In a town where most ethnic restaurants are average looking Chinese diners and Cuban cafeterias, finding more exotic cuisine can be difficult. So, when I learned that North Naples was home to a well-regarded Vietnamese restaurant I was ready to give it a try. A few hundred feet south of Wiggins Pass Road, Noodle Saigon sits in a strip mall on the east side of Tamiami Trail.
My dining companion and I arrive at the restaurant a little after one o’clock on a stormy Monday afternoon. As we walk into the dining room we are pleasantly surprised: the dark tile floors give the room a modern and sleek look, and create a nice contrast with the immaculate white walls. On our table a trio of Vietnamese sauces immediately makes my mouth water; along with the typical bottle of soy sauce are two of my favorite Asian sauces: hoisin, a velvety plum sauce, and Sriracha, an extremely hot, not-for-the-faint-hearted chili sauce from Thailand.
Anticipating some spicy food we order a couple of Vietnamese beers, Import 33s, and start browsing the diverse menu. Appetizers are an interesting mix of vegetarian dishes, seafood cakes and rolls and meat based plates. We bypass the goi chay (cucumber and tofu salad) and decide to start our meal with steamed rice crepes with Vietnamese ham ($9.50). Neither of us has heard of the dish, but it sounds intriguing, and there’s something about a crepe I just can’t resist.
When our appetizer arrives we find ourselves facing a humongous platter: the crepes are on the bottom, topped with thick slices of ham and paper thin slices of fried onions, and served with various toppings like bean sprouts, julienne cut cucumber, scallions and chopped basil leaves. The dish comes with a special fish sauce, its consistency more broth-like than creamy. To my relief it tastes spicy and not too fishy. The steamed rice crepes turn out to rather bland when eaten alone, but soaked in the tangy fish sauce and accompanied by a salty piece of ham and some chopped basil they become an incredibly yummy snack.
After polishing off our appetizer we return to the menu to pick our entrees. There are four kinds of main dishes at Noodle Saigon: the house specialties (more than twenty stir fried dishes), rice noodle salad bowls, traditional Pho soup bowls and rice plates, all of which add up to a grand total of more than 80 different items. A few selections catch my eye: fish simmered in caramel sauce ($14.95), lemon grass flavored beef soup with roasted beef ($10.50) and crispy egg noodles with chicken and mixed vegetables ($12.50). The Italian in me makes me opt for the noodle dish, while my dining companion orders the Vietnamese chicken curry ($9.50), wondering how different it will be from its Indian and Thai cousins.
Our dishes arrive promptly, piping hot and looking good. My noodles are a food sculpture, the kind of picture perfect plate you might see in a cooking magazine. The fried noodles form a crispy pedestal for a mound of stir fried chicken, broccoli, asparagus, bell peppers and carrots, all of which are topped with a generous sprinkle of chopped scallions and basil. As my grandma would have said, it’s almost too pretty to be eaten. But I’m hungry, so I dig into the delicious pile of food. The crispy egg noodles compliment the tenderness of the vegetables, and progressively get softer as they absorb the spicy brown sauce that infuses the whole dish with a very spicy and distinct flavor. Every element is perfectly balanced: crispy and tender, sweet and spicy, all work together to create a meal that is somehow both filling and light at the same time.
My dinner guest seems equally enthusiastic about his Vietnamese chicken curry. He points out that this version is different from the usual Thai and Indian curries. The lack of coconut milk means it’s less sweet and heavy than Thai curries, and it also isn’t as spicy as the Indian version.
“You can really taste the curry,” he says approvingly.
The vegetables, a medley of zucchini, carrots and broccoli, are crispier than usual and taste as if they have been stir fried separately and then mixed with the chicken concoction.
“I like that. It gives you the option to munch on something fresh that doesn’t taste as strong as the curry,” he says.
When our check comes I see that, as usual, we could have managed to keep it around $30 if it weren’t for the beer: without alcohol our bill is $31.50, not including gratuity, but my dish was so huge that I’m taking home more than half of it. We walk out of the restaurant full and happy, and we’re greeted by a muggy almost palpable humidity. For a second, I feel as if I’d really traveled to Saigon on a hot summer day.