One hardly thinks of Vietnamese food when you wonder what’s there to eat in La Union. I’m from there, and when you ask me for foodie advice, I’d usually rattle off a list of beachside restaurants to choose from.
The perfect things to eat are of course fresh seafood and cuts of meat char-broiled to the point of being smoky on the outside and juicy and flavorful on the inside, paired with lots of rice, eaten in a state of wild hunger with bare hands. Finish it off with fruit that’s just been picked, my favorite being ripe golden mangoes that go down the throat smoothly and sweetly.
But, my point here is to open your eyes to little secrets in the beach town I grew up in. And this little secret is nestled in a nondescript commercial building along 744 Mabini St. in Catbangen in the capital of San Fernando City.
This is the secret that the owner, Ms. Kim, has been brewing since the restaurant opened a few years ago. You wouldn’t notice it, but for the sign that says, Pho Saigon.
When you enter, you feel like you are transported into a simple Vietnamese home, and what’s striking is that even the girl who takes your orders is dressed in a figure-flattering Vietnamese tunic, traditionally known as an ao dai.
The owner, Ms. Kim, treats you like a guest in her home, and she can converse in fluent English and in very convincing Filipino and even in the local dialect, Ilocano. She has lived in La Union since the 1970’s so she has many stories to tell, from the time she left Saigon when she was 19 up to the time she married a Filipino engineer in San Fernando City and how she has managed to adapt to life here.
Ms. Kim proudly declares her food to be authentic, as she has hired a Vietnamese lady as her cook, and we wait in anticipation for the feast.
In the meantime, I marvel at her smooth, milky-white complexion, asking her what her secret is. She laughs and says that Vietnamese food is very healthy, and that she keeps away from fatty and oily food. Oh, and she swears by exercise.
Suddenly, our animated conversation is cut off by the arrival of the food.
First comes the seductive scent of sinigang. It’s still very familiar, the sour smoke coming from the pot, but it’s also mysterious, because I smell something like herbs I cannot name, something subtly sweet as well, and I just have to have a taste.
At first sip, the soup is to die for. I cannot describe it with full justice. It’s very powerful and addicting, tasting even better than the way it smells and I proclaim it to be the best sinigang I’ve ever tasted. There are many kinds of sinigang, and this time, it’s sinigang na tanigue. Try this and you will never see sinigang the same way again. A Vietnamese twist to an undying Filipino classic. Bravo.
The next dish is light yet refreshing. Spring rolls!!! Crisp, colorful vegetables and soft, plump shrimp wrapped in a blanket of Vietnamese rice wrapper.
Then comes clay pot fish. The star for this dish is rich, rich, rich FATTY salmon. This tastes so decadent because of the yummy fat! But it’s salmon so it’s packed with Omega 3 fatty acids. There, there. Now we can have one more spoonful, without feeling horrible about eating all that fat. Recommended with steaming hot rice because the sauce is very savory.
Don’t forget the pad thai! It’s sharpened and spiked up to another notch by the addition of chopped bird’s eye chilies mixed into the noodles. Ooh, watch out for those fiery bites!!! I like that the sauce has been made with a lot of peanuts so the texture is very authentic.
Last of course is the classic pho. There’s something calming about pho. The Japanese have their ramen, which is comforting and familiar at the same time. The Koreans have their spicy ramyun, which keeps us warm and gasping for gulps of cold water because of the wonderful kick of the spicy red soup.
Pho is really simple and clean and healthy-tasting. It’s really the perfect end to a Vietnamese meal, because the hot broth goes straight to the tummy and leaves no aftertaste. The chunks of beef, tender with bits of pink from being plunged fresh into the broth, coupled with the sprinkled bean sprouts, complete this soup.
Ahhh, to cap everything off, make sure to have a tall glass of iced Vietnamese coffee and take sips between each dish. The strong caffeine is mellowed by the condensed milk, giving a jolt just enough to keep you in a pleasant state.
Pho Saigon gives a whole new meaning to authentic Vietnamese cuisine. It’s the real thing, it doesn’t skimp in the amount or the quality of its ingredients, and the taste has not been watered down to please the mainstream tongue.
Come here because it’s not so well-known yet – it’s laid-back, quiet, and tucked away in a less-busy part of the city.
You will feel like an exclusive guest dining here, or like an insider to the hidden gems of La Union. And if you’re lucky, you might be able to bump into Ms. Kim, and she will enthrall you with her stories, back when she was a young lady in Old World Saigon.
Eating at Pho Saigon is what I like to call quite an experience – you eat and taste with your senses, but you go here also to open up the mind.