By Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
Saigon Noodle House in Avondale is a fast casual, authentic Vietnamese restaurant. It is open for lunch and dinner daily from 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
Vietnamese cuisine incorporates inexpensive ingredients synthesized into bold dishes. It has five taste elements: spicy, sour, bitter, salty, and sweet. It also includes five types of nutrients: powder, water or liquid, mineral elements, protein, and fat. And Vietnamese cooks strive to include five colors: white, green, yellow, red, and black in their dishes. The principle of yin and yang is used in Vietnamese cooking by contrasting flavors and textures as well as hot and cold. Southern Vietnam’s warm weather and fertile soils provide a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and livestock. Its shores boast an abundance of seafood. And satisfying their people’s preference for sweetness, coconut milk is also widely used in Southern Vietnamese cuisine.
Located at 3719 3rd Avenue South in Avondale, the restaurant is located in the former Bottletree Cafe building. The restaurant has its own, large parking lot beside the building, where we park just steps from the front door. As we enter we are greeted by the friendly hostess who gives us menus and says we may sit wherever we want. She also explains that we order at the bar and our food will be brought to the table. In addition to food, smoothies and teas, listed on the menu there are blackboards hanging by the cash register with lists of bombers (beer to share or not) and other beer offerings, cocktails, and wines by the glass. The L Shaped dining room has a light industrial feel. Behind the bar is a wall of blue subway tiles with draft beer tap handles taking center stage. Across from the bar the L-shaped dining room has doors and garage doors that open onto its patio. And there is a mural of Birmingham on the back wall.
Avondale’s Saigon Noodle House, part of the Fresh Hospitality Group, is the second venture for sisters Kim and Syndy Vu, whose father owned a noodle cart in South Vietnam and handed down his recipes. They opened their first Saigon Noodle House on Hwy. 280 in 2009. And just like its first location, the Avondale eatery focuses on healthy and hearty dishes made of fresh, whole ingredients and authentic chef-inspired flavors.
We select the large Pineapple Smoothie, which is golden in color, smooth, thick, and bursting with fresh pineapple flavor. It is served in a plastic cup complete with lid and straw. We also order the Blueberry Thai Basil cocktail. This pink drink arrives in a Champagne coupe with an umbrella that doubles as a toothpick to garnish fresh blueberries. Very lovely and very foo-foo, the cocktail is light, fruity, and refreshing. We start with Chicken Spring Rolls. Two tasty rolls, handmade to order, arrive wrapped in shiny rice paper filled with pieces of chicken surrounding a center of unique flavors and textures: rice noodles, lettuce, mint, Thai basil, cilantro, cucumber, pickled carrot and daikon, and chive sprig. Fish sauce is the most commonly used condiment in Vietnamese cooking. It is made from fermented raw fish, and is served with most of the Vietnamese dishes. It is served in small bowls allowing us to decide which dishes and how much to add to our entrees of Curry Coconut Soup with Gulf Shrimp, Chicken Stir Fry, and B 4. The soup comes in three sizes. And although I ordered a small bowl of the soup, the portion that arrived was very generous. With a base of house made chicken broth, the clear soup is golden, glistening, and swimming with Gulf shrimp, oodles of vermicelli noodles, Thai basil, bean sprouts, and tofu. It is light and sweet with bites of heat from the jalapenos. The Chicken Stir Fry is a generous plate of wok seared chicken and veggies in a lightly colored and lovely flavored stir fry sauce. The stir fry is plated around a bed of chilled rice noodles and lettuces. The B4 is one of Saigon’s signature dishes. Thinly sliced, marinated pork melts in the mouth and is served alongside a bed of chilled rice noodles and sliced egg rolls. The traditional egg rolls are filled with pork, vermicelli noodles, mushrooms, onions, and carrots, and are wrapped in wonton paper and fried to golden. The fish sauce is the perfect condiment to this dish, given it has no sauce of its own. And with the addition of the sauce this plate has it all: texture, color, hot, cold, protein, and starch. •