Saigon brings Vietnam tastes to Topeka

Brian Allen

When it comes to Asian cuisine in Topeka, there are Chinese eateries aplenty, but only one Vietnamese Restaurant, the Saigon, at 3200 S.W. 29th St. Housed in a redecorated Dairy Queen, the drive through has been preserved for quick meals. You can order carry out at (785) 273-8882, and there is limited delivery that extends to the Washburn campus.  There is plenty of free parking, and dining hours run 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. seven days a week.

Tom Vu, owner and chef, made quite a journey to bring his restaurant vision to Topeka. He was born in Saigon during the height of the Vietnam War, and when it fell his family decided it best to break up the family and brave life and death to give their boy a chance to escape the brutalities of the communist regime. Vu managed to get to Thailand, and after years of waiting, he was eventually sponsored by a foster family in Hays. He arrived as a 17-year-old boy, unable to speak English, with $5 in his pocket.

Today he speaks fluent English, is a United States citizen, and has been running his own place for the last two years. His wife Mary redecorated it into a pleasant little eatery. It is neat and clean, with lace curtains, a matching color scheme and tasteful touches of Asian art.

The menu reflects Tom’s background, half Chinese from his 20 years of restaurant work, and half Vietnamese, reflecting his heritage. As my dinner companion and I had never experienced Vietnamese food, we concentrated on Vu’s specialties. With one disclaimer; we tried his fried wontons. They were the best we’ve had. They had a thinner than usual skin, fried up crisp with a nice size piece of sausage within.

For our Vietnamese appetizer we had the Spring Roll, fresh shrimp, rice vermicelli, and herbs in a thin wrapper.  It was served with hoisin sauce for dipping. It is served cold and has a light fresh taste offering hearty bites of shrimp and noodles.

Mary and Tom recommended the Hu Tieu soup, a large bowl of rice noodles and chicken, the scallions and cabbage were added at the last minute so they stayed firm. We learned that they make their own beef broth from simmering a soup bone for eight hours. It was a full meal with a delicate flavor, tasty and excellent on a cool cloudy day.

Another popular dish we tried was the Bun Ga Nuong; grilled chicken with rice vermicelli, served with shredded lettuce, cucumbers, bean sprouts and peanuts. The vermicelli, similar to snow white angel hair pasta, only much lighter, is served cold with the vegetables. It’s a plentiful bowlful offered with Mouc Num sauce for seasoning. I’ve never had the famous Vietnamese fish sauce before and was surprised to find it light and savory with a mild after warmth. To me it had a salty garlic flavor, not fishy at all. The grilled chicken was tender with a hint of peanut flavor, absolutely delicious.

We have tried a few other dishes since our first introduction to the Saigon and its Vietnamese food. The common theme is light and delicate flavors, simple preparations and savory combinations. Many dishes have cold sides that add a different but delicious balance. They hold their own in the Asian food pantheon, lighter than Chinese, less spicy than Thai. If your palate is sensitive, if you appreciate delicate foods that stand on their own, if you have the slightest interest in something healthy and tasty, try the Saigon.