Saigon Café: Gourmet Cuisine From the Imperial City of Hue

November 28, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

'HELL' RICE: The owners of the Saigon Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, dubbed this dish, 'Hell' Rice, also known in Vietnamese, as Com Am Phu, from the region of Hue, Vietnam. It's colorful rice dish with four kinds of pork. (Phuc Le)
'HELL' RICE: The owners of the Saigon Cafe in Arlington, Virginia, dubbed this dish, 'Hell' Rice, also known in Vietnamese, as Com Am Phu, from the region of Hue, Vietnam. It's colorful rice dish with four kinds of pork. (Phuc Le)
When Saigon Café owners Phuc Le and his wife Tien Nguyen opened their restaurant two years ago in Falls Church, they had reasons to expect fierce competition. The previous owner of the location had failed—also a Vietnamese restaurant—and so had the owners of a restaurant before them just a few doors away. And that was when times were good before the current recession. Then too, there are at least 28 Vietnamese restaurants across the street to compete with at the Eden Center, a large Vietnamese shopping and cultural center.

“You cannot survive here unless you have something very special, said Ms. Nguyen, Chief Chef of the Saigon Café.

“In this area, and perhaps in the entire East Coast, they don’t have an authentic restaurant for central Vietnam food with an expansive menu. I knew a lot of people who have been craving for these central Vietnamese dishes for so long. In California, there are a lot of restaurants like this because of the larger Vietnamese population. Friends kept telling me that when they want this kind of food they have to fly to California.”

Ms. Nguyen was managing a successful small Vietnamese deli in Fairfax. “On weekends, people would get in a long line to get my food,” Ms. Nguyen said. But she wanted to offer “more sophisticated choices.” Her deli was fast food, “something simple to go.” Ms. Nguyen said she wanted to make specialty dishes from where she grew up in central Vietnam and a fast food service like her small deli would not be the proper venue for a sit-down restaurant.

Mr. Le wanted to get more involved in the restaurant. So, they left that deli business behind, except for keeping the name ‘Saigon Café,’ for their new location. At first sight, these two would seem not to be likely candidates for the restaurant business. Mr. Le is a software engineer and Ms. Nguyen earned a degree in Computer Science.

Today, their labor of love has evolved into a restaurant that made food critic Tom Sietsema’s “Best Places to Eat in Northern Virginia,” which appeared in the Washington Post Fall 2008 Dining Guide. In fact, it was the only Vietnamese restaurant of the nine listed. But it is different than your typical Vietnamese restaurant.

“We are the only Vietnamese restaurant that serves cuisine from central Vietnam,” said Ms. Nguyen. As it turns out, the Saigon Café is the only one in the Washington metropolitan area, she said.

What distinguishes cuisine from the Hue region? Nguyen said “it’s spicy, with an abundant of ingredients, and has a lot of flavor, and takes a lot of labor to prepare.” She said they especially use lemongrass, ginger and, of course, chilies for spices. Some of the specialties at the Saigon Café are the steamed pork and steamed shrimp patties, Hue’s rice flour cakes with shredded  shrimp and/or grilled pork , spring rolls, garden rolls, and of course, pho (beef and noodle soup). Also offered is the other beef noodle soup—the very tasty authentic Hue’s style with round rice noodle and slices of beef shank.

“Hue food is very healthy, said Ms. Nguyen. We don’t use much oil…mostly steamed. Not much is stir fried.”

Although the Saigon Café is an inexpensive restaurant, the menu, written in English and Vietnamese, of 125 entries with a wide variety of selections – soup, noodle, rice, grill, vegetable, seafood, hot pot and a whole section for vegetarian dishes, is quite impressive. The restaurant also offers Prix Fix meals and a separate menu for party orders. The full menu is available from Saigon Café’s web site. My dining companion and I began with Banh Uot Thit Nuong, which is grilled pork, mint, and lettuce wrapped in steamed rice-flour roll. The pork was very flavorful and the house special sauce unlike anything I had tasted before. For our main course, we chose Banh Khoai, the Hue pancake, which consists of a half-moon crepe stuffed with mushrooms, bean sprouts and shrimp and pork. It was very tasteful, yet not overpowering. Ms. Nguyen recommends the caramelized catfish or jumbo shrimp for the next visit or a whole grilled rock fish.

Also, we tried Com Am Phu, which was translated by Mr. Le, as “Hell Rice.” It is a wonder to behold as the photo shows. The menu describes it as “A compressed bowl-shape rice in the center topped with shredded shrimp, garnished with cilantro and surrounded by shredded egg, sour pork, grilled pork, steamed pork patties, very lean pork loin with pork skin, combined with Asian coriander and pickled cucumber.”

Ms. Nguyen has done her research and experimentation to make the food authentic central Vietnamese. She relies on her cooking experience, the acquired knowledge of the true taste of the authentic Hue dishes that have been served in her family for many years, occasional trips to California to sample Hue region food, and the yearning for perfection aided by her customers. Some of her older clientele will tell her if a dish is not quite right.

Nguyen’s family was from Hue, which was the imperial capital of Vietnam until 1945. Many Americans may remember the bloody battle fought there during the Tet offensive in 1968 when the North Vietnamese overran the city and the Americans and South Vietnamese forces fought hard to take the city back. Both owners suffered extreme hardships emigrating to the U.S.; in the case of Mr. Le, who was one of the ‘boat’ people refugees, he risked his life to come here at the age of 18. And Nguyen, whose father was imprisoned for 13 years at a reeducation camp, came when her father and family were permitted to emigrant after the US. and Vietnam reached an accord in the early 1990s.

I asked Ms. Nguyen why they call their restaurant the “Saigon Café” when Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the Communist takeover) is in the south and the food is quite different. She said she gets that question quite often. They originally chose that name for the deli because it served general Vietnamese fare in an area where there were not many Vietnamese, who mostly would not have heard of the imperial city of Hue. However, most everyone is familiar with Saigon, the former name of the capital of South Vietnam. After two and a half years with the deli building up a very good customer base, they wanted to carry the ‘good will’ from their deli to the restaurant.
 
The busiest time for the Saigon Café is lunch time. The restaurant has recently been  more formal with linen table cloth. We had difficulty finding it because it is close to Seven Corners, which is a very confusing intersection to say the least. Plus the address says Arlington Boulevard, but there is no access from Arlington Boulevard. The Saigon Café is located in a plaza that is accessed via Wilson Blvd, across from the grand entrance of the Eden Center. If coming east from US-50/Arlington Blvd., take the exit on the right to Route 7 – Leesburg Pike, go up the first traffic signal, and turn left toward Clarendon. If coming west from Washington, D.C., drive past Patrick Henry Dr, look for the VA – 7 ramp toward VA 338; at the traffic signal, turn a sharp right to Wilson Blvd.  Once on Wilson Blvd, ‘The Corner’ shopping center will be immediately on the right with Medics USA, Fitness First and the Guitar Center.

6286-B Arlington Blvd
Falls Church, VA 22044
(703) 237-1899
Sun-Thu: 10 am – 9 pm
Fri. & Sat.: 10 am – 10 pm
www.saigoncafe-va.com