The sudden closure of Little Saigon in Montclair late last year disappointed many, and raised questions as to why. The spacious restaurant had been a familiar sight on the otherwise unremarkable Elm St. for four years, having moved there from Nutley, where it recovered from fire damage in 2003 but still plugged on bravely for a couple more years. I was pleased to discover that Little Saigon is still alive and kicking, and resurrected back in Nutley in January under the new name, Huong Viet, which means thinking of Vietnam.
Nestled among the stores on Passaic Ave is the restaurant, whose owner, Mr Quan Hua, explained that he closed shop in Montclair in November after its lease had expired.
“It (the rent) was too expensive in Montclair and there was no parking,” said Mr Quan, a Baristaville resident for more than a decade. “We decided to come back to Nutley where it is cheaper.”
As its name and extensive menu options suggest, Huong Viet is true to its Saigon roots. The restaurant isn’t fancy, but the food was fresh, modestly seasoned and tasty. Vietnamese food is milder and less ear-ringing chilli-spiced than the food of its neighbor Thailand, though similar herbs and aromatic spices are used, and vegetables and noodle soups (or pho, recommended by friends who have dined there) are prominent.
I had heard that some patrons had had issues with the service in terms of waiting, and indeed, there was a bit of that involved when I visited Huong Viet with two health-conscious foodies, my friend Jennifer, an environmental engineer, and blogger, Victor Sasson.
The visit, for me, was nostalgic, as I had traveled to Vietnam 15 years ago when the country was in the infancy of opening up to tourism and trade (President Clinton lifted a trade embargo with Vietnam in 1994) and been utterly charmed by its people, especially the very friendly and chatty children.
There were three things a budgeting tourist who didn’t speak Vietnamese could count on in those days, in terms of a quick meal – the best baguettes outside of Paris (Vietnam was colonized by the French decades earlier), the best espresso (Vietnam is one of the world’s top exporters of robusta and arabica coffee) and the wide availability of Laughing Cow cheese, from the most remote rice paddies in the rural areas right up to to bustling Saigon! Check out this ad.
I can’t help but chuckle when I think back to how the Vietnamese kids – seeing diminutive and dusky me in the company of my 6-foot-tall blond boyfriend at the time and his equally statuesque sister, plus my 6-foot-tall Danish flatmate and her 7-foot-tall boyfriend – would be particularly curious about yours truly, approaching me as if I were another child and asking with perfect innocence (phonetically reproduced here), “What is your nem?,” “How ode are you?” and, this is the killer, “Where you go with your mama and your papa?”
Back to Huong Viet.
Hot, jasmine tea was brought to the table as soon as we were seated. We ordered two kinds of summer rolls wrapped in rice paper – beef with rice noodles, spinach, mint and bean sprouts, and vegetable, with fried tofu, mint, sprouts and spinach. Perfect for anyone on a diet, these were extremely fresh and the vegetables were crunchy. As one of the party was vegetarian, we made a special request for a wheat noodle item on the menu to be done without meat and shrimp. This dish was served with mustard greens and spinach and tofu, very mildly seasoned, not oily, and again, nirvana for the dieter (which incidentally, none of us were). Mustard greens with ginger and garlic were al dente, vividly green and flavorsome. And last, but best, was fried tilapia, battered lightly with cornstarch and topped with lemongrass, ginger and scallions – one had the choice of having this with, or without head – we picked the latter. The fish was tender and moist and just delicious.
Despite the lightness of lunch, we were stuffed and couldn’t face looking at dessert options, although I hear their flan, a bit like a creme caramel, is delicious. Click here for a more extensive look at menu offerings.
Instead, still on a nostalgic bent, I specifically ordered a cup of Vietnamese coffee “as they serve it in Vietnam.” What came were three cups, atop which sat a stainless steel coffee dripper, dripping dark espresso very, very slowly (exactly as it’s done in Vietnam from north to south, in city or village) into the cups. I had asked for milk on the side and was served condensed milk. In many tropical countries, fresh milk used to be a rarity, in step with the rarity of refrigeration and well-padded cows, and condensed milk is the favored, climate-suited alternative. I waited patiently for my dripper to finish its job. But one of us, I will name no names, had had enough of waiting and ended up pouring the partially brewed beverage into his cup, ground beans and all. Needless to say he wasn’t too happy with the end product, but mine was smooth, dark, aromatic, lusciously thick and satisfying.
And it made me think of Vietnam.
Huong Viet is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:00am to 9:30pm. It’s closed on Mondays.
Huong Viet Restaurant
358 Passaic Ave