When New Saigon opened on South Federal Boulevard in 1982, it was only the second Vietnamese restaurant in Denver. Refugees fleeing the Communist regime in Vietnam were just beginning to settle in Denver at the time, forming the basis of the vibrant community that exists today. New Saigon became a hub of that community, especially after Ha Pham and her husband, Thai Nguyen, bought the place in 1987. Pham took over the kitchen, installing her own recipes on the menu, while Nguyen took care of the front of the house.
Twenty-five years later, their daughters, who were raised in the restaurant, took over the space next door and opened New Saigon Bakery & Deli, where they provide Denver with the kinds of snacks you find on bustling Vietnamese streets. We recently spoke with two of those daughters, An and Thoa (pronounced “Twah”), about the nuances of Vietnamese cuisine, what makes a perfect banh mi sandwich, and why authenticity is more fluid than we might imagine.
Westword: Tell me a bit about the history of New Saigon. How did your family come to own it?
An Nguyen: New Saigon has been here since 1982. It was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants here, after T-Wa Inn. My mom was a cook at New Saigon under different ownership, and she took over in 1987. My family has been running the restaurant for over 25 years; my mom runs the back and my dad runs the front. They came over here to escape the Communists; they were refugees chasing the American dream. This opportunity opened up, and that’s how they took over. The restaurant is their blood, sweat and tears. They had five daughters. We grew up in that restaurant. We learned from them, and then we opened the bakery in 2012.
And how has New Saigon evolved under your family’s ownership?
Thoa Nguyen: [In South Vietnam], Mom worked in the market, selling what she could. She got her cooking skills from my grandma. She came here and worked at the restaurant. The previous owner really noticed her knife skills and saw she could manage it.
An: At that time, New Saigon didn’t have a lot of recognition. Mom started making food with her own recipes, from scratch.
Thoa: But back then, ingredients were very limited. Anything exotic had to come from Vietnam. Our friends and family would travel, and we’d sell it here. The Asian markets started to pick up on that, and the markets grew with the restaurants.
So your mom is making her own recipes — are those South Vietnamese recipes?
An: They’re mostly southern, but she finds inspiration from north and central Vietnam, too. There’s a lot of southern influence.
How would you classify the different regional cuisines of Vietnam?
An: Northern food is simpler. Pho is from the north, but it’s also blander there. It’s more flavorful in Saigon. In Hue [in central Vietnam], the food is really good. It’s based mostly on spiciness.
Thoa: The north has more Chinese influence. The south is really umami and well balanced. And then the banh mi comes from the French.
An: But pickled vegetables are more Asian — the daikons and carrots on banh mi sandwiches. We like to really balance freshness. Vietnamese salads have so many different textures and flavors. Pickled vegetables add texture to the sandwich plus acidity and crunchiness; they bring the Vietnamese influence in. Vietnamese food is fresh.
Any dish at your parents’ restaurant that you love in particular?
Thoa: I would say pho, but it’s been really overplayed, so people are trying other things.
An: I love making my own rolls. Initially, New Saigon was the only restaurant selling that. Pho restaurants just sold pho. Our parents had the Saigon platter [with which you make your own rolls], and now every other store has it, too. That was my favorite dish growing up — I loved rolling up the fresh vegetables and cooking meat in a skillet. And we grew up with banh mi. That’s comfort food for us.
Thoa: My grandpa worked for the French government, so there was a lot of French influence in his house; everyone loved bread and butter.
An: Dad jokes that bread is like his dessert. You can imagine how much banh mi was involved in our lives. That’s why we opened a bakery next door.
You opened the bakery in 2012. What was the impetus?
Thoa: While I was in high school, I was actually focused on becoming a chiropractor. But then I had an epiphany: I wanted to bake. I told my parents I wanted to go to school for baking. So I went to Johnson and Wales and then to France. This bakery was in the making. My parents came up with the idea because I wanted a bakery; I couldn’t have done it by myself. The plan was to all run it together.
You offer several Vietnamese pastries here that are hard to find elsewhere in the States. Could you tell me a bit about Vietnamese dessert?
Thoa: A lot of these desserts are street food, or what’s considered street food in Vietnam.
An: We do the research. And then we cook it and say, “Mom, does this taste right?” We have the sweet sticky-rice pudding [che], made with taro and served cold with coconut milk. We changed it a bit by adding boba to it. We do jackfruit with coconut gel and coconut string.
Thoa: And a mille-crepe cake, with thirty layers of cake. It’s one of our top sellers.
You’ve put a few of your own twists on dishes here, and you’ve been forced to substitute ingredients when you can’t find a Vietnamese item here in the States. Yet you’ve also tried to represent Vietnamese food authentically. What does authenticity mean to you?
Thoa: Every household has a different version of authenticity. Authenticity includes necessary flavors and ingredients. But even food in Vietnam has changed. Sriracha is American; in Vietnam, Thai chile peppers add the spice. But over time, Vietnam picked up sriracha, and now they have their own version.
An: For me, it’s all about the ingredients. Fish sauce, for example, is a staple ingredient in our cooking. But you need the right brand: If there’s not enough anchovy, or too much sugar, you lose the authenticity. So ingredients have to be 100 percent quality. And authenticity is in the experience. We’re loud; our restaurant has a loud atmosphere. My mom came from a market, and when she worked there, success was dependent on being the loudest.
New Saigon Bakery has a reputation for its killer banh mi sandwiches. What makes a perfect banh mi sandwich?
Thoa: The bread has to have a chew, and a really thin crust on the outside. It can’t be too light.
An: And it can’t be dense.
Thoa: French baguette has a little more hard crust with big air pockets. Banh mi has a finer texture.
An: As soon as you squeeze it, you hear it. You can buy it and dip it in coffee. Here, the most popular sandwich is the grilled pork. A lot of time gets put into the grilled pork. We marinate the meat for a couple of days and grill it and cut it. There are a lot of flavors packed into the meat, which is on the sweeter side.
Thoa: It’s like teriyaki, but with more lemongrass. In Vietnam, all you smell is wood fire. Grilling is such a big part of our cuisine. Grilled pork is not easy — you have to avoid too much smokiness.
An: Then you need acidity to cut it down. That comes from the pickled daikons and carrots. Then you get butter and aioli, which adds garlicky flavor and a little pop. The freshness of cilantro. The spiciness of jalapeño [or Thai chiles, in Vietnam].
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Your family sold New Saigon with the intention of focusing on the bakery, then bought the restaurant back. What are your plans from here?
Thoa: We tried to sell the restaurant, but it didn’t work out, so we took it back. Our generation has changed. My parents have had the same employees for twenty years, and they’re starting to retire. This generation doesn’t want to work in the kitchen, so it’s hard to hire in new employees and keep the same system. But we want to expand the bakery.
An: It’s definitely in our plans to expand the bakery. We don’t know when or how — if it’s not a sister bakery, it might be another business. The restaurant is still trucking; we take it day by day. We’ll work with the community and how it’s evolving. We have a great mix of customers. People celebrate holidays, graduations and special occasions at the restaurant. That’s how it’s been for many years. We’re focusing on our kids, trying to make memories, and we want to be there.
New Saigon and New Saigon Bakery & Deli are located at 630 and 640 South Federal Boulevard. Hours for the restaurant are: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; for the bakery 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 303-936-4954 and 303-935-7859 or go to newsaigon.com .