The Miss Saigon Cafe is unexpectedly fetching. The cool, modern decor -- terra-cotta walls, a smooth concrete floor and a striking mural of a Vietnamese street scene -- prevents the place from sliding into either the abyss of tearoom preciousness or the slough of fortune-cookie Asiatica.
The hands-on owner and manager, Doan Huynh, admits hiring an interior decorator to assist her in outfitting the little storefront in the Rice Village, but her venture is mostly a family affair. Two aunts helped Huynh finance the cafe and still pitch in with the washing up; her fiance designed the clever logo on his computer. And that's Huynh's own face painted into the mural; she's the woman on the bicycle.
My first visit found the four-month-old cafe on the cusp of its second menu revision. Some of the dishes I enjoyed have since vanished, or metamorphosed into beguiling new concoctions. For instance, the juicy grilled shrimp -- originally offered as an appetizer, with a red-pepper-dosed peanut sauce for dipping -- can now be found tucked into spring rolls, along with tasty strips of marinated grilled pork, sparkling fresh mint leaves and the same wonderful peanut sauce.
I liked the various spring rolls -- even the vegetarian version with tofu -- but I loved the Vietnamese egg rolls. Don't let the name fool you: These bear no resemblance to their thick, greasy cousins at fast food joints around town. The thin rice-paper jackets are stuffed with pork, chicken and shrimp, plus shredded vegetables and fresh herbs, then flash-fried crispy. Then they're cut open on the diagonal and served in a cluster, standing on end. Their companion nuoc mam sauce is spiked with a judicious dash of mild vinegar; when the egg rolls were gone, the sauce was so tempting that I dunked and ate the greens-and-carrots garnish.
Such appetizers are thoughtfully light enough to leave diners hungry for the entrees. At dinner one night, we experimented with Miss Saigon's curries, offered in highly similar chicken or shrimp versions. I was surprised to find both renditions creamy smooth and civilized, more Madras yellow than Thai hot. The vermicelli offerings are excellent and popular, if not exactly extraordinary hereabouts: A generous bowl of nicely cooked rice noodles is topped with grilled pork, or chicken, or shrimp, or eggrolls, along with the requisite bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumbers and carrots, sprinkled with chopped peanuts and more nuoc mam sauce. Huyhn laments that once her regulars have decided which of the eight vermicelli combinations they favor, it's difficult to get them to order anything else.
The standout entree, a recent addition, is the caramelized salmon claypot. My waitress lifted the lid of the rustic clay pot with a flourish, and inside I found a slab of beautifully poached salmon, pink on a dark brown bed of caramelized sugar, sesame oil and nuoc mam, and garnished with lemon grass and slivers of red bell pepper. The aroma was enticing; I could hear people at other tables whispering covetously. The herbs in the sauce remain the secret of chef Thien Ngo; whatever they are, the combination is inspired.
For dessert, Miss Saigon offers bananas -- bananas flambeed, bananas fried, or bananas puddinged. The fried version is good, coated in a light cinnamon batter and served over ice cream. Even more seductive is the flambe: squishy soft, sweet with melted brown sugar and also served over vanilla ice cream. Alas, I missed the drama of most flambes; apparently the fire was lit in the kitchen and doused before the dessert was delivered.
Miss Saigon excels at light lunches, and the service is efficient enough to make a workday visit feasible. The soup of the day arrives in a much larger bowl than at dinnertime and makes a filling meal. I've hit a lot of hot-and-sour days lately and haven't minded: The translucent, red-peppery broth is chock full of intriguing vegetables, including fresh okra. (I admire any cook who can make okra edible without breading and frying it.)
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The grilled pork and rotisserie chicken sandwiches are other good lunch choices. They're served on toasted baguettes with pickled carrots, cilantro and bits of jalapeno, and doctored with the special house mayonnaise dressing. Lunch is also an excellent opportunity to indulge in Vietnamese coffee: freshly brewed espresso mixed half-and-half with cream and poured over ice. After a glass, afternoons are extremely productive.
Normally, I'm nervous when restaurants fool around with their menus, especially so early in the game. Uh oh, I think, what was wrong with the other stuff? Is this place going to be here tomorrow? At Miss Saigon, I am glad to say that the changes aren't cause for alarm. In fact, the new menu knocks a couple of dollars off the higher-priced dishes -- making Miss Saigon even more appealing.
Miss Saigon Cafe, 5503 Kelvin, 942-0108
Miss Saigon Cafe:
pork and shrimp spring rolls, $4.25;
Vietnamese egg rolls, $5.75;
char-grilled pork sandwich, $4.50;
caramelized salmon claypot, $8.50;
banana flambe, $5.50;
iced Vietnamese coffee, $2.50.