The word "kitchen" in restaurant titles has been overused during the past decade. But in a place which is so small that the kitchen is the dominant feature, the title takes on a new life. At the tiny Saigon Kitchen: Vietnamese Cuisine in Indian Trail, the kitchen is visible from the order counter. There, Vietnamese native Ha Le, a be-toqued chef, mans her bank of ranges and busily prepares the incoming orders.
At the counter is son-in-law and owner James Nguyen, who opened this, his first restaurant, in February. Nguyen explains that all the dishes are created from family recipes and that Le has been a chef in Vietnam for 20 years, where her specialty was producing Vietnamese "street food."
Each morning, all the egg rolls are made for the day, and every evening, the beef stock is slow cooked for the pho.
Saigon Kitchen is small with only 22 seats. The order counter faces the door and above it is a large food-court styled menu illustrated with even larger photographs. The inexpensive menu, too, is similar to one of a food court: Many dishes here are Chinese-American rather than Vietnamese, although Nguyen explains that all the ingredients are fresh and each dish has Vietnamese flavor. Many of the dishes on the starter list are fried: shrimp, egg rolls, wings and wontons.
The main courses (which range from $6.50 to $7.95) are divided into rice dishes, Vietnamese noodle dishes and entrées. Of the entrées, most have recognizable names: sesame chicken, pepper beef, sweet and sour chicken. If you're looking for Vietnamese lemon grass stir fry or hot pots, you won't find them here. Nor are there many of the traditional bun — rice vermicelli — dishes. In fact, for a cuisine which is dependent on herbs such as Thai basil, culantro (similar to cilantro), mint, and rice paddy herb (rau om), only Thai basil and cilantro are found in abundance.
But the velvety beef broth of the pho makes a trip worthwhile. A well-made pho is all about the broth, and Le makes a fragrant broth with faint anise undertones. Her soup, though, is only offered in one variation — beef and meatball — and accompanied by thin rice noodles al dente when served but then become soft and slippery. The expected extravagant side plate of fixings to "doctor" the soup with slices of lime and chilies and a stack of herbs is missing, too. However, crunchy bean sprouts, scallions and basil are offered.
The slender fried egg rolls are popular. Many customers ordered more while waiting for entrées. One of the Vietnamese noodle dishes stars these cut-up egg rolls along with thin slices of cured pork.
In addition to pho, the Vietnamese bahn mi sandwich is arguably one of the greatest Vietnamese imports. This sandwich is a combination of French colonial influences with classic Vietnamese ingredients. With the recent demise of Zen Market, banh mi addicts may be scouting for a worthy substitute. While the Saigon Kitchen banh mi has the required slathering of mayonnaise, a sprig of cilantro, and pickled carrots and daikon, what sets apart any good sandwich is the bread. A stellar banh mi requires a crusty French baguette — not the softer roll used here. But a softer roll seems to be what the customers want. For owner Nguyen to introduce his style of Asian cuisine to the area may take time.