Saigon Cafe and Seafood Shack
The Le family’s sister restaurants on Hudson Bend are worth the drive
Reviewed by Emily Beyda, Fri., Dec. 1, 2017
When we walk into Saigon Cafe, pink-cheeked from spending an hour walking around the windy shores of Lake Travis, there's a family having lunch in the corner. A woman, three men, and a chattering child sit slurping pho to a soundtrack of noodly country acoustic lite and Vietnamese soft rock. There are drawings taped up on the walls by the cash register – thick crayon scribbles over printed outlines of cheerful crabs. Our waitress gets up from the table where she has been sitting, and brings us a couple of menus.
This is clearly a family restaurant. A Le family restaurant, to be precise. Sean and An Le immigrated to Austin from Vietnam, and opened Saigon Cafe in 2015 with recipes An inherited from her mother. When the space next door became available in May that year, the family decided to turn it into a seafood restaurant, run by their daughter Mindy Le. Both restaurants use the same signage, the same family staff, and even the same kitchen. Both spots are the definition of far flung: tucked into a mini-mall so deserted that, after the meal, you can stand in the dark listening to the sound of crickets.
The dining room of Saigon Cafe is festooned with glossy pictures of egg rolls, but despite their heavy presence in the decor, they're not a standout. A really good egg roll should have a shatteringly crisp exterior melting into the filling. These are chewy and heavy with grease that soaks into the somewhat stodgy filling of wood ear mushrooms, carrots, glass noodles, and pork, amalgamated into a vaguely peppery mush. Instead, try the banh xoi, a glutinous rice cake studded with ground pork and fried until it tastes like a savory grownup Rice Krispies Treat. It has a distinctive texture – a soft crispness that melts into chew, the blandness of the rice undercut by a faint, funky whiff of pork. The fried shallots on top provide a nice textural counterpoint, and it definitely benefited from the side of sweet orange fish sauce.
For the main course, try the banh hoi, a Saigonese street food classic that can be hard to find stateside. It consists of charcoal-grilled pork – cooked 'til the fat pops – served with a haystack of fresh herbs, napped in a spongy little woven blanket of rice noodles to keep everything tidy. Here, the pork is cooked perfectly – caramelized crispy with sweet edges melting into pillows of fat. Cosseted in a bundle of those herbs (Thai holy basil, of course, plus mint and cilantro), wrapped in noodles so to be joyfully, inelegantly shoved in your mouth; the taste is sublime. It conjures that childlike joy of playing with your food, and there are few foods more compelling to share with a friend.
Of course, it's difficult to know the true soul of a Vietnamese restaurant until you try their pho, and Saigon Cafe's is a good one. It seems to be a go-to here, judging by the tables full of families slurping bowls of it in contented silence. We went for pho chin bo vien – slow-cooked beef with meatballs, served in a gamey, fat-rich broth, heavy with mouth-numbing star anise & white pepper. The meat, like really good brisket, was tender. As in most places in the States, there's a pile of accoutrement on the side – onions and sprouts, herbs and limes. According to some schools of thought, it's gauche to brighten your broth like that, but we did it anyway. It was an excellent choice. The meatballs, however, were a disappointment. They had the usual strangely compelling, bouncy texture of Vietnamese meatballs, but they were almost entirely flavorless, making the experience somewhat eerie, like I was chewing on my own tongue.
While Saigon Cafe is open for lunch, the Seafood Shack is strictly a nighttime affair, and the space wears its grownup table allure on its sleeve. The room has a sports bar slickness, with lots of TVs everywhere and super-intense Eighties hair metal on the stereo. The air smells vaguely of cigarettes. The same scribbled crab drawings cover the walls; the cutlery is tied in the same distinctive way, with a straw tucked into the paper band. And the food here is nothing short of spectacular.
We started out with the shrimp ceviche. Served piled up in a martini glass, with a few shards of excellent wonton chips sticking out, it looks like the roof of the Sydney Opera House. It was sensational, like something you'd eat while sitting on a beach chair along the Gulf. The tender, lime-sharpened shrimp was all mixed up with avocados, tomatoes, and pickled shallots in a sort of chunky guacamole, with a creamy sauce pooling in the bottom of the glass. There definitely weren't enough wontons to scoop everything, but we probably should have counted our blessings, because even with a little extra belly room, we couldn't finish the main course.
At our server's recommendation, we tried the combo boil. When it arrived at our table, it turned out to be a spiny mountain of miscellaneous crustaceans – with bright pink shrimp and crab legs, limbs akimbo – coated with some kind of oozy red orange sauce. My companion (a pescatarian who has been known to live on bread and cheese for weeks at a time) stared at it with wide eyes. "It's so grotesque," she said. "I'm enthralled." Doing a little dance as Whitesnake blasted on the sound system, she ripped at a crab leg with her mouth while I tore at another so hard that it splashed cayenne directly into my open eye. Ripping, really, is the only reasonable response to a bounty like this. The meat was sweet and tender, the shells cooked into spongy submission from being boiled in beer and whatever mysterious seasoning blend they use (a smoky mix with a close allegiance to the pho). It's the perfect meal to share after a day spent at the lake, swimming yourself to starving. Between the two of us, we couldn't manage to finish that last gorgeous bit of crab.
If you do things right – sloshing those messy hunks of crabmeat into the little plastic ramekins of butter and spice mix that come alongside the platter – your lips, like my lips, will be tingling numb all the way through the long drive home.
Seafood Shack5000-B Hudson Bend Rd.
Saigon Cafe5000-B Hudson Bend Rd.