All posts by Audrey Moukattaf

Naya’s: A Piece of Lebanon in New York City

Lebanese is the one cuisine I can never tire of! Even after my holidays in Lebanon in which every family visit is accompanied by a plentiful feast, I come back craving the food. Having been spoiled with the best Lebanese food, my family and I have always struggled to find an authentic and delicious Lebanese restaurant in New York city. That is until we found Naya’s in midtown.

In celebration, I brought my friends for a well-prepared feast on Easter. Traditionally, the standard Lebanese meal at a restaurant is all about sharing. It begins with the mezze, which are small sharing platters. My family, one who loves food, usually overdoes this course and is even too full to move onto the hot dishes. Nonetheless, the meal is finished off with a platter of grilled meat and vegetables and rice with vermicelli.

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Common mezze include hummus, taboule, babaghanoush, spinach pies, fatoush (salad with pomegranate syrup and sumac), falafel, kibbe (meat and cracked wheat stuffed with spiced ground meat), sambousac (fried pastry filled with spiced ground meet), grilled haloumi cheese, among many other dishes. The variety is so expansive that a different combination of dishes can always be ordered.

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I have found it nearly impossible to not leave a meal like this full beyond belief. However, the food itself is actually quite light. Butter and cream are rarely used. Each dish usually contains a large amount of olive oil, garlic, and lemon. For the most part, dishes are prepared through grilling, baking, or sautéing. There is an abundance of vegetables, whole grains, and fruits in every meal. Fish and poultry are more often used than red meat, which when used is most commonly lamb.

Naya’s menu offers a broad representation of Lebanese cuisine. They are true to the original flavors and preparation. With the plentiful choices, there is sure to be a dish for everyone to love. Go to Naya and allow yourself the opportunity to become acquainted with the mastery of a Lebanese kitchen.

 

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Chapati House – Quick and Delicious Indian

Midterms hit me very hard this year, as I am sure they did all of you. I could barely find time to fit in enough studying, let alone go out for meals. So I turned to the ever so handy seamless. I ordered from Chapati House since the reviews were consistently positive, and they were right. The food was well-packaged, came promptly, and tasted good. I ordered the brown rice bowl with chicken tikka masala. With this dish came different toppings, out of which I chose pickled ginger, sautéed onions, diced tomato, and banana pepper, all dressed in a cooling, fresh yogurt coriander sauce. The flavors were strong and varied. Each bite satisfied a different taste: the onions were savory, the pickled ginger was tart, and the banana peppers were spicy. The chicken tikka masala was creamy with subtle hints of garlic and ginger. Overall, each bite was full of robust, delicious flavor. I was surprised by how quick they deliver, but also by how satisfying my meal was. The food did not taste overly salted, but my thirst afterwards disappointingly proved otherwise. Besides this, I will definitely be ordering from Chapati house soon. Hopefully, it is not due to finding no time to eat in the midst of exams.

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Korean BBQ

It is now time for me to find an internship for the summer and I have been scrambling to find different organizations and companies that I would want to work for. Surprisingly, I found a company in Seoul, South Korea to apply to. Of course, rather than being immediately prompted to write a cover letter and fix my resume, the first thought I had was that I had not had Korean food in a long time. And so, with this craving, I headed down to Korea town (which is essentially one road in the area of 5th avenue and 32nd street), to Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong for some Koean BBQ.

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I chose Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, because I had read an article earlier in the week about its Chef Deuki Hong who is writing a book about Korean cooking entitled Koreatown, USA to be published sometime this year. The restaurant has a very lively atmosphere and the servers are energetic and engaging. Each time a new customer enters the restaurant to be seated they chant a Korean welcome, which makes everyone smile each time without fail. Baekjeong is an example of traditional Korean barbeque, known as gogigui, which comes with a multitude of side dishes, called banchan.

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At the center of each table is a built-in grill to cook meats, which are designed to also cook egg and cheesy corn to be eaten with the meat. Surrounding the grill on the table are small side dishes containing kimchi (Korean fermented cabbage), marinated tofu, marinated fishcakes, pickled radish, candied white sweet potato, lettuce, and a green onion salad. At the restaurant I ordered the small beef combo which came with thinly sliced brisket, seasoned prime short rib, boneless short rib (to be cooked on the grill), and an option of brisket soybean paste stew or kimchi stew. The meal cost about thirty dollars per person, which is well-priced considering the large quantity and the unlimited refills of side dishes.

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Such a meal is surely an experience. There is a thrill to watching your food cook right in front of you and having such a variety that no bite has to taste the same. There is a multitude of textures (crunchy, chewy, soft, and dense) and flavors (tart, spicy, salty) throughout the meal. Baekjeong ensures good quality products, which is obvious in the taste of the food and the disposition of the customers. If you’re wondering where to take a big group for a unique dining experience, definitely consider Korean barbeque!

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Tacos in Morningside Heights

With the new taco emoji, it seemed only fitting that I scout out places to get tacos around campus. My two finds: Taqueria y Fonda and Cascabel Taqueria (both of which are on seamless). Both places have delicious tacos that are quite traditional. You will not find hard shell tacos stuffed with ground beef. As delicious as those tacos are, they are not true to the Mexican specialty. Instead, an authentic taco consists of a double-layered corn or wheat tortilla filled with a variety of fillings: seafood, chicken, pork, or vegetables. Tacos are native to Mexico and predate the arrival of the Europeans to such lands. The word tacos was used by the colonizers, at the time, to describe the indigenous food. Thus, tacos are a lasting part of Mexican history.

My favorite kinds of taco are pastor, pollo, carnitas, and chorizo. Tacos al pastor are filled with thin pork slices marinated in a combination of dried chilies, spices, and pineapple. Traditionally al pastor is cut from a spit, similar to shawarma (a Middle Mastern meat spit, usually made with lamb). It is said that Arab immigrants, especially Lebanese, brought this style of cooking meat to Mexico. Al-pastor meat is usually sweet with a spicy zing to it. Pollo tacos are filled with shredded chicken that can be marinated in a few different ways depending on the chef. Carnita tacos are filled with slow braised pieces of pork in oil. The meat is extremely tender and mildly flavored since it is not usually heavily marinated in spices. Chorizo tacos also do not incorporate many other ingredients. They are only filled with pan-fried pieces of chorizo, which is a spicy pork sausage. The basics of a taco are the same from establishment to establishment; they are just served with different toppings and sauces.

Taqueria y Fonda is a very modest setting with little seating that serves up very simple, no-frills added tacos. All tacos come topped with cilantro, tomatoes, grilled onions, a slice of lime on the side, and a choice of mild green tomatillo sauce or spicy red sauce. The only difference is the filling, of which there is a large variety (vegetarian as well).

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The tacos at Cascabel Taqueria come two or three in a serving and are more individualized than those from Taqueria y Fonda. Each kind of taco comes with its own toppings and a choice between four different sauces varying in levels of spiciness: roasted tomato, tomatillo, Diablo, and habanero. The al pastor taco is topped with grilled pineapple, sautéed onion, and avocado. The pollo taco is marinated in chipotle seasoning and served with avocado and green onion. The carnitas taco is topped with pickled red onion, roasted chili, and crispy rice. The chorizo taco is topped with onion and cilantro. The toppings for the tacos at Cascabel are more tailored to the dish and balance the flavors well, but they are not entirely necessary since, as Taqueria y Fonda proves, every taco is set topped only with cilantro, tomatoes, and grilled onions.

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The tacos at both places are equally delicious. Cascabel is more of a place to go out to since it has a lively atmosphere and plenty of seating. Their tacos are filled with more of a mix of flavors, whereas the tacos at Taqueria y Fonda do not contain a mix of ingredients, but are still very flavorful. There are only two or three tables in the entire restaurant so it is definitely a better option to order out from. These are the two best options for tacos in the vicinity of Morningside Heights, but better finds are sure to be found in Spanish Harlem, which I hope to visit soon.

Try Thai!

One of my dreams is to go to Bangkok, a known food capital of the world. I remember the first time I tried Thai food (of course I was having Pad Thai), I immediately loved the fresh flavors and the mix of savory and sweet found in each bite. I try to seek out traditional and delicious Thai restaurants, but I know none can come to close to anything I would have if I were to visit Bangkok. So hopefully one day I will be able to visit, and even write a blog on it!

Thai food is very aromatic and full of spice and flavor. Each dish usually incorporates a blend of at least three taste senses: sweet, salty, sour, spicy, and bitter. Each of the four regions of Thailand has their own kind of cuisine. Thai food also shares similarities with the cuisines of its neighboring Southeast Asian countries. In fact, many dishes in Thailand came from China, but, over time, Thai cuisine has developed its own unique flavors and preparations. Today, Thai cuisine is one of the most popular around the world.

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Thus, it is no surprise that I found an abundance of Thai restaurants while in Hell’s Kitchen. I do not at all regret my choice to go to the cozy Pure Thai Cookhouse. The delicious meal is very much worth the 15-minute wait. We began our meal with the daily steamed dumpling special. They were stuffed with chicken, crab, and shrimp. They were delicious with a firm filling that kept the taste of the shrimp and crab (the chicken helped to keep the filling together) and the dipping sauce to dip them in was even better – a salty and vinegary sauce with chili flakes to add spice. Along with the dumplings we ordered fried tofu with a peanut and tamarind dipping sauce. The tofu without the sauce lacked a bit of flavor, but the sauce with its crushed peanuts made the dish worth ordering. This dish was the only one that we ordered that was subpar, but the sauce is definitely worth asking for on the side. It has the characteristic mix of salty, sweet, and sour that is typical of many Thai dishes. Unfortunately, I did not manage to get any pictures of these two dishes, because we were to eager to begin.

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Next, we ordered wok curry paste with pork, pad see ew with beef, and ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles. Each dish had its own blend of flavors and each was better than the next. The wok curry paste with pork included a spicy sauce that was not spicy at first, but lingered and became spicier over time. It included a variety of different textured vegetables (bamboo shoot, thai eggplant, and string bean) that balanced well with the pork.

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The pad see ew was a sweet and salty compliment to the curry. The flat noodles were drenched in the brown sauce with pieces of scrambled eggs and broccoli, cauliflower, and beans. The crunchiness of the cauliflower and broccoli countered the softness and slipperiness of the noodles so that it did not become too overwhelming. Cauliflower is not often added to pad see ew dishes. It was a nice addition, but the broccoli does a better job of absorbing the sauce.

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The ratchaburi crab and pork dry noodles had the simplest flavor, mostly sweet, but were made with delicious homemade noodles. It included big pieces of crab and pork loin. It was hard to eat these together with the noodles, but all of individual pieces were so good.

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Overall the meal was absolutely delicious, and I will definitely go back to Pure Thai Cookhouse sometime soon!

 

Take Your Tastebuds to China

This past summer I was lucky enough to spend a month in China between Shanghai and Beijing. Food was a highlight of my trip, but I also loved the Chinese culture and people that I encountered. I felt so welcomed and happy there that I want to go back to continue to explore other parts of the country. China is a huge country with so many different provinces each with their own ethnic group and culture. This diversity is also translated into their cuisine. Each region of China uses different flavors and cooking methods to prepare their meals. The first week of school, I passed by the Chinese food carts on Broadway and 118th and immediately was reminded of my amazing time this past summer. Every since then, I have been wanting to try them and writing this blog presented the perfect opportunity.

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There are “eight culinary cuisines” of China: Hunan, Cantonese, Anhui, Shandong, Fujian, Szechuan, Zhejiang, and Jiangsu. The differences between them are a result of availability and accessibility to certain resources affected by climate, geography, and history. This allowed for individual cooking styles (and also lifestyles) to emerge among the Chinese in different regions. The foods of different regions of China have their own flavors and textures. But, despite the differences in the cuisines, each meal includes a staple food, which can be rice, noodles, or bun and cooking methods that rely on preservation (drying, pickling, salting, and fermentation).

I cannot admit to be an expert on each kind of Chinese cuisine, but it is only fair that I acknowledge the variety. This being said, I am sure that the food at these carts is not representative for all Chinese food, but it is more authentic than any Chinese takeout I could get. So I knew I had to try the dishes offered.

There are always long lines outside of the carts and my reluctance to wait has kept me from going in the past. However, I have learned this is not a legitimate enough reason. There is practically no waiting time once you order and the food is worth the wait. It is not difficult to notice that the majority of the people on line are foreign students from China who are probably even more nostalgic than I was for authentic version of their national food. Knowing that they are probably much more knowledgeable about what to order, I really enjoyed (and I suggest that any first timers do the same) striking up conversations with them about their favorite dish. A general consensus was that everything is good and there is such variety that many of them try different things each time they go. One girl I spoke with suggested I get a combination plate with eggs and tomato, a dish that every Chinese family makes at home according to her. So to get the full selection, I made sure to stop at a majority of the carts and order a meal from each of them. Most of the things on the menu are the same, so my tip is to go to any cart. I would say go to the one where the line is the longest since I figure that the one with the highest demand must be the best. But, this method is not always true. I asked each person I spoke to which cart was their favorite, and, to my surprise, someone told me they just go to whichever has the shortest line. So, I think it is fair to conclude that there are not huge differences in the food (certainly not in the selection, but not in the taste or freshness either). So go wherever your heart desires. Don’t let the abundance of carts and food options overwhelm you (like it did for me). Just go! They are there for you to try and you will have a good meal! Oh, and before I forget, the portions are large and the prices are amazing! College students need a break from the dining halls without breaking their bank account, and this will do the trick.

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Now, onto the feast… My menu consisted of pan-seared pork buns, a pork sandwich, a combo platter (including tomato and eggs over rice, green vegetables, and kong po chicken), another tomato and egg plate (for comparison), a wonton soup, a beef noodle soup, and soybean milk. Each dish was from a different cart, and there was not one that was bad.

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This was my first time having pan-seared buns. They have a nice crunch to the outside, but are still fluffy on the inside with a juicy filling. These are bready and some find the filling to bun ratio too small, but I enjoy the softness of the bread (which is also good to dip in soup broth). The filling of the pork sandwich was delicious, very fatty, with parsley, celery, garlic, and ginger, but the bread was a little tough in my opinion, which made it difficult to eat.

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Pork Sandwich and Pan-Seared Pork Buns

My favorite thing that I ordered was the combo platter. Tomato and egg is such a great combination. I had it many times while I was in China. It is the perfect balance of savory and sweet (sugar is added). The texture has the potential to turn some off since it can be a bit watery, but this is soaked up when it is over rice. The kong po chicken is spicy and nutty and the slight bitterness from the vegetables counters the oiliness from the chicken really well.

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Combo Platter with tomato and egg over rice, green vegetables, and Kong Po chicken

The soups do take a bit longer to make, but still not long compared to any restaurant. The broth of the soups is quite bland unless spice is added. But the filling, whether it was beef and noodles or wonton, is really good. The wontons were my least favorite. The soup was only dumplings and broth (with very little parsley garnish). All the other dishes were bursting with flavors and ingredients, but this dish was not.

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Wonton Soup
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Beef Noodle Soup

This food is quick, delicious, and cheap – the perfect trio. The only thing to be warned is that the food can be a bit greasy and salty, but as long as you prepare yourself for that, there should be no reason not to enjoy any food bought at these Chinese food carts.

Flor de Mayo

You are in for a treat this week! Flor de Mayo is one of my favorite restaurants around Columbia, located on Broadway between 100 and 101. The food is delicious and interesting. It is a Peruvian-Chinese (Chino-Latino) restaurant. These two cuisines seem be a strange mix at first, but there is a history that bridges the two. The earliest Chinese traveled to the Latin world as slaves or contracted laborers. Later, Chinese ventured to Peru in order to escape communism or anti-Chinese sentiment in their settled countries. Thus, Chinese culture and cuisine has become popular in Peru. Peru ‘s population is 5% from Asian background, which is the largest of any Latin American country.

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It was not until going to Flor de Mayo that I learned about this heterogeneous masterpiece. The dishes at Flor de Mayo do not portray a mix of Chinese and Peruvian flavors. Rather, there are Chinese and Peruvian dishes that are served alongside one another and, surprisingly, balance each other perfectly. The menu is even split in two, with one portion representing ‘Spanish Food’ and the other representing ‘Chinese Food.’

Among the Peruvian specialties is their pollo a la brasa (rotisserie chicken), which is beyond delicious. It is so simple, yet so flavorful and juicy. Their other great meat dish is the broiled pork chop, which comes out piping hot and crispy, yet moist. Both of these meat dishes are always cooked to perfection, with a golden outside, but never too dry.

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The cilantro rice compliments the chicken perfectly. The cilantro is subtle and gives the rice a refreshing taste. It is delicious to have a bite alone whilst eating all of the other abundantly flavored dishes. Another great Peruvian side dish is the plantain, which comes in sweet and green varieties. The green plantains are fried and mashed flat. They come with a pungent, garlic sauce, which goes well on everything. I love the strong garlic flavor so much that I tend to pour it over everything I serve myself.

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The Peruvian dishes on their own are enough to make anyone want to eat here, but there are other great Chinese dishes. The crispy shrimps are one of my favorites. They are shrimp cooked with the shell on (to maintain the flavor and texture) and scallions in a brown, ginger sauce. The Chinese fried rice is just like any that you could get at other restaurants, but it mixes with the food so well, that it is worth ordering .Who doesn’t like fried rice?

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These are only a few among the incredible variety that Flor de Mayo offers, and I can confidently say that the majority of their dishes are delicious, because all of the ones I have tried are! I have never had a bad meal here, and I always leave excited for the next meal I’ll enjoy at Flor de Mayo.

Divino – A new kind of gelato!

Lauren Weiss is an alumnus of Columbia whom I met at the media networking night a few weeks ago. She is currently working for Divino, a unique gelato start-up. Divino’s trademark is gelato-stuffed fruit coming in five different flavors: amalfi lemon, black diamond plum, ciaculli tangerine, roman kiwi, and apulian peach. Each of the names points to the place in Italy from where the fruit comes, in an effort to transport you to these locations when eating the gelato. Lauren was kind enough to give me her two highest recommendations, the ciaculli tangerine and the apulian peach.

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The packaging of the gelato is very nice. The colors are bright, and each fruit is placed in its own box with a spoon and a paper holder for the fruit. Once the fruit is taken out of the box, it is meant to be opened along the pre-cut lines so that you can eat out of each half. Divino is trying to put its own spin on gelato, working in competition with the many other gelato brands that have recently become popular.

Gelato means ‘ice cream’ in Italian. In Italy, there is a standard amount of butterfat that an ice cream must have to be considered gelato. However, the FDA has not issued any requirement for gelato so most frozen ice cream or sorbet treats can be considered gelato. Gelato is usually healthier than ice cream, because it often times contains fewer calories, sugar, and fat than ice cream. The Italian city of Varese is where gelato gained much of its popularity during the 1920s and 1930s. Today, it is very well known and widely loved.

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The flavors of Divino that I tried were not creamy, but very refreshing and light. They resembled sorbets, since they did not have the creaminess usually associated with gelatos. The tangerine was tangy and sweet with a slight bitter after taste, which helped to balance the sweetness. The apulian peach had a smoother texture than the tangerine, which was more icy. The flavor of the peach gelato tasted fresh, and not as if it were from concentrate. It was very sweet, for me a bit too much so, but my friends did not mind. The fun part is that the gelato is in the skin of the fruit, so you can scrape around the edge to get even more flavor. The skin of the peach can even be eaten, but, be warned, it is cold and can chill your teeth!

It was a treat to get to try these gelatos. They were both delicious and refreshing. The sizes are quite small, about the size of a small scoop of ice cream, so make sure to have your own.

International Foods of NYC: Poutine, the greasy, Canadian staple

Poutine – the ultimate comfort food.

Instead of escaping to the sunny beach, I decided to venture to chilly Montreal during spring break. It is a relaxed city with a very fun nightlife, perfect for students. A Montreal staple is poutine, French fries covered with gravy and topped with cheese curds. The gravy gives the fries a soggy texture and the cheese curds add chewiness. It’s as gluttonous as it sounds.

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Classic Poutine

A common tale about poutine’s origins tells the story of Fernand Lachance who asked for cheese curds on top of his fries, exclaiming how it would be such a mess. He called it a ‘poutine,’ which means mess in French. Gravy was later added to keep the fries warm. Eating poutine is truly a messy process so there definitely is a reason for its name.

‘Frites Alors!’ is a restaurant in Montreal that specializes in poutine, selling the classic along with several different variations. The most popular combination is the ‘Frites Alors!’ special which comes with sautéed onions, peppers, and mushrooms on top of the traditional toppings. It adds flavor to the rather bland mix. However, the lethargic and stuffed feeling that comes after eating poutine is inevitable, no matter what is put on top.

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Frite Alors! Special

New York is the city with all kinds of food so surely there must be places that serve this not-so delicate delicacy. In fact, there are two rather popular Canadian restaurants that both reference the Mile End district of Montreal, the equivalent to New York’s Soho, in their title. Zagat has rated both these restaurants, ‘Mile End,’ located in Noho on Bond Street, and ‘Mile End Delicatessen,’ located in Brooklyn, amongst the best fries in New York City. They are both given very high ratings on Yelp, Google, and Zagat.

Note, while eating poutine, it’s important not to be self-aware. Or else you begin to freak out about the high calories and total lack of nutrients that you’re consuming. Thus, it’s the perfect late night food that warms you and puts you to sleep. I can see why it is such a staple in Quebec given the cold and wintery climate.

 

Vietnamese Pho Sure

It’s the middle of midterms and everybody’s procrastination and exhaustion is catching up with them. So the only thing that can really make you happy this time of year is a good meal. All this cold weather and snow has had me craving pho, so I decided to venture not too far out to Saiguette on 106th and Columbus. I really love Vietnamese food, but there are so few of these restaurants in the New York area. I was first introduced to Vietnamese food many years ago while visiting my cousins in Washington D.C., where there is an abundance of restaurants. Saiguette is not the best Vietnamese food, but with the limited options around Columbia, it suffices.

Vietnamese cuisine is popular for its use of fresh ingredients and low amount of oil, which also makes it considered one of the healthier cuisines around the world. The most common flavors are lemongrass, ginger, mint, lime, and chili. Each dish has either a variety of these flavors or a strong feature of one. Some interesting philosophy behind Vietnamese food is that, traditionally, each dish incorporated five fundamental tastes: sour, spicy, salty, bitter, and sweet, to correspond to the five organs: large and small intestines, gall and urinary bladders, and stomach. Clearly, there is a deeper meaning behind the food and its taste, which makes eating it more of an experience.

Saiguette is a really small restaurant better for take out, than eating in. So the good thing about it is that everything comes very well packaged. Their pho is simple, but good. I would request more toppings be included: more lime, basil and sprouts, because these ingredients are what freshen the dish up. The only complaint I have about their pho is the oiliness of the broth, which leaves you feeling heavy rather than cleansed after eating it.

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I also ordered the summer rolls, which lacked flavor. They were filled with a lot of rice noodles, but not too much shrimp or mint, which is where the flavor comes from. However, the peanut sauce that it comes with makes up for this.

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When there is a craving for pho, nothing can quite replace it. But, if pho is not a priority, the best things to order at Saiguette are those that include grilled meat of some sort, all of which are marinated with a mouth-watering blend of lemongrass, garlic, cilantro, ginger, scallion, chili, and lime. On the bright side, their grilled chicken thigh and banh mi are delicious. The grilled, boneless chicken thigh entrée is a very generous portion and well priced. It has a nice sweet, barbequed flavor to it. There is a sweet, chili sauce that comes on the side, with some cut up vegetables and rice. Overall, the dish is satisfying and worth ordering. The banh mi sandwiches are really good at Saiguette. I did not order one when I went this time, but I have had it before and highly recommend it. The bread is light and crunchy, with a deliciously well-flavored grilled meet inside in addition to vegetables and a spicy mayo spread. A friend of mine ordered the chicken satay, which was very similar to the grilled chicken thigh, but with peanuts, and she enjoyed her meal.image

imageNote for vegetarians, Saiguette does not offer the most variety in veggie options, so I would steer clear. My friend who is a vegetarian came with me and ended up ordering a noodle dish that was very plain, because the sauce could not be put on since it contained meat. However, I have looked on the menu since my meal at Saiguette, and they have a vegetable section, but I am not sure how it tastes. So there may be choices, and we happened to order the wrong thing.

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I do not want to give Saiguette such a bad rep, because it is definitely an easy and quick place for take-out and the food really is not that bad. If you know what you like, then that is what is best to order. Do not go expecting a delicious, traditional Vietnamese meal and you will not be disappointed. I seem to always build up Vietnamese meals in my mind, because I so rarely get them. Hopefully, this kind of cuisine will become more popular in the area and there will be more options in the future!