This city's mortality rate for Vietnamese restaurants is high, and any eatery that serves cheap, sloppily executed Vietnamese food has a better chance of stopping traffic on Federal Boulevard with a chopstick than it does of surviving. As soon as one restaurant closes, though, another seems to spring up faster than a lotus blossom in murky water to take its place.
Enter Cafe Saigon. The Nguyen family has owned Vietnamese restaurants in several states, most recently Maryland, and their experience shows. Led by Thiet and Hien, the whole crew came to Colorado eighteen months ago and bought a former Chinese establishment in Lakewood. Although the dineresque exterior remains unchanged, don't let that scare you: The interior is a cheery vision in rose, with fresh flowers on each table and delicate pink linens.
The menu is even more enticing. Filled with the typical Asian overkill of choices--around a hundred items--the roster also includes several interestingly atypical dishes. But we found that even traditional offerings, such as the spring rolls ($2.50), were choice. The two soft rice wrappers were stuffed with crunchy fresh vegetables and accompanied by a peanut dipping sauce that was a masterful blend of sweet, spicy and nutty--but not too peanut-buttery, which is often the case. The sauce also worked well with the cha gio ($4.95), three deep-fried, crisp-shelled egg rolls filled with pork and crabmeat; the nuoc cham, a spruced-up fish sauce, that came with the appetizer was too salty and overpowered the seasonings in the meat.
Because we'd told the waiter it was our first visit to Cafe Saigon, the kitchen sent out a complimentary bowl of hot-and-sour soup ($4.95). Good thing we didn't have to pay for it: The cornstarch-thick broth had the requisite heat and plenty of bamboo shoots, tofu and black mushrooms, but it also had a weird, candylike sweetness that made it taste like spicy bubble gum. Digging around in the soup, I found a tiny piece of something red that I'm pretty sure was a maraschino cherry. Ugh.
But that was the only aberration in a meal otherwise filled with sound combinations. The bo luc lac ($8.95), or "shaken beef," featured cubed meat coated with minced garlic and flash-fried with a splash of orange liqueur (the menu had promised "Grand Marnier," but it was spelled incorrectly, so I'd had my doubts) that made the garlic wonderfully caramelly. An order of muc nhoi thit ($8.95) brought seven decapitated squid engorged with ground pork and crabmeat and swimming in a sauce of tomatoes and pineapple touched with red-chile flakes. The combination smacked of experimentation, something I've rarely encountered in Vietnamese restaurants. And I'd welcome more of it if the experiment resulted in something as good as the surprising sauce that came with the chim cut ro ti ($8.95), marinated roast quail covered in a coconut reduction. The sauce had a rich, concentrated quality I've never found in an Asian dish before--perhaps it was a long-lost legacy of the French occupation of Vietnam--and although it was wonderful on the quail, it would taste as good on almost anything.
But the kitchen didn't lavish all its attention on the more sophisticated fare. Even the confusingly named bun bo ($4.95), a simple beef bowl (bun bo usually refers to a type of noodle soup, but this was a noodle bowl), boasted an exquisitely sweet marinade on the grilled beef and onions.
Cafe Saigon's a keeper.
At Co-Do Hue, the owners would do better to concentrate more on the food and less on the decor. Hue Minh Truong and his family opened an Asian furniture store and a bargain shop filled with one-dollar items a year ago; two months ago they added Co-Do to the same complex. They're obviously serious about the restaurant, because they commissioned someone to paint the most elaborate wall murals I've ever seen. One wall depicts the French-built Trang Tien, a bridge crossing the Perfume River, which runs through Hue; others show a royal building--Co-Do means "old capital"--where a king and queen might reside, and gardens lined with plywood cutouts of trees. Near the door stands an intricately painted gong, and the tables and chairs are made of black laquered wood.
Amid all that attention to detail, Co-Do's twenty-item menu seems surprisingly sparse. It includes noodle and rice dishes as well as four types of pho and three of bun bo. The latter dish originated in Vietnam's Hue region, where Truong is from, and it's supposed to be Co-Do's specialty. But there was nothing very special about the bun bo Hue dac biet ($5.50). I'd anticipated beef broth made pungent by judicious seasoning and lengthy cooking, but the kitchen had apparently given this soup short shrift. Not that I could really blame the owners for taking shortcuts; the two times I've visited Co-Do the place has been almost empty, and it wouldn't make sense to spend eight hours cooking down beef bones to make a soup that no one orders.
Unless, that is, you want the few customers you do draw in to return--which we wouldn't on the basis of the bun bo. Along with rice vermicelli, this version contained pork hocks, rolls and blood, as well as beef shank and tendon. Had the soup been cooked longer, these lowly animal parts might have combined into something wonderful. As it was, the elements remained separate. But at least they were tender--especially the beef shank--and the pork blood was tasty all on its own. (This was my first encounter with it in cake form, as opposed to the powder or liquid in blood sausage or duck's-blood soup, and my ordering it caused the owner's wife to come out of the kitchen to give me the once-over.)
The other soup we tried was tamer but also suffered from hasty assemblage. Too much star anise made the weak broth of the pho bo vien gio lua ($5) overly sweet, and the meat balls and pork rolls swimming in it had all the appeal of sponges. The noodle and rice dishes--the best of the batch was com thit heo nuong cha gio ($5.50), a mess of pork served over jasmine rice--at least had the marinade on the grilled meats to pump up the flavor. Unfortunately, some of the meats seemed to have been cooked earlier and reheated in the microwave--they were slightly dried out and chewy around the edges, which rarely happens with the Vietnamese style of grilling. The shrimp in the bun thit nuong dac biet ($6.50) was greasy with pig fat, and the beef and pork were a tad dry. A similar dish minus the shrimp and pork but with no fewer words in its name, bun thit bo nuong cha gio ($5.50), contained more of the same dry beef.
The best part of our meal was the two egg rolls included with most entrees. Filled with fresh vegetables and ground pork, they'd been fried to a nice, nongreasy consistency. Too bad that when ordered separately ($4.95 for six), the egg rolls came with a strange nuoc cham whose unappetizing taste we never could identify. A beguiling peanut sauce, on the other hand, arrived with the spring rolls ($2.50 for four), which looked as if they'd been put together in the dark. The wrappings were so loose they started to fall apart as soon as we bit into them, revealing some pork and shrimp, some mint, a few skinny vegetables and a lot of rice noodles inside. In a way, they exemplified the sense we got at Co-Do of people scrambling to pull things together.
For a restaurant to survive, its food must taste at least as good as the place looks. Otherwise, there's always another restaurant waiting to fill the gap.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.