Food perfect for cold weather at Saigon Café

Published: Friday, January 31, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 30, 2003 at 10:31 p.m.



Saigon Café 808 W. University Ave. (338-0023) HOURS: Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday-Saturday; Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
FOOD: Vietnamese, Japanese SERVICE: Average LIBATIONS: Beer and wine ATMOSPHERE: Nondescript RESERVATIONS: Large parties only.

There is no better weather in which to enjoy Vietnamese food than cold weather. In Vietnam, they eat a lot of soup. They don't just eat it for lunch and dinner; they eat soup for breakfast, even when the weather is warm. And, believe me, it can get very warm in Vietnam.
Soup is virtually the national dish. Pho is a big bowl of broth with spaghetti-shaped noodles, meat and vegetables. Sometimes called Hanoi noodle soup, traditional pho is from northern Vietnam and has beef in it. When made with chicken, it's called pho ga. Either way, we're talking a meal in a bowl that's perfect for a chilly day.
Saigon Café offers several varieties of soup from northern and southern Vietnam, and they can contain your choice of rare beef, cooked beef, chicken or tofu ($5.75). If you can't make up your mind, you can get a combination of meats or a seafood soup ($6.75).
Vietnamese soups can contain either rice or egg noodles and usually are made with mixed meat broths - pork and chicken for pho from the north or beef, pork and chicken for hu tieu from the south. Saigon Café follows this tradition but offers rice noodles only.
The soups generally are lightly seasoned but served with a variety of condiments so diners can flavor it to their liking. Bright red chili-garlic sauce, dark brown hoisin sauce, fresh basil leaves, bean sprouts, sliced hot peppers and a thin fish sauce made from fermented anchovies are the usual accompaniments.
Saigon Café does not include hot peppers or fish sauce among its standard condiments, but you probably won't miss them. Basil, chili sauce and hoisin sauce will do the trick just fine.
If a big bowl of soup isn't what you're hankering for, try a small bowl. The restaurant serves a lemongrass soup that bowled me over ($3.50). It's the best thing I tasted at Saigon Café - perfectly spicy sweet and available with shrimp, chicken or tofu.
A wide selection of sushi (available for delivery), grilled meats, vegetarian plates and a variety of house specialties also are available. Xao Lan, a coconut milk curry available with chicken breast, beef or tofu, is an especially worthwhile choice ($7.50). We thought the sushi just average.
Vietnamese salads are delicious, too. The cucumber and tomato salad was light on tomatoes when we tried it, but the sweet and sour vinaigrette made it delicious just the same.
The café is housed in a small space on West University Avenue that was formerly occupied by Chef's Corner and, before that, a great breakfast place called Our Place (not affiliated with Our Place at Thornebrook).
David Carlson has been writing about food, wine and restaurants for more than a decade. E-mail him at

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