What’s on each plate are well-prepared Vietnamese classics, including a superlative pho, deeply flavored with beef, yet still light on the tongue.
There’s a deep commitment to fresh food here. We’ve never seen a wilted lettuce leaf. We’ve never bitten into a piece of mint without that snap from a just-picked sprig. The fish is fresh and the shrimp are plump and pink. Some of our favorite dishes include the crispy, spicy Dungeness crab, and the chicken and shrimp braised in a brown sauce in the traditional clay pot. If you like fish, ask the waiter what they have that day for whole-fish preparations. They can wok-fry or steam fish—either style is delicious, so follow their guidance on which preparation to use on whichever fish they have that day. The wok-frying leaves a thin crust on the outside, which hides the tender chunks of flesh underneath and protects them from drying out. The steamed version with ginger and garlic shuts our other senses down so that picking the fish off the bones becomes a meditation.
We also love their “burritos.” A stack of rice paper and a bowl of warm water are served first, followed, in short order, by a platter of raw shrimp, chicken, beef (or some combination), sliced cucumbers, pickled carrots, bean sprouts, fresh mint and lettuce leaves. A fondue pot containing a light broth, pineapple slices, vegetables and herbs bubbling over a carton of sterno appears next. The waiter will show you how to assemble your burrito, but essentially, you drop your protein into the fondue to cook it while you dip your rice paper into the warm water to soften it. Then you pile vegetables, sprouts, mint, rice noodles, and hoisin sauce onto the sticky paper, and once your meat or fish is cooked to your liking, you place it on the bed of fresh food and carefully wrap the thin, stretchy rice paper around the whole thing. We like to place our burrito in a lettuce leaf to make it easy to bite into. Delicious and fun, we leave it to the authorities to decide if the sterno presents a fire hazard.
There’s no sign on the outside of this restaurant, and the inside could use fresh paint, retiling, new booths… well, a big renovation. Some find the brusque, jokester waiters rude, but fans like us think of them as the “show” and laugh along with them. If your cell phone disappears during dinner, don’t worry. It will reappear with the bill.
All jokes aside, the servers provide brisk, efficient service and are knowledgeable about the food they serve. The wine list is nothing special, but they have the usual Asian beers that complement the cuisine. We like their lemonade, which is sweet and made with both limes and lemons. We recommend skipping the Thai dishes and the desserts (a five minute drive gets you to Thailand Cuisine for the first and Bistro Casanova for the second).
Reviewing restaurants can be grueling work. After days of eating so-so meals that have lightened our wallets, added paunch to our waistlines, and flattened our taste buds, we make a trip to A Saigon Café to soothe our palates and remind us of how wonderful food can be.
Address: 1792 Main St, Wailuku
Location: This is “under” the highway overpass in Wailuku. As you drive into Wailuku on Ka‘ahumanu Avenue, look for the neon shooting stars and the pink building to the right of the highway overpass as you drive over it. Turn right on Central Avenue at the KAOI Radio Station intersection. Take your first right onto Nani Street. Drive to the first stop sign. Turn right onto Kaniela Street and A Saigon Café is on the left.
Meals: Lunch, dinner
Features: Outdoor seating, take-out, bar seating
Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Parking: Lot, street
Phone: (808) 243-9560