ($13.95).
Bill wasnít quite as taken with the shrimp paste as I was, but he did enjoy his steak, which was marinated before grilling and fork-tender. It was served with jasmine rice and stir-fried veggies. The hot pot was a simmering lemongrass broth into which you could toss pre-fried tofu chunks, sliced bok choy, mushrooms and/or bean sprouts, so you could cook the ingredients slightly before eating them with steamed rice. Another friend, Claire, also recently returned from the Vietnamese Buddhists, found this dish simple, fun, and quite delicious.
I settled on a plate of pan-fried catfish ($9.95) in a spicy lemongrass sauce. The whole fish was served (minus head, thank heavens), so it was tricky to negotiate the bones. However, catfish tend to have accessible sections of sweet filet, and this one was no exception. The sauce was very good, and though it was a bit hotter than Iím used to, I couldnít stop eating it.
To cool off, I ordered the "banana tapioca pudding" ($2.95), a special that night. It was tapioca cooked with coconut milk and sliced bananas, sprinkled with roasted peanuts. Delectable. The dessert treat on our first visit was three kinds of mung beans with what looked like Gummy Worms, all mixed together with coconut milk and shaved ice. We enjoyed the colors as well as flavors in this one.
The menu at Saigon Cafe has a whole page devoted to phó, plus another page of noodle plates and steamed vermicelli dishes. But the last page, called "chefís specialties of Vietnam rural," must not be overlooked, with several hot pot variations. Indeed, it would take many, many visits to work through this menu, and each time you could try a different beverage. Anyone for a green bean shake?
DINING NOTE: G. Franco Romagnoli, who, with his late wife Margaret, gained cooking fame through their PBS series, The Romagnolisí Table, will come to Raphael Bar-Risto in Providence on June 9 at 7 p.m. to celebrate the publication of his newest book, Cucina di Magro: Cooking Lean the Traditional Italian Way. For information, call (401) 421-4646.