It's been 25 years since husband-and-wife team Thai Nguyen and Ha Pham took over New Saigon, which I reviewed last week, and in their capable hands, one of the oldest Vietnamese restaurants in the city has remained one of the best.
So I was stoked when the New Saigon Bakery & Deli opened right next door, supplementing the restaurant's menu of sauteed frog legs, hot pots and rice paper wrap platters with sandwiches, snacks and the quick-service specialties of Vietnamese cuisine.
Vietnamese bakeries are plentiful in this town, and most of them showcase such street-food favorites as banh mi, spring rolls and Vietnamese pastries.
New Saigon Bakery has taken the concept to an entirely different level, though. The operation opened a month and a half ago, with Pham and Nguyen's daughters, Thoa and Thu, in charge. Unlike the bare-bones parent restaurant, the bakery is airy, sunny and pleasant, with brand-new stone floors and counter seating. A soundtrack of piano jazz was playing the day I stopped by, and a couple of parties were slowly circling the store, discussing potential purchases.
And there was a lot to discuss. The center of the room holds dozens of bins of strange snacks available in bulk: dehydrated crabs, candied hibiscus, fiery-looking beef jerky and all kinds of candies. I resisted the urge to plunge my hand straight into them -- despite the display, these treats are not self-serve -- by making a beeline for the pastry cases that run along the edges of the space. There I examined buttery-looking croissants, strange cups of fermented rice, banana leaf-wrapped snacks, spring rolls and whole roasted ducks before finally turning my eyes to the menu on the back wall, which lists a wide range of banh mi sandwiches, fresh juices and other drinks.
I made a few quick decisions -- and amassed a meal that could have fed a group.
The bahn mi sandwich was heftier than most I've had in town, and also made with higher quality ingredients. Fat strips of savory-sweet grilled pork, julienned carrots and cucumbers, and stalks of cilantro were packed between two halves of a large, crispy homemade baguette. I followed that up with one of my favorite street eats: bahn gio, a sticky rice pyramid stuffed with pungent pork and mushrooms and then wrapped in a banana leaf. I've had better versions -- in particular, ones freshly made on the streets of Vietnam -- but this one was good, if just lukewarm in temperature.
I'd also picked up a cup of com ruou, a fermented rice drink that the woman behind the counter had said was reminiscent of red wine. She wasn't wrong, but it was more like red wine left out in the sun for a day, gaining stickiness and a stewed flavor. It wasn't awful, but I wasn't dying to finish it, either. Especially because my red bean boba, sweet and earthy and packed with both tapioca and chunks of actual red beans, was wonderful.
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I was beyond full when I finished -- the sandwich alone would have been plenty for lunch -- but I couldn't resist sampling a cream puff, since it was shaped like a swan. Although I love how French cooking influenced Vietnamese cuisine, I'll continue to get my cream puffs at a French bakery. Though beautiful, the pastry was a little soggy rather than the flaky, buttery confection I'd wanted.
Still, New Saigon Bakery is ideal for a cheap, grab-and-go lunch, and the banh mi sandwiches and boba drinks are more than enough to keep me coming back. And next time, I'll get a handful of those dehydrated crabs.