Thursday, January 14, 2010
Any Vietnamese cook will tell you that a good broth is the cornerstone of pho, the ubiquitous noodle soup you’ll find at every noodle soup spot, whether in Vietnam or in the U.S.
I know a good bowl of pho when I taste one. Recently I did, at a three-month-old establishment in Seaside called Saigon Noodle.
Saigon Noodle’s proprietress is a grandmotherly figure by the name of Sanh Keeler, nicknamed “Sunshine” for good reason. Punctuating her sentences with terms of endearment like “sweetheart” and “honey,” she tells me, “I love to cook! When I die people will miss me.” She’s determined to leave a legacy not just for her six children and six grandchildren but also for everyone who enjoys her cooking. Keeler worked at the Fort Ord Commissary in Marina for more than 10 years, but decades of cooking for her family has prepared her for her new vocation.
Running a restaurant involves plenty of hard work, yet Keeler couldn’t be happier. Every morning, she starts cooking at 5am. Simmering the broth for several hours is one thing, but the secret is real beef and chicken bones. “The broth takes five to six hours before you can serve,” she explains. “When you use soup bones, the ‘juice’ is very good.”
Tasting is believing. So I made a pilgrimage to the Seaside restaurant. The tiny storefront framed by bamboo is quite inconspicuous – blink and you might miss it. (The Goodwill across the street makes an excellent landmark.) Inside, the cozy space is spare and comfortably seats about 40.
As soon as my companion and I sit down, a bubbly server (who turns out to be Keeler’s granddaughter, Van) greets us with a pot of tea and a big smile.
We start with fresh spring rolls (three for $4): shrimp, pork, rice vermicelli, mint and cilantro bundled in translucent rice wrappers. I dip the fat roll in the accompanying sauce made from hoisin (a sweet soybean-based sauce) and yellow bean sauce, a bland departure from the usual hoisin/peanut combination.
For the main event, there are 10 different noodle soups to choose from – two seafood soups and eight beef-based soups containing your choice of beef parts ranging from flank steak and meatballs to brisket and/or tripe. All the noodle soups come in small ($5.50) or large ($6.50).
First up is the seafood noodle soup. Glass noodles (or Keeler’s homemade egg noodles, available by request), shrimp, squid, a crab claw, and – surprisingly – some ground pork and barbecued pork slices arrive swimming in chicken broth. I toss in some Thai basil leaves, bean sprouts and a squeeze of lime. Hoisin and chili sauces are usually an automatic next step but I decide to try the broth naked. One sip and I know I don’t need to disturb the delicate flavor of the clean and clear broth.
Soon after, a steaming bowl filled with skinny, flat rice noodles comes with golf ball-sized meatballs floating in a fragrant broth. As promised, the broth is rich and flavorful, not too oily and devoid of the muddiness that exposes the presence of prepared stock cubes.
On another visit, we order fried egg rolls (4 for $4). The wrapper of the freshly-fried golden bar shatters between my teeth as I bite into it and reveals a tasty filling of glass noodles, shredded carrot and pork.
This time, I decide on a rice noodle bowl ($6), thin strands of rice vermicelli topped with grilled pork and a plethora of fresh mint, cilantro and lettuce. I pour the sauce – redolent with fish sauce, lime juice and chili – over the noodles and dig into the delightfully sweet, sour and spicy dish. Van reminds me to add crushed peanuts (thoughtfully served in a separate bowl for those with an allergy) for extra crunch.
My adventurous dining partner orders a rice combination plate ($7). The tender pork chop, robust with the sweet yet salty combo of fish sauce and caramelized sugar, is accompanied by a slice of egg “cake” – glass noodles and wood ear mushrooms bound together with beaten egg. Akin to a quiche, it is surprisingly amiable to my palate. The last component is probably an acquired taste for most: shredded pieces of pork loin tossed with pork skin and spices.
For a serious caffeine jolt, try the rich and thick espresso-style coffee served with condensed milk, either hot or iced ($2.50). Or chase your meal with a canned drink ranging from grass jelly to sugar cane ($2.50) or finish off with a dessert drink made with mung beans and jelly in coconut milk ($2.50).
Vegetarians need not worry either. Even though it’s not on the printed menu, Keeler always has a pot of vegetable broth simmering on the stove which can be poured over your choice of noodles and vegetables. She also does a mean vegetable stir-fry served over rice.
In fact, Keeler has a whole bag of culinary tricks up her sleeve and she intends to reveal them gradually: “I’ve got a lot of good secrets and good food ideas in my head.”
Word on the street is that her flank steak salad and sweet-and-sour catfish soup are excellent – more reasons I’m scheduled for a return visit.