Restaurant Review: Saigon Social on the Lower East Side

Order the banh beo chen at the Vietnamese restaurant in downtown Saigon Social and six will show up, arranged in a circle around a dish of seasoned fish sauce. It is as it should be. Like Mormon missionaries, banh beo chen never travel alone. Typically, each of these soft disks of steamed rice flour is the size of an oyster, and a single banh beo would be about as satisfying as a single bluepoint. We are not a portion. Six is ​​a good start.

Of course, you’re not just repelling cooked rice flour. Saigon Social sprinkles each small banh beo chen with fresh and powdered shrimp, fried shallots, green onion oil, golden pork bacon cubes and chewy shards of steamed mung bean. Using a small dessert spoon, a fish sauce made spiced with fresh bird’s eye peppers is poured onto a banh beo before slipping it into the mouth. The flavors are typically Vietnamese, but they are fleeting. The first banh beo was gone in an instant. You still have five more and, if you’ve planned well, no one to share them with.

Banh beo chen is from Hue, once the residence of the emperors of the Nguyen dynasty. It is sometimes said that the dish embodies the refinement of this city. Its particular brand of delicacy doesn’t seem to fit naturally with the eating habits of the Lower East Side, where Saigon Social presents a full menu after more than two years of stops, starts and postponed ambitions.

For much of that time, Helen Nguyen, the owner and chef, handled take-out orders sold through a window on Orchard Street. This is how I first encountered Saigon Social, on a cold autumn night in 2020, when the dining room was still closed for the pandemic. I remember carrying my packed dinner from the window to one of the tables along Stanton Street. I hadn’t seen the Lower East Side this empty since the 1980s, and winter was approaching. There was no indication on Mrs. Nguyen’s menu that her ambitions were for something as delicate as banh beo, not the easiest dish to put in a box.

The magnitude of what she had in mind was not apparent until this March, when she first opened up the entire dining room. The cramped space is crisp and contemporary, with tables lined up against a wall of windows and a small bar facing the kitchen, though no one seems to sit there. At the far end of the room is a cartoon-style mural of the square in front of Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh City. From some tables, the Vietnamese street scene can seem to merge with the view of Arlene’s grocery store across the street.

The cars and clothes in the mural suggest that the city was then still called Saigon. You might see there, and in the name of the restaurant itself, an exile’s look back at a world left behind. Ms. Nguyen, born in California, is not an exile herself, but her mother and father both fled Vietnam for the United States, and it was with them that Ms. Nguyen learned the flavors of their first country.

Saigon Social is, at its best, a celebration of Vietnamese cuisine done the traditional way. Banh tet chien, sticky rice cakes usually prepared for the Lunar New Year, would be welcome every month when they are as good as Ms Nguyen’s. Crispy and soft at the same time, they hold in their center mung beans and a nugget of marinated pork belly which has more or less become one with the rice.

Maitake mushrooms replace the usual pork with a meatless version of steamed rice rolls called banh cuon nam; combined with tree ears, maitakes make a deeply flavorful filling for thin, transparent sheets of rice flour.

These bulk packets are wonderful to eat with a few mint and cilantro leaves, a crispy slice of fried shallot and a nuoc cham dip. The same goes for nem cua be, minced crab, prawns and pork wrapped with vermicelli inside well-wrapped packets of fried rice paper.

These nem cua reappear, to magnificent effect, in the restaurant’s star main course, the three-course pork extravaganza called bun cha Hanoi. Sweet, charred chunks of grilled pork and tender sausage patties wrapped in betel leaves are dipped into a soup-like bowl of hot liquid. It’s simply sweet vinegar heated with fish sauce; his job is to season the pork and keep it warm while you think about how you’re going to tackle it all. Lettuce wraps are probably your best route; how to get there is up to you, but can include dipping vermicelli in the broth and using the pickles that float alongside the sausages for free.

Saigon Social’s cuisine is most appealing when it’s purely Vietnamese. An open-faced turmeric pancake topped with salmon, octopus and sea urchin roe struck me as an uninspired game for the united crowd. And while there may be a zoning rule requiring every chef on the Lower East Side to sell a burger and a fried chicken sandwich, I wish Ms. Nguyen had resisted. There’s nothing wrong with the burger, which is dressed like a banh mi, but there are more rewarding things on the menu.

Lately, when anxiety gets to me, I find myself wishing I could distract myself with a bowl of Mrs. Nguyen’s garlic noodles, swirled with black pepper and butter. Normally the noodles are made with prawns, although the particular bowl that I found so therapeutic had a fried soft shell crab instead.

Again, the bun rieu from Saigon Social would also do the trick. This noodle soup is as full of snacks as a sixth grader’s lunch box: whole shrimp, spongy cubes of fried tofu, slices of cold-cut pork most often pressed into a banh mi, then a fluffy pink cloud of a pork meatball. , crab and shrimp. It’s all kept warm by a tomato-fortified chicken broth with a blast of shrimp paste.

An extra dab of shrimp paste awaits in a small condiment dish, to be used in case the broth isn’t strong enough. Few things clear the mind like a good whiff of shrimp paste.

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