Leaving 20% tips because they really deserve it.

Cincinnati Bites
Cuban Sandwich with Rice and Beans from Cuba Cafe

Posted Thursday, July 21, 2011

It's utterly unfair for one to judge a restaurant that's been open only a few weeks. But that's the way life is, right? Like the Dread Pirate Roberts says, "Anyone who tells you differently is selling something," even if that "something" happens to be Vietnamese food.

And so the girlfriend and I strolled into Saigon Cafe one evening, ready to absorb all the deliciously polarizing Hyde Park haughtiness an Erie Avenue location affords. The building has housed its fair share of failed restaurant ventures over the years. We had never visited the unfortunately-named "Sake Bomb," but had enjoyed a couple meals from its Italian restaurant predecessor, "Pasta al Dente." Even with a sushi bar in place near the entrance, the layout of the front room still echoed that of tenants past.

We were greeted warmly and led to one of the two adjoining dining rooms. The menus were filled with intimidating Vietnamese words, but thankfully, each menu item was also marked with an alpha-numeric code. So instead of mangling the pronunciation of the "Banh Xeo" appetizer and confusing the hell out of your waitress, you can simply say, "I'd like the 'A-10' please." If you use those codes, I'm pretty sure your server will thank you for it.

To this day I'm still pretty confused about Vietnamese cuisine. Cincinnati joints like Chopsticks, Cilantro, Song Long and Pho Lang Thang all seem to have wildly different menu variations with equally varying flavor profiles. My mind wants to lump Vietnamese food into a nice, neat flavor category like I do Chinese or Thai, but it's damn near impossible. There are simply too many influences and too much diversity for Vietnamese cuisine to be adequately pigeonholed.

I want to say Vietnamese food is categorically spicy, or bold, or soupy, or noodly, or "lemongrassy." It can certainly be all these things...or none of them. It's confounding. Only Peruvian cuisine rivals it in the frustration department.

Saigon Cafe's menu attempts to weed through the confusion with offerings broken up into several defined food categories: noodle soups like the obligatory Pho; noodle dishes; salads; rice dishes; seafood; and stir-fry entrees. The ghost of Sake Bomb lives on in a supplementary sushi menu filled with all the usual suspects.

Banh Xeo at Saigon Cafe

We started off with the "Banh Xeo" appetizer: an eggy, curried crepe stuffed with shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, bean sprouts and green onions, served with a chili pepper-infused, slightly sweet vinaigrette sauce.

The crepe arrived fairly quickly and brightened the table with an almost glowing curry-yellow vibrance. Omelette-like in its presentation, the crepe was served lukewarm but packed good shrimp and curry flavor. At $10, it was the most expensive appetizer on the dinner menu, but worth the try.

For our entree course, I chose the Com Tam, a rice dish with grilled pork and a fried egg. My girlfriend chose the Bun Salad, the closest-resembling dish to the one she usually gets at Cilantro in Clifton. It was served with lettuce, vermicelli noodles, fresh mint, carrots and bean sprouts, topped with crushed peanuts and served with a vinaigrette dressing.

Com Tam at Saigon Cafe

The presentation of all the dishes was impressive. Somehow, however, what arrived as my entree didn't seem to match what I'd imagined after reading the menu description. I got the impression it would be a rice bowl dish in which all the components were mixed together, much like the Korean rice dish known as Bibimbap. Instead, a plate arrived with each of the three main components separated: rice, meat and egg.

The fried egg was cooked well: not too runny but not overcooked such that I couldn't take advantage of the yolk, blending it with the other ingredients. The meat, again, was lukewarm, with an all-too-subtle soy sauce component.

Bun Salad at Saigon Cafe

My girlfriend's Bun salad had a markedly fresh, mint flavor, which may have seemed overpowering only because the other ingredients were, at last, rather muted. On the other hand, her accompanying spring roll, which was cut up and placed atop the salad, seemed quite flavorful --one of the highlights of the meal.

At $40, the price wasn't terrible given we had a $10 appetizer and a beer. Unfortunately, our meal overall was lukewarm and bland. This surprised us, given our experiences with other area Vietnamese restaurants. Which begs the question: was the lack of flavor due to our menu selections? Are our American palates too used to over-seasoning? Is Saigon Cafe's owner trying to tone down usually bolder components? Or should we chalk it up to the fact that we've simply caught a new restaurant at a time when it's still trying to find its way? Perhaps it's all of the above.

Saigon Cafe Healthy Cuisine on Urbanspoon
Saigon Cafe

Price: Moderately Expensive ($11 - $16 per person)
Service: Good
Rating: 2.5 out of 42.5 stars

Other Recent Reviews

  1. There's a New Taqueria in Town: Chilango Fresh Mexican
    -posted Sunday, March 19, 2017
  2. Food Truck Sprouts Roots: Urban Grill on Main
    -posted Monday, March 6, 2017
  3. Northside Burger Impressions: Tickle Pickle
    -posted Sunday, February 26, 2017
  4. Reflections of a Thin Crust: A Tavola Madeira
    -posted Sunday, January 22, 2017
  5. Kitschy Country Breakfast at Apple Tree Cafe
    -posted Tuesday, January 17, 2017
Ratings Legend
four stars = Outstanding
three stars = Good
two stars = Fair
one star = Poor
  • From Tabitha about Tickle Pickle:
    Haha, love your comment: " If you were deemed "different" in high school, dressed "weird" or regularly got beat up only to go on to have a decidedly higher net worth and confidence level than the rest of your abusive, judgmental peers, Northside is your home away from home." I know I saw a Groupon for Tickle Pickle recently - might have to check if that's still available!
    posted: Fri., Apr 14th, 2017 @ 12:33 PM
  • From Tabitha about Chilango Fresh Mexican:
    This is definitely going on the list. Thanks for posting. Do they also have margaritas?
    posted: Fri., Apr 14th, 2017 @ 12:23 PM
  • From holly may about Urban Grill on Main:
    This is Israeli couscous, the super tiny stuff is Moroccan. I personally prefer the Israeli (also known as "pearl".)
    posted: Fri., Mar 24th, 2017 @ 4:28 AM
  • From Sommer about Chilango Fresh Mexican:
    We really love having Chilango so close to us in the Kings area!!! We have gone a few times and you are right - the Chicken Tinga is the best chicken taco you can get in Cincinnati!!! Thanks for reviewing this little neighborhood gem!
    posted: Tue., Mar 21st, 2017 @ 9:12 AM
  • From Tabitha about Lalo:
    But...do they have margaritas?
    posted: Thu., Jan 12th, 2017 @ 12:32 PM
  • From Cincinnati Bites about Swad Indian:
    @MJ: I heard family members of those who'd run Dusmesh now work out of the former Amol India in Clifton. It's called, Grill of India (http://grillofindiaoh.com/).
    posted: Thu., Dec 29th, 2016 @ 11:45 PM
  • From mj about Swad Indian:
    It seems Swad has changed hands. Have not see the former Dusmesh owners in my last visit (10/1/2016) and the food is just ok. Wonder where they went this time?
    posted: Wed., Dec 28th, 2016 @ 8:22 AM
  • From Rachel about Bamboo Kitchen:
    Hey there,
    I would recommend Basil Thai and Bangkok Terrace. They have wonderful Thai foods there :)
    posted: Sat., Nov 19th, 2016 @ 11:28 AM
  • From Tabitha about Maplewood Kitchen and Bar:
    Looks good - I definitely have been wanting to try this place!
    posted: Wed., Nov 9th, 2016 @ 2:55 PM
  • From Georgia about Maplewood Kitchen and Bar:
    So you order and pay at the counter before you get your food and they expect you to tip? That's not right.
    posted: Tue., Oct 25th, 2016 @ 10:19 AM
Where The Locals Eat featured blog
Cincinnati Web Design | Cincinnati Mobile Web Design