Un-Pho-Gettable
Saigon Noodles Brings Southeast Asia to Lafayette. By Anna Purdy

foodSome restaurants are so good you hesitate to mention them, hoping to keep it your own little secret, a backup in the back pocket to take dear friends and impress in-laws. Y’all are lucky I don’t feel that way because if I were to keep a secret, this would be it.

Saigon Noodles is in the shopping center at the corner of Ambassador Caffery Parkway and Congress Street next to Planet Fitness and a dentist’s office. Yes, Acadiana is full of surprises.

When I first walked into Saigon Noodles, a modestly elegant space with the intimate feel of a bistro, the first thing I noticed was the cooling water feature at its front door. The second is that I was the only non-Asian in the joint. I took this to be a very, very good sign. This is a place where Vietnamese families can come to get a taste of home and the rest of us can pretend for an hour that we are in Asia without having to endure the tender touches of TSA agents. Or a place where hipsters, who in all of their spiky plaid glory were the next non-Asians to enter, can come and feel underground.

Vietnamese food is characterized by freshness and flavor. Herbs that may be somewhat unusual to a Western palate are brought to the party on the plate — herbs like cilantro, Thai basil and lemongrass. Vegetables are cooked just until tender, retaining most of their original crispness. A philosophy of balance is very important to Vietnamese cooking and due to the strong Buddhist background in that country, there are plenty of vegetarian dishes at the ready. Every dish or drink on the menu is written in both English and Vietnamese, and you get the impression that this isn’t a schtick or charming touch but has a practical purpose.

I chose the grilled pork, shrimp and vermicelli noodles (Bun Tom, Thit, Nuong, Cha Gio). Served in a pedestal bowl, the vermicelli makes a bed for the cucumbers, scallions, lettuce, pork and shrimp to lay on. Small egg rolls, freshly cut up and with a satisfying crunch, are the blanket. This is enough food for three people­ — an unbelievable bargain at $10.25. A clear fish sauce is served on the side for you to add as little or as much as you want. It seems every flavor and texture your tongue finds pleasing is in this bowl — the deep grilled flavor of the thick pork and huge shrimp, the sweet and salty tang of the fish sauce, the smooth vermicelli and snappy vegetables.

The manager came over and asked me if I knew how to eat the sauce, right after it was served. He suggested trying it before pouring it over. Being a fan of Vietnamese food I was set to go, but that kind of thoughtfulness is remarkable — this isn’t the sort of place where if you use a fork rather than chopsticks you are looked at funny. The staff happily answers questions and, if you are shy about a new cuisine, kindly suggests dishes that you will like.

Probably one of the best coffee drinks in the world is Vietnamese coffee. Served at Saigon Noodles hot or cold, it is brought to you in the carafe in which it is brewed. South Louisiana will recognize this as a French drip method. Sweetened condensed milk is in the bottom of the carafe and as the hot water is poured over and through the dark-roasted grounds it mixes with the milk to make a creamy drink that has a nutty flavor. A large goes for $2.75.

Saigon Noodles has only been open a few months. It’s a modest space — get there before it fills up and pretend it’s your secret.

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