I have been dining out longer than I care to say and I admittedly had my first bowl of Pho (pronounced “fuh”), when I relocated to Portland from Brooklyn three years ago. I’m sure I’d heard of this famous noodle soup, but I’m not certain why I had not been introduced to it. I have regrets about this omission; however, the not knowing has peaked my interest even further.
French missionaries traveled and lived in Vietnam from the mid-1700s to the mid-1900s. French Colonization left its mark on Vietnam in many ways, but none more than the flavors in cooking. Pho soup is said to be a blend of Vietnamese rice noodles and French meat broths. One theory suggests that pho is the phonetic copy of the French word “feu” which means fire. Oral history tells us that French Colonists slaughtered cattle because of their love of meat and that the Vietnamese used the bones and scraps to make Pho.
Often, the popularity of cuisine is tied to political climate. I imagine little was known about Vietnam prior to the Vietnamese War, which ended with the fall of Saigon in April 1975. The Vietnam War, known in Vietnam as the Resistance War Against America, was hard fought with many of our anti-communist allies. The first Vietnamese restaurant in the United States was named Viet Nam and it was located in Manhattan; it was the only Vietnamese restaurant for at least a decade. The first customers were said to be expatriated nationals. Early Vietnamese immigrants had to prove their commitment to democracy and their allegiance to the United States. My guess is that even lovers of food from other parts of the world, may not have been as curious about Vietnamese cuisine as they were about European and other Asian cuisines. Later, the wide acceptance of Chinese and Thai cuisine, paved the way for Vietnamese restaurant openings.
Mai Vuong and her husband Dong Nguyen opened Saigon Restaurant in December 2009. Dong is head chef at Saigon; he immigrated to Portland when he was a young man, and Mai moved here twelve years ago. Although it took them quite some time to find a location, they ultimately settled on Forest Avenue because it was close to a high school and a couple of universities — they thought being close to young people would be good for business. Selecting an easy to find location was essential for the success of the restaurant. Although Vietnamese cuisine is the focus of this highly regarded restaurant, Chinese and Thai items are also featured in Saigon's authentic menu choices.
Most of the ingredients are sourced from Haknuman Asian Market, conveniently close to the restaurant. Ingredients not found at Haknuman, are ordered from two different suppliers in New Hampshire. Mai shared that although Saigon’s menu is authentically Vietnamese, some dishes that you might find in Vietnam are not on the menu because ingredients for these dishes cannot be found here in the States. In Vietnam, you might see crispy pancakes, fried spring rolls and a variety of sweet cakes on the menu.
I asked Mai why she thinks Vietnamese food has become so popular. “I think Vietnamese has become so popular because of pho soup. It has so many ingredients and is time consuming to cook; it’s rich and tasty and good for your health . . . so people love it. People also love Vietnamese food because it’s fresh. We’re proud of our pho soup, and we believe it’s one of the best pho soups in the area.”
Some of the ingredients Vietnamese recipes call for are: lemongrass, mint, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, chili, lime and basil. Traditional recipes include very little dairy and oil; relying on fresh herbs and vegetables as well. The balance of these flavors and ingredients and their freshness, make for what many consider to be one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
It seems to me that people in Portland are often curious about what might be coming next on the restaurant scene. My final question for Mai had to do with the menu and what we might see on it in the future.
Mai candidly shared, “I’m not sure we are going to add anything to the menu; it’s overwhelming for us right now. We may just add more desserts this coming summer.”
Whatever they do at Saigon is okay by me. I often have to remind myself that pho is not the only dish on the menu. I promised I would relay Mai and Doug’s gratitude to the people of Portland: “Without the support of you guys, we wouldn’t be successful today.”
I expect our readers would agree with me when I say, “Thank you Mai and Dong for choosing Portland and for the love and beautiful ingredients you put in your food.”
Saigon Restaurant | 795 Forest Ave., Portland | 9:30 am to 9:00 pm | 207.874.6666