Short Takes: Saigon Cafe

A sunny Vietnamese eatery across from the Eden Center.

There are more than 30 restaurants in the Eden Center, the sprawling Falls Church mall that constitutes the center of Vietnamese culture in the area. That’s both good and bad for Westerners looking for an authentic meal. Where to turn? Saigon Café makes things easy. It’s in a plaza across the street from the gold-painted lions that flank the Eden Center entrance—a lifeboat that has floated away from the big ship.

The restaurant invokes the Eden Center on its takeout menu as a geographical reference point but otherwise isn’t shy about breaking ranks. In contrast to the efficient utilitarianism of its competitors on the other side of Wilson Boulevard, the sunny dining room is awash in shades of yellow and orange, with handsome wood tables and a soundtrack that pumps out lilting Vietnamese versions of old American hits.

The cooking departs from expectations, too. It looks neither to the north nor to the south for inspiration but to central Vietnam. From Hue, the old imperial capital, come steamed pork and steamed shrimp patties—they have the pressed texture of American breakfast sausage but with a lot less fat and a lot more pungency—and a variety of steamed rice-flour cakes. In one version of the cakes, the rice flour has been rolled into cylinders, which are then stuffed with shrimp or pork and wrapped in banana leaves. Another version yields wonderfully chewy disks blitzed with crunchy dried shredded shrimp. There are also rice-flour sheets topped with ground beef. All are fascinating.

There are more-familiar tastes, too: terrific spring rolls with light, spongy pork stuffing and garden rolls filled with shrimp, carrot, and cooked egg; excellent pho built from a rich, oil-beaded broth; and satisfying versions of grilled pork over vermicelli.

One of the best ways to experience Saigon Café is to order the bun bo hue, a beef noodle soup that introduces a slick of chili oil to the oxtail-based broth that produces pho. Into a bowl brimming with broth and long, chewy noodles, the kitchen tosses luscious hunks of brisket and steamed pork patties. It’s rich, fragrant, spicy, and thrilling all at once.

This review appeared in the September 2007 issue of the magazine.