158 S Central Ave, Hartsdale
Hours: Tues-Fri, 11 am-9 pm; Fri 11 am-10 pm; Sun, noon-9 pm
Appetizers: $6-$9.50; entrées: $9.50-$13; desserts: $2.50-$5
Anh Le loves to cook as much as she loves to share her passion for her native cuisine. That passion must be contagious, or perhaps she hires well, because every staff person at Saigonese was equally eager to share his or her pride and pleasure about the food.
They have much to be proud of. Le says the food she serves at the restaurant is the food she makes for her children—the dishes her family served for 40 years at their restaurant in Saigon.
On a warm summer night, we sat beneath a beautiful painting of Vietnamese sisters hung on the saffron walls and watched as the friendly young staff earnestly described dish after dish to diners—and came back to tables to explain how to eat them. Their passion had us intrigued before we even took our first bite.
And, oh, what I bite it was! We wrapped crisp, hot, spring rolls filled with ground pork, chicken, and shrimp in lettuce leaves and dipped them in traditional nuoc cham sauce. The crunch of the lettuce and fried rice-paper wrapper, the savory filling, and the gentle sweetness of the sauce could have been too much, but instead melded together in perfect harmony, as though all the flavors and textures had always belonged to one another.
Many Vietnamese dishes are eaten wrapped in lettuce leaves. This is, as one waiter explained it, because so much of the cuisine is eaten with one’s hands—which helps the diner to eat slowly and focus on the meal. We were more than happy to give our full attention to the rice-flour crêpe with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts, mushrooms, and onion, a dead ringer for a large omelet, which we cut into strips and, along with fresh mint and pickled vegetables, wrapped in lettuce, and dipped in nuoc cham.
Many dishes are not served as spicy-hot as they might be, in order, says Le, to accommodate local palates. Instead, sriracha is brought to the table to allow diners to control the amount of heat.
Such is the case with the three versions of papaya salad. The simplest version is made with crunchy shredded papaya and carrot, mint, small shrimp, peanuts, and the bright, refreshing dressing. The mango version is made with fruit that is just ripe enough to be slightly sweet, but still crisp and under-ripe enough to be slightly tart. A traditional Northern Vietnamese dish, green papaya salad with beef jerky, is much heartier in flavor; not only do the thin strips of homemade jerky add salty, earthy, and assertive depth, but the dressing is made with light soy sauce, which enhances the “umami” or savory flavors. A vegan version of this dish is also available.
Meat is often marinated before cooking. The tender and slightly sweet pork in one of more than half-dozen grilled dishes, grilled pork thin noodle, is marinated with lemongrass and fish sauce and served in a deep bowl over rice noodles and topped with scallions and peanuts, which afford the dish an appealing array of textures. Richly flavorful and meaty pork ribs are combined with lemongrass and soy sauce to marinate overnight, then grilled over low heat until tender.
Several dishes went from good to great after our server taught us how to eat them. Fried tofu served in a clay pot with sautéed onions was served on an intensely flavored, salty garlic sauce (the sauce served with all clay-pot dishes) that, on its own, was overwhelming. But when spooned on rice with the tofu, as is customary, the dish was beautifully balanced. The same transformation occurred on one visit with a special of ginger chicken. Eaten on its own, the dish had a harsh feel to it; when paired with rice, it was bright, gentle, and comforting.
Pho is the Vietnamese dish that is probably best known to Westerners. Sadly, it is often served heavily perfumed with star anise, which obliterates the flavors of the meats and vegetables, as well as any other spices. At Saigonese, we experienced one of the best, most subtly balanced versions of the ubiquitous noodle soup we’ve ever had. Suddenly, we understood the popularity and appeal of this highly satisfying dish. There are six versions on the menu; we chose the house special with four types of beef served in the traditional beef broth. The broth was flavored with a delicate balance of warm spices: star anise, fennel, cinnamon, and cardamom, among others. Thin slices of brisket, rib-eye, beef tendon, and beef “balls” (a barely sweet cross between meatballs and sausage) each retained its distinct flavor and texture; making our way through the meat and the rice noodles was a soothing adventure, like ambling alongside a newly discovered babbling brook.
Continue your adventure with dessert. There are two traditional sweets to try. Rainbow ice, layers of sweetened mung, white and red beans with green jelly in sweet coconut milk, could be a starchy-sweet meal and should be shared by two or more people. Shaved ice dessert was made with fresh longon and jack fruit, green jelly, jellied coconut, sweet coconut milk, and small chunks of ice—a refreshing way to end a wonderful meal.