Lighter touch: Saigon Café’s Pho Bo Ha Noi is a meat and noodle soup and popular street food
Photographs by Jennifer May
Though it has hints of Chinese and Thai, Vietnamese food is lighter than both, peppered as it is with fresh, tongue-tingling herbs like mint, lemongrass, and cilantro. Salad fare like watercress and bean sprouts figure heavily, and offbeat and exotic spices, such as star anise and ginger, add unusual notes to dishes. Fresh raw vegetables are a must, and many dishes are cooked entirely without oils.
Fish sauce is one of the most important ingredients and is often mixed with garlic, sugar, lemon or lime juice, or chili. It is as essential to the Vietnamese table as salt is to Westerners. “Vietnamese food is lighter than Thai food,” says CIA Chef/Instructor Fred Brash, “but they both rely on fish sauce.” Soft and delicate vermicelli noodles often take center stage in these dishes, with beef and pork playing a lesser role, making the diet healthier. Steamed fish and seafood dishes and stir-fried meals consumed with tea are the norm.
Guests of Saigon Café in Poughkeepsie can try all this and more. A modest, 19-seat restaurant in the Arlington area, it is owned by Vietnamese immigrants Hong and Hue Truong. Photographs of Vietnam shot by Hong decorate the walls, many of them taken on the couple’s frequent trips back home, where Hong worked in his mother’s coffee shop in Saigon and Hue cooked for her family catering business in Long Xuyen, a village to the west. They arrived here in 1975, just before South Vietnam surrendered to the Communists. After learning English and earning a degree at a Long Island community college, Hong got a job with IBM in Poughkeepsie. He worked there for 10 years, but was laid off in 1993.
That was when the couple launched Saigon Café, which became a favorite of Vassar College students. “This is the food of South Vietnam,” says Hong. “The menu doesn’t change a lot. We make everything here.”
Vietnamese iced coffee is sweetened with condensed milk
He takes care of the front of the house, and she’s the cook. It’s amazing the breadth of dishes that Hue turns out of her tiny kitchen. There is “shaking beef” (bo luc lac), which is a reference to tossing marinated beef tenderloins over a grill to quickly sear them.
Goat curry (carj de) is a specialty of the house, a tender and aromatic dish cooked with ginger and star anise. Spicy beef soup, a dish from central Vietnam, is a fiery orange dish spiced with cilantro. The broth actually cooks the rare beef.
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Singing Chicken is chicken breast sautéed with lemongrass and served over mixed vegetables with rice on the side. “We can make it a little bit spicy if the customer requests,” says Hong.
Chicken, seafood, or vegetables cooked in a traditional clay pot are other classics. And vegetarians get hooked on rice with mung beans, served with peanuts and coconut milk. While some of these dishes might take getting used to (in particular the goat), appetizer favorites like steamed Imperial Roll (shrimp, vermicelli noodles, and mint rolled in rice paper) and fried spring rolls (chicken with vermicelli and vegetables in an egg shell wrap) are instant winners — especially washed down with Saigon Beer from the old country or iced coffee made with sweet condensed milk, a homeland favorite.
If you go…
Saigon Café Poughkeepsie. 845-473-1392; saigoncafe.net