I was taken to a relatively hidden gem this week, in a place I wouldn’t otherwise go. On the third floor of In77 on the southeast corner of Yan’an and Pinghai Roads, there’s a brightly lit Vietnamese coffee, noodle, and sandwich joint that’s absolutely worth a couple escalator rides. As I was eating I posted a few pictures to my WeChat and found that my Shanghai friends had already had Saigon Mama on their radar for a few years, and they gave me a few pointers on their own preferred orders. I had a great time here, particularly given that I find Vietnamese carbs a lot easier to justify to myself.
I started with a classic Vietnamese drip coffee—if you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s very much its own very special kind of coffee with a unique history dating back to 1857 with its own special brewing methods and styles—brewed over sweetened condensed milk, stirred and then poured over ice. This (at 35RMB) hit the spot and set the stage for all the stuff to come.
Now, I know, you know, if you’re thinking Vietnamese food you’re thinking pho (or phở if you’re snooty) and banh mi (bánh mì!) and I’LL GET TO THAT but first let me talk about the appetizers. First, I’m a huge fan of fishcake, I’ve loved it ever since I first had it in 2011 in Korea and I’ve generally been underwhelmed in China. Saigon Mama’s Cuttlefish Cakes (48RMB) are excellent and are exactly what I’ve been missing all these years. I also enjoyed a fantastically light and flavorful Pomelo Salad (58RMB) with a little weight added in with some meaty shrimp and crushed peanuts.
My favorite appetizer was the Egg Rolls (45RMB), which in American parlance we’d call spring rolls, with a light and crispy skin. Beyond simply being Very Good Snacks, these were excellent delivery mechanisms for all the sauces that accompanied the stuff we’d been brought, in addition to the never overrated Sriracha—literally amazing on anything except maybe the human eyeball—they had a very hot home-brewed sauce that I couldn’t get enough of.
Pho pho pho, we had many bowls, starting with their Classic (58RMB), a fantastic entry point into Viet-cuisine; Saigon Mama starts with an excellent broth and decks it out with beef brisket and meatballs. Like Chinese soups, the broth is the real treasure that I feel a lot of fresh-off-the-boat westerners might fail to appreciate; use the spoon they give you, sip it up, it’s fantastic. As I was eating this, one of my Shanghai friends informed me that it’s even better with raw beef (+15RMB) which I dutifully tried and it’s absolutely a perfect add, cooked in the broth just as you’re waiting for it to cool down enough to enjoy.
We also enjoyed their Seafood Noodle (68RMB), and I have to warn you this is EXTREMELY fishy in a way that I appreciated deeply. This is a love letter to seafood aficionados with layers on layers of oceanic flavors packed in to one bowl. The other extremely flavorful noodle dish they had us try is the Bun bo Hue (58RMB, 68RMB for the classic with extra meaty bits!), a spicy, salty, umami-ey noodle and meat soup with brisket, pork knuckle, and meatballs. I highly recommend this for these wet and cold winter months. This is comfort food that you need to try. I’m emphasizing the meat for these dishes but it goes without saying that these soups are all decked out in some fantastic herbs and spices, from cilantro to basil to mint to chili peppers to lemongrass.
They saved us the Banh Mi (we had the Grilled Pork version, 55RMB) for last. I love pâté, I love French bread, and as such the banh mi is one of my favorite sandwiches in the world. They do an excellent job with the sandwich, mixing the lightness of the pickled veggies and herbs with the denser pâté and pork. The bread is baked in the morning so for the best and freshest banh mi, make this your brunch or lunch.
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