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The Vietnam War was an immeasurable debacle. Its vibrations still rattle us in complex ways, along with those from all the other explosions of history, large and small. Some are so distant in time we can only infer them from perturbations, as astronomers infer the collapse of stars. They washed a diaspora of refugees over many gunwales, including the USA’s. They took root. Their culture took root, including their culinary culture.
The first American-situated Vietnamese restaurants were humble, staffed by family, utilising many ingredients from their gardens because they weren’t available otherwise, herbs in particular. Queues of excited eaters began to form outside them. Eating this food was like regaining vision after being blind. Your optic nerve might now work, but your brain didn’t quite know how to process the images. It was a taste kaleidoscope, thrilling, daunting, revelatory.
At a time when the finest grocery stores only stocked curly parsley, folks began tasting varieties of basil and mint, coriadner, galangal, lemongrass and, like blasting caps, birds-eye chilli. Flavours and flavour combinations, textures, foodstuffs never before imagined appeared: a sauce made from fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, chilli, sugar. A sauce from peanut butter, coconut milk, palm sugar. Lemongrass-lashed beef, charcoal-grilled before you, wrapped in moistened rice paper with herbs and rice noodles and dipped into one of those sauces. A whole duck swaddled in sugar-cane splints, tied, roasted. Sausages of pork, crab, peanut, coconut milk, fish sauce, curry paste. Chemosensory neurons fired that no one knew they had.
Nourished by the tears and toil of these immigrants, Vietnamese cuisine grew in the culinary soil of different nations. Now there is a thriving ecosystem of Vietnamese restaurants and appendages worldwide. There’s high-end Vietnamese. There are Vietnamese restaurant conglomerates. There’s Vietnamese-Cajun. Vietnamese fusion. There are phở joints. Bánh mì shops. There are non-Vietnamese restaurants riffing Vietnamese dishes, such as rice-paper rolls made with smoked salmon or lobster or foie gras. There are sriracha magnates. Fish sauce tycoons. There are Vietnamese ingredient sections at mainstream supermarkets. Anthony Bourdain ate bún chả with Barack Obama.
Saigon Etoile in Hong Kong (the original is in Paris), started by Mrs Ngoc Anh, has chosen a refreshing niche for itself in the Vietnamese culinary schema: simplicity. It offers a small selection of Vietnamese street foods that are thoughtfully presented.
Phở is to Vietnamese as porridge to Dickens – “Please, sir, I want some more.” Long-simmered beef, beef bones, herbs make the broth. Rice noodles, various forms of beef and herbs are added. Fresh lime, chopped birds-eye chilli and herbs (and hoisin and fish sauces) are typically served alongside so that customers can add to their taste. As with ramen, there is a hierarchy of phở, with some restaurants making their fortune on the genius of their particular formula or the sourcing of their beef (Wagyu, for instance). In rural California, you once encountered a Vietnamese restaurant that made its phở based on goat. One restaurant in Hong Kong, Chua Lam’s Pho (closed temporarily) even makes its own rice noodles, which requires an improbably large, Willy Wonkoid machine.
Saigon Etoile adds cardamom, cinnamon, aniseed, clove and coriander seed to their broth, which impart mild, aromatic flavour. Rice noodles are naturally soft, but the ones in their broth were just a tad too soft, overcooked slightly. There was a tuft of basil and lemon (not the usual lime, which you prefer) and chopped birds-eye chilli to strew over. It contained raw beef, which cooked in the hot broth, brisket and beef meatballs. This was a solid, though not transcendental, phở. You think it would have soared higher had it come with a big bowl of fresh basil, mint and sprouts, plus lime wedges for anointing. Though you don’t know for sure, you have an intuition that this is a typical street rendition of this dish, tasty, plain-spoken, gets-the-job-done.
You had bún riêu, tomato, minced crab and pork soup. To be completely blunt, you didn’t bond with it. Not listed in the menu description was pig’s blood, a coagulated hunk, for you as appetising as zombie toe. Reasonable people may disagree, but you believe it is axiomatic: if there is blood, always say so on the menu. The last thing you’d ever want is to stumble over some in your eggs Benedict. Some carnivores just prefer their blood within their meat, not separate like police evidence. You give this soup kudos for authenticity, but blood aside, it seemed barely crabby to you. The taste of shrimp paste seemed more prominent. Quite possibly your unculturated palate is the source of your discontent.
You’ve never had a finer nibble than their fried rolls (spring rolls) filled with carrot, vermicelli, mushroom, prawn, minced pork, onion. You wrapped them in lettuce, tucked in fresh mint and dipped them in a vibrant nước chấm sauce – like kippers to a cat! Likewise the fresh rolls (shrimp rice-paper rolls). They came with a low-pitched peanut sauce from crushed peanuts and coconut milk, with a scatter of caramelised shallot.
Side note: caramelised shallot is so delicious, you could eat a bowl of it alone. It’s one of the great omnipurpose, little-known condiments finally infiltrating other cuisines. Recently, The New York Times published a recipe for pasta with caramelised shallot created by Alison Roman. It’s made with bucatini, the prince of pasta, and the recipe is so popular that it has actually dented the US bucatini supply. There have been bucatini outages. The government has been forced to dip into its emergency bucatini stockpile. Google it. Make it. Be happy. If you can’t find bucatini, despair not – use fusilli lunghi, brother prince. Good prices on Amazon.
The pork bánh mì was better than the one at Chua Lam’s Pho, but you were surprised by their bread, which seemed a little stale, losing pliancy. The strands of carrot and daikon within were too mildly pickled for your taste, not giving the sharp flavour contrast you crave. The pork belly used here was quite fatty, and though it’s undoubtedly authentic, you think an upgrade would not be out of line. There are better cuts of pork that could have been used. Your experience in this realm may be dismissed, but when you make bánh mì with pork belly, you crisp it to pull out the fat and amp the flavour.
Dessert was a good, hot brownie. Why not one of the great Vietnamese desserts though?
You appreciated your 333 beer, good for a tropical clime, not commonly available. You adored their coffee made from a mix of Brazilian and Vietnamese beans that were extraordinarily flavourful. Your coffee was made in an individual drip device over a glass of condensed milk, mixed, then poured over ice. You thought it was perfecto, the best coffee drink you’ve had in all your years in Hong Kong. Also, the least expensive.
The interior is concrete, Viet graphics on the walls, baskets on the ceiling, handsome in a utilitarian, Left Bank sort of way, good for wearing a tilted beret and earnestly discussing Heidegger. Taking another slant altogether, your wife saw it as a “workaday” shop worth knowing about if you’re in the neighbourhood. There’s a chef and a greeter-server who is gracious.
Saigon Etoile is not an innovator, nor does it claim to be or seek to be. Clearly, it’s not driven to reach new culinary heights. Glory is not its mission. Go elsewhere for cheffed-up creations. Go elsewhere for particularly refined, intensified flavours. Go elsewhere for a deeper exploration of this cuisine’s branches and twigs. Its credo – expressed in its secondary title – is “Vietnamese street food,” and this it delivers quite well. Come here for solid renditions of a few standard dishes. And, no small thing, come here if you’re seeking a superb deal. The phở and bánh mì were only HK$68 each (by contrast, the phở at Chua Lam’s Pho go from HK$88 to HK$198). The fresh rolls were HK$42, the fried rolls were HK$38. Drip coffee in the glass, HK$38. Judged value for dollar, Saigon Etoile crushes.
This is not a destination restaurant, but you would certainly drop in for a comforting nosh if your tummy tapped you on the shoulder when you were nearby. Saigon Etoile dispenses good food, street style, not reaching pour les étoiles. Vibrating imperceptibly to the perturbations of history, infused with generations of indomitable spirit, Saigon Etoile fills a worthy niche.
Rating (on a scale of 0 to 5)
Ambience: 2.5 (you found it charming, your wife not as much)
Overall greatness: 2.5
Restaurants are intuitively rated within their particular realms. So Michelin restaurants, pizza places and stand-up sandwich joints are judged against like restaurants, not each other. A 5 for a high-end restaurant is not meant to be the same as a 5 for street food.
From my website, here’s how I rate food: “I believe the quality of a restaurant’s food is vastly more important than any other factor. Even if I love a restaurant’s food, I’m very conservative about giving out 4s or 5s. I reserve 4s for food that is uniformly excellent. Preponderantly excellent tends to get a lower score. 5s are for food that is stunning.”
This meal was comped.
118 Electric Road, Tin Hau, 2617 7135
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