Many Americans, including myself, are only familiar with a few varieties of food. We know all about American cuisine, the big three – Italian, Mexican, and Chinese – and maybe a few others such as Indian or Greek.
But the world is a big place, and there’s a lot more to be eaten.
This week’s restaurant, Saigon, 3103 Lafayette Rd., offers a style I’ve never tried – Vietnamese, and my visit showed me I’ve been missing out.
“If you want to try a new dish from a different culture, you should come here,” said manager Peter Tran. “This is a family operated business. We serve authentic Vietnamese at a good price.”
Indeed, the price is reasonable. The restaurant offers 24 lunch specials, each served with soup, rice and a spring or egg roll for $5.25.
Also, there are plenty of new dishes to try. Saigon offers more than 100 entrees, each more unique than the next. Favorites include pho – a beef noodle soup – and bun – grilled rice noodles.
Visitors who enjoy Chinese food will find the flavors familiar, but also notice something is different. This is because Vietnamese cuisine is influenced by the cooking style of its northern neighbor, but with a few key distinctions. The main one is the sauce.
“We use fish sauce in a lot of places where Chinese would use soy sauce,” explained Tran. “It is similar because it’s salty, but the flavor is different.”
This ingredient is prevalent because of geography. Vietnam stretches more than 1,000 miles from north to south but is less than 200 miles wide in most places, which means that wherever you go, you are close to the ocean, and sea ingredients play a big role.
Saigon uses less fish sauce than Chinese places use soy because it has an intense flavor. The result is that dishes are tasty and unique without being overly fishy.
Other native ingredients play a big role as well. Plants such as basil and lemongrass grow like crazy in Vietnam, and are featured prominently in some entrees. And, like neighboring Thailand, Vietnam is home to some seriously hot peppers. Sriracha (the popular hot sauce with the rooster on the bottle) is Vietnamese, and Saigon uses it when it wants to kick up the temperature.
I tried Ga Xao Sa Ot and was not disappointed. It featured green and white onions and chicken with rice and had a complex flavor. There was enough Sriracha to make it nice and spicy, but it also featured lemongrass, which is a flavor that I think of as sort of cool and refreshing. The combination of hot and cool made it a one of a kind dish that I thoroughly enjoyed.
To order some authentic Vietnamese food, call (317) 927-7270.
You can e-mail comments to Aaron Rimstidt at Aaronfirstname.lastname@example.org.