1098 Elmwood Ave,, Buffalo, NY 14222
Web: Saigon Cafe
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Buffalo Thai Vietnamese
"There are times when the menu actually seems more like the one at Amherst's Saigon Bangkok than the pared-down one in Williamsville; this is definitely a good thing."
Thank you, reader Amanda, for your simultaneously nice and thought-provoking comment: "if not for you, I never would have ventured out of the city to try sushi at Fuji Grill." Amazing as it is, there still seems to be a divide between city dwellers and suburbanites, so it's possible that when someone in Buffalo thinks "Vietnamese food," they might only believe they have a single option - Saigon Cafe on Elmwood. Up until very recently, Saigon Cafe was run by the folks behind Amherst's Saigon Bangkok, who apparently divested this place around the time the Williamsville location opened. This common ancestry explains why the menus have a lot in common, and hints at why some of the items taste the same, while others don't. For the time being, we're not sure that we'd call the Buffalo location the equal of either of its suburban cousins, but we're reserving final judgment for another day.
Like Wasabi, Globe Market, Pano's, and any number of other restaurants on the Elmwood strip, Saigon Cafe offers indoor seating with an option for outdoor exposure during cooperative months. The interior's bright, clean, and modern - both big and nice by Elmwood Asian standards - with patio seating that's only a little cramped and highly similar in swirled metallic tabling to the Japanese Wasabi down the street. Soups and appetizers are generally in the $4-$5 range, with entree-sized salads in the $11-$12 range, and most entrees ranging from $10-$15. Fans of Saigon Bangkok will recognize plenty of familiar menu options, including the Dancing Seafood, the Mi Xao Don, the numerous Bun vermicelli dishes, and the decidedly Thai options such as satay, Tom Yum soups, and variously colored curries, many of which we've covered in prior reviews. There are times when the menu actually seems more like the one at Amherst's Saigon Bangkok than the pared-down one in Williamsville; this is definitely a good thing. You certainly won't lack for options, and a six-item daily specials menu offered other picks that all sounded interesting.
We grabbed one of them, the Lobster Wonton Soup ($6), on the strength of the word "lobster" alone. Our server told us to expect that the broth would be made with bits of lobster meat, so we excitedly awaited what we'd expected would be a fairly dense, thick soup with wontons floating inside. Wrong: the broth was almost watery, as plain jane as could be, and though the wontons were light, they tasted only vaguely of seafood. If it hadn't been for the crispy shallot bits that were floating in the bowl, this would have been completely forgettable; we actually regretted having ordered it.
That was in part because we actually enjoyed another item, the Tom Yum Goong soup ($3.75), which was served more or less identically to the excellent Saigon Bangkok version. Loaded with Shittake mushroom slices, this bright red, spicy bowl of soup also contained scallion slices and four or five reasonably sized pieces of shrimp, all of which we really liked, though the broth is really the highlight: richer and stronger in spice than one would expect from its almost thin body, the Tom Yum is one of those soups that either hooks you for life or leaves you sputtering from the chili. As spice fans, we're hooked, and Saigon Cafe's version is really good.
Other items we ordered were a mix of okay to good. Two people in our group of four went with a Thai favorite, the Yum Nua salad ($9), which we've had a hundred times at different restaurants and enjoyed at almost every one. For the unfamiliar, Yum Nua is also known as the "spicy beef" salad, owing to its chili peppered lime juice dressing, heavy red onion content, and copious quantities of grilled beef, all served at room temperature with lettuce, cucumber, and scallions. It's almost always oddly refreshing, mixing little doses of sweet, char, spice, and sour, and there are places like Jasmine Thai that have it down to a science.
One of us ordered Saigon Cafe's version rare, and another well done, but due to a preparation error, we wound up with one done medium - acknowledged up front by our server as an error, and soon thereafter replaced with a rare version without us needing to ask. This gave us the unusual opportunity to sample the same salad cooked three different ways, all of them fine, but none of them great; the sauce was too sweet, and neither sour nor spicy enough to quite get the recipe right. But we realized that the preparation of the beef was really in the eye of the beholder; every version had its own advantage, the well done version adding extra char and chew, while the rare version had the beefiest flavor, and medium was not surprisingly right inbetween.
Another beef item we ordered, the Beef Satay ($5), was basically passable. There was nothing wrong with the quality of the beef, which had been sliced into thin filets and char-broiled with a light Thai herb marinade, but neither the marinade nor the included dish of peanut sauce was anything to write home about: the flavors were just too light given the power of the original dish, and we actually had trouble getting people at the table to share the two pieces. A member of our group also ordered the Thai Garden, a steamed vegetarian dish served with similar peanut sauce, and shrugged it off as fine but bland; apart from the sauce, we'd blame this more on the inherent nature of the dish than the preparation, though.
Last but not least was the Shrimp Vermicelli ($10), more commonly known as Bun (pronounced boon), another room temperature dish that we've loved for years - particularly in summer. We ordered this one out of curiosity, as we've been having trouble finding a really good bowl of Bun in Western New York over the past year; places such as Saigon Bangkok have for whatever reason switched from the traditional ultra-thin rice vermicelli noodles to thicker, less tasty ones that are closer to a rice version of spaghetti, and we've been quite unhappy about the change. Saigon Cafe uses the same thicker noodles, along with a mix of red and white onions, bean sprouts, cucumbers, lettuce, and shrimp. The sauce, typically a pungent Vietnamese fish sauce called nuoc cham mixed with chili and a little sugar, was again too sweet and not deep enough, but the other ingredients were attractively presented and filling.
All in all, we're not quite sure what to make of Saigon Cafe yet, and intend to pay it another visit to make up our minds about where it sits in the Western New York spectrum of Vietnamese restaurants. For the moment, places such as the Amherst location of Saigon Bangkok and the edge-of-Buffalo 99 Fast Food Restaurant have a little more appeal from our perspective, but we're going to remain open-minded until we've had a chance to sample more of the menu. Hopefully, there's a diamond here just waiting to be discovered.