Frustrated with the lack of restaurant options available to vegans, Tammy Nguyen decided to open a restaurant where diners could enjoy dishes free of meat, eggs and dairy.
Nguyen and his wife have been vegans for 20 years and are also raising their children as vegans, so ideas for interesting and flavorful dishes came easily.
The restaurant is Saigon Vegan. Casual and inviting, the space is simply defined: high ceilings, dark wood tables with rust-colored placemats, clusters of red, white and orange floor tiles and lots of natural light. It's a welcome retreat from the bustling traffic outside.
When it comes to the menu, Saigon Vegan is all about tofu. Soya chicken, beef, pork, squid, fish, egg - even soya goat meat - are a few of the options on hand to satisfy your meatless protein cravings.
We ease into our vegan adventure slowly, opting for spring rolls with tofu and vegetables (VND30,000 or US$1.68). Light and fresh, the dish comes with a variety of fillings: homemade tofu, mushroom and carrot slaw and fresh herbs like mint and basil. Once the ingredients are wrapped, there's a spicy soybean and chili sauce.
While vegetarian soups tend to waver on the bland side, a steaming bowl of mi tiem (noodle soup with herbs) for VND28,000 ($1.57) can easily change one’s opinion. Nguyen said the taste largely comes from the mix of cold and flu-busting Chinese herbs, but soya duck, ginger, lotus stalk, Chinese apple and radish, homemade noodle and more give this hearty soup added taste. There's a full meal to be had in mi tiem.
Feeling a bit more confident, we move on to braised caramelized "fish" in clay pot with pepper for VND35,000 ($1.96). Although the weight of the pan-fried tofu fish was slightly heavier than the real thing, the taste was dead-on. Wrapped in a seaweed "skin," one could easily be eating the catch of the day. The clay pot sauce, made from soy, garlic, onion, chopped herbs, pepper and a dash of sugar adds a rich and refined flavor.
The com tam (broken rice) comes with two variations of tofu. The first is pan-fried and flavored with barbecue sauce and the second is steamed and flavored with paprika, mushroom and vermicelli. The seasonings on both dominate the taste, making for appetizing alternatives to a straight-forward tofu. It's served with a tasty vermicelli, turnip and sesame slaw that has a nice kick to it, plus some cucumber, tomato and steamed rice.
The banh bao (steamed dumpling) for VND10,000 (56 cents) per piece is also a standout. Piping hot and incredibly fresh, a mixture of soya meat, carrots, turnips and water chestnuts is packed into a spongy exterior. They're prepared early each morning, so be sure to get a couple before they're gone.
Other notables include stir-fried noodles with tofu and vegetables (VND35,000) and steamed morning glory with lady fingers (VND20,000 or $1.12). The latter is served with a tiny dipping bowl of chao (fermented soy paste) made with creamy tofu cheese, vinegar, white wine and lots of chili. Nguyen buys his chao from local Buddhist monks, as well as tofu fish sauce, which tastes and smells just like the real thing.
For dessert, Nguyen serves up tofu with ice and ginger sugar (VND10,000).
There’s no need to leave the little ones at home either - Saigon Vegan has a kid's menu sure to satisfy the pickiest of palates. Vegan fried spring rolls (VND35,000), shrimp chips (VND10,000) and fried rice in coconut (VND35,000) are a sampling of about 10 kid-friendly dishes to choose from.
With an extensive menu of healthy food and moderate prices, a trip to Saigon Vegan is definitely in order for both vegans and meat-eaters alike.
378/3 Vo Van Tan, District 3, Ho Chi Minh City
Tel: (08) 3834 4473
Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m.
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