From the owner of Pho Cyclo comes a handsome new Redmond restaurant, District 1 Saigon.
For the first years of Taylor Hoang’s life, home was the former French-colonial resort town of Dalat in Vietnam’s temperate, pine-forested, central highlands. She was 7 when she immigrated to Seattle with her mother, Lien Dang, who founded Huong Binh, a fixture in Seattle’s Little Saigon for 25 years. Armed with a business degree from the University of Washington and the cooking skills she learned from her mother, Hoang launched the first of five Pho Cyclo Cafés in 2003. Later, when entrepreneurial pursuits took her back to Vietnam for six years, her home base was District 1, the cosmopolitan business center of Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City.
Those life experiences converge at Hoang’s handsome new Redmond restaurant, District 1 Saigon. Because her mother grew up in the south and married a man from the north, Hoang was exposed to a wide variety of regional dishes at home. Her menu reflects that, as well as the diversity of food she found in Vietnam’s most populous city.
Saigon street vendors hawk bap xao — corn kernels tossed with dried shrimp and butter. The version here makes compelling comfort food, even when fresh corn isn’t available. Banh khot are bite-size turmeric pancakes sweetened with coconut milk, a snack famous in Vung Tau, a beach town near Saigon. They cook in a special pan that holds 10 at a time, each one cupping a bay shrimp and chopped scallion. The hot pan comes to the table accompanied by nuoc mam and a plate piled with leaf lettuce and fresh herbs.
Pop a pancake in your mouth, wrap it in a bundle of greens or eat it like a salad dressed with the sauce. There is no wrong way. The same applies to deep-fried “puff rolls” filled with a savory-sweet mince of blue crab and shrimp encased in rice paper that crackles like a twice-baked croissant. Lemongrass grilled pork arrives already bundled. Rolled up like a cigar in spicy mustard greens along with rice noodles and red perilla leaves, they are ready for a dive into peanut sauce. (Beware how many dishes you order at once. Everything will arrive when its ready and even though tables are generously sized, so are plates and bowls, and most come with accoutrements. Don’t count on the waiters to pace your meal.)
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Pungent sauces and extravagantly deployed herbs are what make Vietnamese cuisine so vibrant. Rau ram (Vietnamese coriander) adds extra zing to lime-dressed poached chicken paired with twice-cooked rice. Like the Thai dish, khao man gai, it’s a variation on Hainanese chicken and rice. The warm, mellow rice cooked in the chicken’s rich, gingery broth plays yin to the yang of the chicken’s invigorating astringency. Thai chilies along with the minced stems and leaves of ngo om (aka rice paddy herb) turn coconut shrimp ceviche into a firecracker of a dish, mellowed by a sweet undercurrent of coconut water.
Coconut milk smoothed the way for the ramping up of chile heat in laksa curry noodle soup, a Malaysian specialty. The chicken hidden among the rice noodles was tough, but tender fried tofu cubes were thirsty sponges for the broth. I didn’t try the crab claw wonton soup, but a variation of it (minus the crab but sporting four delightful pork-and-shrimp wontons and a trace of truffle oil) came with the grilled pork banh mi. The sandwich was exemplary; the soup was superb. Beef and chicken pho are made with Pho Cyclo’s aromatic broths. You can beef up the beef pho with slices of meat or beef ribs, though the ribs weren’t available on two visits.
For those craving meat on the bone, I highly recommend the five-spice braised lamb shank whose sweet, fragrant, soothing broth still haunts me. The spicy-sweet, fish-sauce-funky chicken wings are very good, too. “Caramelized spareribs” were a long way from caramelized, though they did come with terrific pickled mustard greens.
Hoang’s mother makes all the pickles. Sauces, too, including the not-for-wusses shrimp paste sauce for Cha Ca La Vong. The famous Hanoi dish is becoming common in restaurants here. Turmeric and dill are the key flavors. Both are conspicuous in this well-executed version that uses basa, a farmed Vietnamese catfish that doesn’t taste muddy like most domestic catfish.
If only cocktails had the same finesse. Servers mixed the drinks. A gin-based “Cucumber Cooler” overdosed on Chartreuse. The bubbly in a mimosa made with pineapple juice and lychee was flat. There was no bartender on any of my visits, which is too bad because the backlit bar looks so welcoming beneath weathered aquamarine shutters. They mimic the ones on Hoang’s grandmother’s house in Dalat. The rest of the décor is modern. Turquoise, magenta and saffron accents pop against the dark wood of tables, chairs and peekaboo partitions that carve up the 120-seat space into cozier quarters. They will soon add sidewalk seating, as will Maxwella, a cafe and bar next door that is also part of Hoang’s restaurant group.
Together the two restaurants occupy 6,000 square feet in the Avalon Esterra Park complex. That’s a lot of seats and I never saw District 1 full, even on a Saturday night. It may be ahead of the development curve. Construction is happening all around it: a million square feet of offices behind, light rail across the street and, just blocks away, Microsoft is renovating and expanding. Hoang says she has her eye on the future. “Making a quick buck doesn’t set you up for success long term.” Meanwhile, I hope she has a sweetheart lease.
District 1 Saigon ★★½
2720 152nd Ave. N.E., Redmond
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; happy hour 3:30-5:30 p.m. daily (all food and drink 30 percent off); weekend brunch begins late June
Prices: $$$ (plates $6-$22)
Drinks: full bar
Parking: complimentary on-site garage
Sound: moderate to loud
Credit cards: all major
Access: no obstacles