When restaurateurs look abroad for inspiration for new culinary concepts, you’ll rarely see the fruits of their labour echoing the seedy underbelly of destinations that don’t make it onto holiday postcards. Regrettably, it's often the charm and flavours of the unsavoury and unembellished locales that stick with you the most when you try to remember the taste of that mind-blowing kebab on a darkened Vienna street corner, the ambience of that smoky izakaya in Shibuya, even that unbeatable roti prata from a local eatery that makes you forget about the peeling paint and hungry rodents waiting to have a go at your crumbs.
It's these seemingly unremarkable details that captured the minds behind Vietnamese restaurant Saigon Alley. While anyone with a smidgen of knowledge on world history can tell you that the country’s capital is now named Ho Chi Minh, the Novena Gardens eatery seeks to take diners back to a time when Vietnam wouldn't exactly be on your bucket list. Decorated with glowing neon lights, images of American soldiers in the Vietnam War, and an era-defining soundtrack that may as well have been taken straight out of Apocalypse Now, guests are teleported to a post-siege Saigon that greets the senses with an air of authenticity and nostalgia (minus the mortars).
Like its multifarious aesthetic (the graffiti octopus is a remnant of its neighbour, Nickeldime Drafthouse, in case you were wondering), the minds behind Saigon Alley aren’t afraid to put some twists and turns in its menu. Where some menu items respect the ingredients and origins of national dishes, others adopt an American interpretation of their preparation, marrying the East-meets-West narrative that makes up the eatery’s war era-inspired illusion. For example, the Lot Leaf Beef Rolls ($10), or bo la lot, stays true to the Vietnamese favourite, with fragrant betel leaf adding a bitter edge to the rolls of seasoned ground beef. On the other hand, the Crab Spring Rolls ($8) are clearly a Vietnamese-American creation – but unlike the deep-fried snacks that you may ordinarily pass up at an uninspired Chinese restaurant, here they are light, crispy and indulgent, and well worth starting with. Other light appetisers include the Northern Vietnamese Beef Salad ($12), a generous portion of greens and thinly sliced rib eye beef that packs a fiery punch (not for the faint of heart).
Saigon Alley executes its mains just as adeptly, boasting a range of proteins that flood the senses with bold flavours. The Braised Pork Belly with Lemongrass Marinade ($12) melts in the mouth with the combination of tamarind, coconut juice and fish sauce, forming a tantalising soupy base that’ll have you asking for a side of white rice to enjoy with. Likewise, the Roasted Chicken with Vietnamese Fish Sauce ($12) is a surefire winner, pan-roasted to tender, juicy perfection. But a word of warning: preparation takes 30 minutes, so add this to your order early.
Of course, any claim of authenticity will ultimately hinge on the eatery’s ability to produce a satisfying pho. A dish of constant contention that recently fell victim to a controversial case of “Columbusing”, it seems that a decent bowl of pho doesn’t necessitate an endorsement of legitimacy. While the jury is out on how the noodles are best enjoyed, we can testify that Saigon Alley’s iteration, the Spicy Australian Sliced Beef Noodles (Hue Style) ($14), is one that certainly won’t leave you longing. While similar to traditional pho beef noodle soup, bun bo hue features the addition of fermented shrimp paste and a distinctive cut of noodles, adopting the method of preparation from the Vietnamese city of Hue. While we’re not qualified to identify the minute differences, we can say that the spicy broth, tender slices of lean beef, and rice noodles with just the right chewiness hit all the right notes. And for those who favour sandwiches over soups, the Saigon Alley Banh Mi (with pork) ($9) knocks it out of the park, with a bread roll made in-house and creamy chicken liver paté to offer a satisfying meal suited to any time of the day.
273 Thomson Road, Novena Gardens. Tel: 6256-0261. For more info, visit facebook.com/saigonalleysg.
Text Trent Davis
Images Saigon Alley