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By Jim Duncan

New Saigon

Occupying a building that previously housed Pho 777, New Saigon Café has an approach-avoidance conflict with history. The previous restaurant was a foodie secret. There, I saw high-ranking politicians and New York City publishers enjoying Vietnamese and French Indochina specialties, but the café never attained a wide audience. Ironically, 777 was plagued by bad luck. They opened on a shoestring budget just before Hao Dao dazzled the young Asian crowd with its swank nightclub-like look just a few blocks away. 777 owner and chef Nga Tran had counted on TouchPlay machines for cash flow, but that plan was struck by a political tornado.

Suzanne and Theresa Hoang run the New Saigon with youthful energy. They need it because they are open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, and for karaoke on weekends. To partner in business with her sister, Theresa returned to her hometown from Boston, giving up a career with Cracker Barrel. She brings some restaurant industry acumen to a family café ambiance. The sisters did some serious remodeling to brighten the place: a new white ceiling, murals and floor. They also opened up the wall between the restaurant’s two rooms. Despite the drift of secondhand smoke, that change has a positive effect. They installed spotlights and a disco ball for karaoke. And customers seem to be responding because business is gradually improving with both a predominantly non-Asian lunch crowd and a mostly Asian dinner and karaoke crowd.

The sisters simplified their menu to fewer than 50 items including drinks. Besides Vietnamese dishes, there are five Chinese (sesame chicken, Mongolian beef) and eight Thai basics (angry catfish, green papaya salad). Daily specials are aimed at the nostalgic Vietnamese diner. One of those, the most popular we’re told, is bun rieu. This dish epitomizes the cliché “a meal in a bowl,“ with chicken stock, noodles, tomatoes, pork, tofu, crab, shrimp, blood, chilies, herbs and an entire salad. That’s a partial list of ingredients that reveals little about the complexity of the dish. The seafood, the blood and the pork are all complicated French Colonial inventions. That means delicious meatballs of pork and “pastes” of shrimp, blood and crab that resemble confits. The dish was a divine, surprisingly subtle concoction. I asked Nga Tran about it.

“It’s a wonderful dish. It wasn’t practical for me — too much work for one person. They can do things like this now because they have two chefs. They’ve done a lot of things I could only think about doing. It’s really nice to see the positive changes,” she says.

Other than the daily specials, the menu is pretty straightforward. I tried some standard bun, which brought vermicelli noodle in a bowl with homemade lemon sauce and more than a dozen herbs and vegetables, plus one’s choice of a main ingredient. Among those, the crispy tofu was most interesting, given an unusual double texture. Pork skin was marvelously out of the ordinary, too.

I also tried pho, a compulsory dish for reviewing any Vietnamese place. Bone stock beef flavor and wonderful brisket, plus some perfectly rare roast beef on the side, was all I could ask of this soup. Traditionally eaten as breakfast in Vietnam, that’s finally possible in Des Moines now, as the café opens at 9 a.m. Vietnamese coffee was quite good even by espresso-loving standards.

Customer service was exceptional. Waiters not only remembered me each visit, but also remembered what I had ordered in the past. When I complained that a green iced tea had been steeped to bitterness, the problem was quickly remedied.

Side dishes

The Bon Tai Village Festival will be Saturday at 4200 Martin Luther King Jr. Pkwy., 10 a.m. - 7 p.m. Nga Tran will be one of the seven chefs recruited to celebrate “khut saw haek” (“dig the first pole“) ceremonies. A temporary waterfall is being constructed. Call 274-6123. CV

Past Food Dude Reviews
Amici Espresso (1-4-07) Bandana's (1-11-07)
Perry hotel (1-18-07) Beyond frozen (1-25-07)
Centro (2-1-07) KC BBQ (2-8-07)
Planet Sub (2-15-07) Trostel’s Greenbriar (2-22-07)
Acapulco (3-1-07) Aryana (3-8-07)
AJ's (3-15-07) Ban Thai (3-22-07)
Two Crop Palace(3-29-07) Mo Q x 2 (4-5-07)
What's In A Name?(4-12-07) Lemongrass (4-19-07)
Chef Joe's Place (5-3-07) Suburban Restaurant (5-10-07)
Gateway Market Café (5-17-07) Irina’s Restaurant Bar (5-24-07)
Trailer Tripe (5-31-07) Azalea (6-07-07)
Pho All Seasons (6-14-07) Farmers Market (6-21-07)
El Sabor Latino (6-28-07) Crouse Café (7-5-07)
Bistro Montage (7-12-07) Jaliscolita rebounds (7-19-07)

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