Thom Nguyen’s eyes race around the room. Before leading the kitchen as head chef of the newly minted Sáigon, a Vietnamese street food joint located in a corner spot of the Mercado de San Telmo, he was running a more dressed up closed door version out of a remodeled Parque Lezama home. “I can’t believe it. I don’t know how they found out about us. We’re being invaded by Asians,” Nguyen comments with a half bewildered half ecstatic grin pointing to a Chinese family of twelve, “and they all want soup!” The owners had suggested that I stop by on a Tuesday evening expecting a quieter atmosphere to talk but just a quarter past seven and a dinner rush was in full swing.
Sáigon opened in mid-December and joined the macro renaissance happening across the neighborhood. Over the last year, San Telmo has become one of Buenos Aires’ most diverse food neighborhoods without sacrificing its distinct bohemian personality. A more micro-level renaissance might be brewing as well with Sáigon being the second opening of 2016 inside the San Telmo Market together with French cafe and bakery Merci. Rumors of a well-known burger restaurant opening inside the market itself suggest that the neighborhood staple could become an exciting new food market — something that Buenos Aires is severely lacking.
“We were interested in becoming part of San Telmo,” explains co-owner Pablo Marotta, who also is part owner of the Palermo pub Gull. Marotta had spent time living in Berlin where the Vietnamese make up the largest East Asian community. “I fell in love with Vietnamese food [sic] who knows how much pho I must have eaten. I prefer Thom’s cooking.” Marotta’s newfound love for pho was compounded by co-owner Matias McLurg’s recent trip to Vietnam. He decided to trade in his day job as a lawyer to open Sáigon. Kevin Seweryniak, a photographer, rounds out the trio of young restauranteurs.
They liked what was happening in San Telmo. “In Palermo we depend on an after office and weekend crowd that is constantly changing. In San Telmo you have a more neighborhood feel,” Marotta explains, “We also wanted people to feel like they are in a market stall in Vietnam and having to re-create that in Palermo didn’t feel sincere.” The restaurant sits in the now defunct bar notable La Coruña which has been boarded up and vacant for the last few years. The name is still etched into the window where it will stay as “a part of this place’s history.”
The missing element was a chef. The boys scoured the city looking for the right fit visiting East Asian restaurants and checking in with the Vietnamese Embassy for intel on cooks. They kept coming up empty handed. After a visit to closed door GULA, “they practically offered me the job on the spot,” Nguyen explains. Nguyen was born in the central Vietnamese city of Hue although he spent much of his life in Washington DC. While he was not trained professionally, he loved to cook “almost as much as [he] loved to eat,” and enlisted the headmaster of a cooking school in Vietnam to teach him his favorite dishes.
Once they had their chef, the property fell into their laps. The space itself is enough to be wowed over. The high ceilings are bathed with sunlight from the long windows that give to the street. An interior window facing inwards to the market was discovered during re-modeling and now allows curious passerby to crane their necks in over the open kitchen. A long green bar necks its way around the stoves where Nguyen and his team of friendly young cooks slave away.
Sáigon’s kitchen differentiates itself from the city’s other Vietnamese option, Green Bamboo, a Palermo classic that’s been a city staple for nearly two decades. Whereas the latter specializes in South Vietnamese food in a high-end context, the former focuses on a handful of street food staples in a cantina setting. Sáigon has traded in the designer dishes and star bartenders for antique metal bowls and cooks who chat with guests as they eat.
A steady stream of pho flowed off the stove during my most recent three hour visit. A piping hot broth is poured over freshly cooked noodles and pieces of thinly sliced raw tenderloin. On its own, the broth is lightly flavored with occasional kicks of ginger — the key is to add your sauces of choice. Homemade red chile sauce adds a spice that slowly grows outward. Sriracha mayonnaise and a citrusy vinegar based dipping sauce rounded out the spice.
Diners can choose between fresh spring rolls stuffed with mint, shrimp and rice noodles to be dipped in a peanut and hoisin sauce that was thick and crunchy like a mole. I much preferred their fried companions, nem frito, spring rolls stuffed with shrimp paste before being deep fried and served with a cool slightly sweet vinegar sauce that had just a touch of tangy fish sauce. The paper thin dough is chewy when served fresh but transformed into a light flakey texture with an audible crunch. For something a bit meatier, the hojas de parra (a menu item I was surprised to learn was authentic) is stuffed with beef before being grilled at the bar.
Guests can opt for the Bò Lúc Loc as a main over the pho. Marinated tenderloin is cooked in butter before being poured over steamed rice. The beef was tender and the juices and butter seeped downwards so that the rice became richer with each bite. Nguyen is working with french bakery Merci to create the right baguette to include banh mi on the menu and is perfecting his bao recipe; Vietnamese bao looks more like a steamed dumpling with ground pork being substituted for the more well-known pork belly buns.
All the food is served up with one of nine beers on draft from La Loggia, Gante, La Aldea and Una+. I chose a deeply flavored IPA to go with the lighter appetizers and a Honey to bring down the spice I added to my pho. Could this be signs of better times to come with the burger and brewery craze wrapping up and good restaurants with good draft taking their place? I, for sure, hope so.
Saigon is further evidence that San Telmo has big things coming this year, and a glimpse of a city that is moving towards a East Asian flavors that fall out of the salteados and cream cheese sushi messes.
Bolivar 990, San Telmo
Tuesday – Friday 4:00pm-11:45pm