For more than a decade Saigon Restaurant became a popular spot for its specialty items and affordable prices. Now it begins a new legacy just two blocks west from its original University and Dale location at 704 University Avenue since February 2009.
Owner Lysa Bui was raised in Dallas, where her mother ran a deli, and moved to Minnesota to go to school when she was 23. She is trained in specialty management but says she can cook too.
“My grandma could cook and my mom is a good cook, and so it runs in the family,” said Bui. “It’s just something that we can do.”
Bui said a fortunate series of events led to the opening of Saigon. An uncle who was an experience restaurateur moved here from California, while other members of her family and a business partner came together on the idea for the former chicken restaurant across from UniDale Plaza.
The family had plans to buy the original Saigon building but Bui said it was sold for much more than they could offer – and remains closed to this day.
Saigon closed for five months to renovate the former wok kitchen to a larger grill kitchen. Bui said they also added new tile, counters, paint and wall decorations. She employs about a dozen workers and about 15 on the weekends.
After 10 years Bui said she still enjoys watching the smiles of working people having a good meal here at her restaurant.
“We try to treat our customers right,” said Bui. “We are friendly and try to get to know our customers name on be on a first name basis.”
Saigon became popular for its traditional pho recipe, a 24 hour process. The sandwiches, bun, vermicelli noodle, rice platters and all of their grilled items also do very well, she said. A house fish sauce is popular enough to sell by itself in 30 oz containers.
“We buy it (the raw fish sauce) very potent and then mix it with lime, vinegar and garlic,” she said, adding that many restaurants blend their own.
They bake their own baguettes fresh daily. She said they are hand and not machine rolled which gives each loaf its own character. They also make their own French Pâté and mayonnaise.
“Its very good,” she added. “People love it.”
Bui said the customers appreciate that they get their meat fresh cut daily and go to Vietnam each summer to buy whole spices to bring back and grind up fresh.
“It makes a big difference in the way the food tastes,” said Bui.
Saigon’s smoothies are very popular in the summer, and now with the cooler weather more people will be trying the French press coffee.
They run a Wednesday sandwich special along with a ten percent off special one day a week that you can find by visiting the Saigon Restaurant Saint Paul Facebook account.
The latest special is a “The Pho Challenge”, which according to Bui is popular on the west coast, and she decided to start the competition in Minnesota just two months ago. Fewer than 20 people out of more than 60 who attempted have been able to finish the 10 lb bowl of pho within 45 minutes.
They win a T-shirt that says “I Am The Pho King.”
Around nine women have attempted the Pho Challenge and none yet have done it, said Bui, who promises a $100 gift certificate to the first woman who does.
Nancy Duong, a U of M student, organized a Pho Challenge event among friends after learning of the contest on the Facebook site. She mentioned it to her network and it wasn’t long before she had 25 people coming with her to Saigon last Saturday.
The group filled the Saigon banquet room – some of them challengers and some of them cheerleaders that opted for smaller bowls. Only 2 of the 25 would walk away a Pho King.
The first to finish was Dennis Le, a math student at Normandale, who plans to get a math teachers certificate at the University of Minnesota at Mankato. Others around him expressed amazement as Le finished while their own noodles expanded and grew as they were absorbed by broth.
“I am full” was all Le could say.
It wasn’t long before his big smile returned.
Frank Li, a U of M student in biomedical engineering, needed every second of his 45 minutes to win the challenge including a few agonizing last bites. Li said the thought coming so close and leaving empty-handed pushed him onward.
Angela Chang, his companion, said Li has a big appetite and did some rock climbing in the unseasonably good weather to work up an appetite.
“He can eat,” said Chang.