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Review - Saigon Sisters

By Staff in Food on Nov 26, 2010 8:00PM

The dinner menu at the recently opened Saigon Sisters on Lake Street is, if nothing else, an informative vocabulary lesson in Vietnamese cuisine. We learn of op la (over-easy eggs served with an array of pork products); goi du du (papaya salad with house-made beef jerky); and banh bao (open-faced steamed buns filled with glazed pork, chicken or beef). But really, the menu is an important document, precious even—you’re being slipped the passwords to a world of dizzying flavor.

The Saigon Sisters stand at Chicago’s French Market dispenses hearty banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and spicy pho soup to the downtown lunch set. At their new sit-down restaurant, around the corner from the French Market, the chefs are presenting an inspired take on traditional Vietnamese dishes. The same tasty sandwiches are available at lunch, but come dinner, you can really explore the flavors and ingredients in creative new preparations and combinations.

Mention “bun nem la lot” with a knowing wink, and you're on your way to the fantastic betel leaf beef salad. The chefs wrap small pieces beef in betel leaves and then grill them (think Mediterranean grape leaves). They sit alongside mini pork spring rolls and grilled shrimp atop a bed of Asian slaw and rice noodles tossed in tangy, vinegary dressing. In many areas of South and Southeast Asia, Betel leaves are chewed for their breath-freshening and digestive benefits. Here they lend an herbal, medicinal contrast to the smoky the beef while keeping it moist and tender. An inspired combination.

The spring rolls are delightfully light and crispy and bring a welcome texture and crunch to a bowl of mostly slippery stuff. You’re meant to eat them with a mysterious (i.e., bland) dipping sauce that comes on the side, but we found ourselves avoiding it. What's it there for? The dish is not lacking in liquid—thanks to the sweet, pungent slaw dressing—and certainly not short on flavor. The real finishing touches are the whole mint and cilantro leaves you find tucked here and there, which bring even more freshness and fragrance to an already bright dish.

To get your chopsticks on the rich and comforting pork belly, egg and rice, ask for the pork belly, egg and rice (this one is listed in English). It combines slices of glazed pork belly, rice, Brussels sprouts and a so-called “5:10” egg. Turns out that’s the magic number for boiling an egg to perfection—five minutes, 10 seconds. The chopped Brussels sprouts, at the north end of our bowl, are sautéed in the pork belly’s juices and hit with pepper; making them a great bite on their own but even better when you mix and match them with the other ingredients. We’re talking a flavor Venn diagram, here; different ingredients can be mixed and matched as you eat for innumerable combinations of flavor.

For dessert we tried the che (pronounced “jay”), which consists of butternut squash, formed into a mousse-like rectangle, a dusting of salt and peanut crumbles, a faro chip and a squeeze of sticky-rice-and-vanilla sauce. Apart from the sauce’s texture—too much like Elmer’s glue for us—the dessert was a hit; the familiar flavors of fall, by way of Southeast Asia.

When the day comes that you desperately want the opposite of turkey and gravy, Saigon Sisters has your sweet and spicy antidote.

Saigon Sisters is located at 567 W. Lake St.; and Saigon Sisters’ sister location (couldn’t help ourselves) is located at 131 N. Clinton Street, inside the French Market.

By Roger Kamholz