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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


Food Jaunts
Posted: 2011-07-23 14:41:37
I just drove by this place and noticed it was no longer Sake Bomb and switched to Saigon. I thought Sake Bomb was decent but couldn't compete with all of the other sushi offerings around (although it seems that Dancing Wasabi is taking over), I wonder if Saigon will suffer the same fate? I'll have to try it but it's hard with all of the other tasty Vietnamese offerings.

The Salted Lemon
Posted: 2011-07-24 10:32:40
Saigon Cafe is owned by the same family as Vietnam Kitchen- and anyone from Louisville can tell you that Vietnam Kitchen is the the most fresh, flavorful, and downright the best Vietnamese food in the area. In spite of this review, I'm looking forward to trying the Hyde Park location!

Posted: 2011-07-24 17:35:31
Doesn't sound like you hated it, CB, just sounds like maybe they need to keep some Sriracha sauce on the table?

Visually, the food looks pretty yummy.

Cincinnati Bites
Posted: 2011-07-24 23:42:38
@Tina: Right, we didn't hate it at all. Just a bit bland and the food was lukewarm. It all looked good, though, so high marks there. We're giving them the benefit of the doubt since they're new.

Sriracha sauce might have helped; places like Cilantro, Chopsticks and Pho Lang Thang keep a bottle on the table, as you said.

Daniel Bracken
Posted: 2011-08-28 12:38:17
Sorry that you are confused with the wonders of vietnamese food. In the years past I promoted the taste when my family owned Song Phoung. We were better known in New York city then here, many of the broad way people would come to us after there shows. The owners at Saigon cafe are young and bright give them time. Sriracha always helps.

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