Saigon House now open in Tacoma, and is date-night ready
I love living in a town with such little pretense, especially when it comes to our food.
Our economy relies on strip malls, so much so that strip malls have become ever present in our daily lives. It’s where one completes the most mundane of tasks – dry cleaning, dog grooming, cell phone upgrading …. and maybe where you’ll find one of the best meals of the month.
What longtime local diners-in-the-know understand, but newcomers might not, is that Pierce County strip malls yield the best dining treasures in our region.
Now more than ever.
Earlier this month, I told you about Miyamoto, the new Japanese restaurant in the strip mall that holds Michael’s and Guitar Center. Next week, I’ll be telling you more about Tacoma’s first Laotian restaurant, which soft opens this weekend (October 23-25), in the same strip mall as a vape store and dry cleaners.
Today, I’m telling you about Saigon House, a gorgeous restaurant that looks like it could be plopped down on Sixth Avenue.
Saigon House opened in Tacoma two months ago on 38th Avenue South, scrunched between Big Five and a T-Mobile store.
The first thing you should know is what an unexpected treasure it is – in scope and beauty.
Chef-owner Dung Tran has created a sit-and-sip respite so very unexpected in a neighborhood that’s also been unexpectedly and quickly adding great places for boozing and dining, such as the newish Tonala, an excellent Mexican restaurant a few blocks away.
And, of course, Tacoma’s epicenter for Vietnamese dining is just blocks away in the Lincoln District.
This is an expansion for Tran, who also owns Green Garden Pho in Silverdale, which is just as lovely as Saigon House, and also scrunched into a strip mall.
While Hanoi is one theme in the decor and cuisine, the menu spans a wide section of Vietnam, said general manager Dan Chau, who is also the restaurant’s barkeep and creator of some stellar cocktails tweaked with the flavors of Vietnam (but more on that in a moment).
The restaurant is next-level Vietnamese here. While we have plenty of fill-up pho stops where you can get a quick and nutritious Vietnamese meal, few Vietnamese restaurants offer an upscale Vietnamese experience.
La Ca Bar in Tacoma’s Sixth Avenue neighborhood is one such example of a Vietnamese concept that has embraced that next-level delivery of a polished, refined Vietnamese experience.
I’d like you to also put Saigon House in the same category of upscale Vietnamese as La Ca Bar.
The restaurants both are date-night ready, but also places where families won’t feel out of place. Saigon House has a bar, but also family-friendly seating.
The seating is highly comfortable – with well-spaced tables perfect for socially distant dining and cushy banquettes that invite dwelling.
The cocktails are excellent, and tinged with the flavors of Vietnam.
The menu concept is broad.
“We’ve got food from the south, food from the north and food from the east,” explained Chau. “It’s food from every part of the country. And one that’s larger in scope with food that is beyond like a mom-and-pop type of restaurant.”
My advice? Go in and have a tableside conversation with Chau and Tran about the wide range of flavors and dishes from Vietnam.
This is a restaurant focused on high-quality tableside service with attention paid to educating about one of Vietnam’s best exports: its cuisine.
SAIGON HOUSE ‘OBAMA’ NOODLES
And that brings me to “Obama noodles.”
The Vietnamese lettuce wraps were made famous on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s “Parts Unknown,” when Bourdain and President Obama visited a hole-in-the-wall style spot, in true Bourdain style, and sampled that particular dish that was “rebranded” with the presidential moniker as its popularity spread. Versions of the lettuce wrap appear on menus everywhere now, although not so much in Tacoma.
At Saigon House, the Hanoi-style vermicelli (number V11 on the menu) is an assemble-your-own adventure with grilled pork, in a sweetened-tangy broth, pickled carrots and papaya, rice noodles and fresh herbs layered atop lettuce in whatever order you prefer, folded over and jammed into your mouth.
There’s also 15 versions of pho on the menu ($11 to $12). For those who love broth slow simmered with bones and heavy aromatics (the galanga is extra pronounced here), then this is the spot for you.
There are also rice plates ($12.50 to $15), a solid vegetarian menu ($7 to $13.50), a selection of eight wok dishes ($13.50 to $14.50), fried rice ($12.50 to $14.50), and, of course, a broad selection of vermicelli (ɓǔn) that goes well beyond the usual offerings, including the Hanoi “Obama” vermicelli set ($12.50 to $21.50).
If you order anything beyond the Obama noodles or the excellent pho, take a look at the spicy beef soup called bún bò huế, with round noodles, and a delicious rich broth punched with galanga and topped with fat slices of Vietnamese pork roll ($13.50).
From the appetizer menu, Chau is quick to point out that their take on fresh spring rolls includes a Saigon House specialty. The fresh rolls (number A1) are served with a sticky sauce goosed with garlic, dried shrimp and ground pork cooked into the broth. It’s served with a squat wedge of nem nuong, the Vietnamese sausage ($8.50). Nestled into the center is a bit of crunch from a fried wonton and copious amounts of fresh herbs.
TRY THE VIETNAMESE COCKTAILS AT SAIGON HOUSE
Chau has a background as an architect, but also in managing restaurants (a consequence of the last economic bubble in 2008 when the architecture industry was pummeled).
Chau has deep experience with high-quality Southeast Asian restaurants in the region. He also currently manages Noi Thai Cuisine, the Seattle-based high-end Thai restaurant that is the sibling restaurant to the acclaimed Bai Tong.
The bar program at Saigon House reflects Chau’s background -he’s half Thai and half Vietnamese. In his cocktails, he deftly combines the spicy-sour-salty-sweet harmony that comprises the symphony of Southeast Asian cuisine. Tamarind, chile peppers, galanga and ginger get starring parts in cocktails designed to tug at your senses the way all Southeast Asian cuisine does.
Take his lemon drop, typically a sorority girl drink I skip on any/every menu, but in Chau’s hands, I trust. A simple tweak made that drink so much more palatable when he swiped the rim of the cocktail glass with a lemon and applied a salt-and-spicy-chile blend he created. Chau likes a little flair in his cocktails, so he sits the drop atop a bubbling cauldron of smoke created by dry ice. I’m a sucker for tableside party tricks. Every time.
The whiskey sour gets a puckery makeover with the addition of tamarind paste in the cocktail sweetened with palm syrup.
Did I mention the housemade Vietnamese-style mule? Chau steeps the bar’s house vodka in galanga, ginger and Thai chilies for about a week. He mixes up his mule with Cock ‘N Bull ginger beer and finishes with extra lime.
Put this restaurant in your rotation immediately.
For those skipping dining in house, the restaurant offers takeout and also is on Uber Eats and Door Dash. Order directly from the restaurant and pick up to give them an extra boost of support (delivery apps charge big fees to restaurants). Order online here: https://www.saigonhouse.us/orderonline
Where: 2505 S. 38th St., Tacoma; 253-503-3010
Order online for pickup: https://www.saigonhouse.us/orderonline
Cocktails: Available to-go, as well as the entire food menu
Delivery: Uber Eats and Door Dash
NOW OPEN: MIYAMOTO JAPANESE CUISINE
This simple Japanese restaurant features excellent sushi and a menu of Japanese classics tough to find at just every sushi spot in town. There’s multiple kinds of Japanese curry, for starters. Read more here.