By Jim Duncan CVFDude@aol.com
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
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
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.
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
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