My first experience with Vietnamese food was a success, and in the least likely of all places. Amidst the rolling hills of Amish farmland lies the cute, little Saigon Cafe. It reminded me of a Chinese place back home, Shanghai Bun, which is an authentic, no-frills eatery. There is not much decor to speak of, and the service can be a bit brisk, but in the end, you’re there for the food. The place was packed, with people of all ethnicities. Yes, the seemingly whitewashed Lancaster County does indeed have some diversity. A table with a generational Vietnamese family dined next to us. On the other side of the restaurant was an Indian family. There appeared to be a handful of Filipinos and then a sprinkling of those like yours truly dotted the small establishment. Everyone was here for the same thing.
The 80+ item menu will leave you spellbound. You will not know where to start. They have fried rice and noodle dishes, then the famous Pho noodle soups and stir-fries. Spice level can be made to your liking. Honestly, as someone so unfamiliar with this type of cuisine, seeing pictures on the menu definitely helped and even influenced my decision.
Appetizers were an easy one. We got an order each of summer rolls (rolled out pork skin stuffed with ham, rice noodles, lettuce, mint, and cilantro) and fried shrimp. Both were incredibly tasty, and ranging in texture. The summer rolls were soft and chewy, coming with an acidic sweet fish sauce with pickled carrots, while the shrimp was crunchy and came with a thicker tamarind sweet and sour sauce. There was a hint of coconut in the tempura breading while a sharp cilantro bite broke through the rolls. And by the way, those shrimp were the biggest I’ve ever seen in my life.
Meals were equally exciting and ranging with all kinds of flavors and textures. My Bun Tom Xao Xa Ot (sorry, I couldn’t resist— that’s lemongrass stir-fry shrimp) was beyond reproach. Eight or ten pleasantly plump shrimp were stir-fried with chili sauce, peanuts, and shallots, and placed atop rice noodles. On the side came the fresh crunch of carrots, cucumbers, lettuce, bean sprouts, pickled vegetables, cilantro, mint, and more fish sauce. The bowl was a rainbow of freshness. There was so much going on between the veggies, protein, and herbs. Your taste-buds don’t know what to do. There was the crunch of the vegetables, the savory spice of the shrimp and shallots, and finally, the soft succulence of the noodles. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say what I was eating was healthy. Between us, my friend and I split a similar dish consisting of tofu (pictured in the sidebar) while his main course was Mi Tom Kua, a shrimp, crab, and egg noodle soup. He loved it, and it looked pretty good from where I was sitting.
This was clean eating. You finish the meal stuffed, but not with an unpleasant bloating. More of a satisfied feeling knowing the food you consumed was relatively healthy…well, except for those fried shrimp. Saigon Cafe is certainly a surprise in the middle of Lancaster. The locals know about this place, but that’s probably it. If we weren’t staying at the nearby Hilton instead of our usual haunt at the Fulton Steamboat Inn, we would have never known this place existed. I am going to give them 4 out of 5 stars. For the reasons above combined with the prices (the most expensive item we ordered topped out at $11.25) makes this an affordable restaurant to pig out and not break the bank. I am now further intrigued by Vietnamese cuisine, and want to try it again sometime soon.
Saigon Cafe is located in Granite Run Square at 1575 Manheim Pike, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.