As soon as I started talking to Mary Nguyen Aregoni at Saigon Sisters, I felt a connection. What a cool lady and an awesome story. Apparently, her family moved from Vietnam when she was a young girl and she was brought up in a traditional Vietnamese household here in the US. There was a huge emphasis on education so, as it was expected of her, she excelled all the way through grad school and into corporate America. After accomplishing much success in the business world, she decided to follow her dream and passion and open a restaurant. She had absolutely NO previous experience in the restaurant biz. It takes a ballsy woman to dive into such a thing, right Mom?
So anyway, she, with the support of her sister in NYC, started with her little sandwich shop in the French Market in the West Loop. It was very well received and within some months she was working on the restaurant. She knew what her concept was, traditional Vietnamese flavors remade into new, creative dishes, but since she herself had no professional cooking experience, she also knew that she needed a chef to help make it come alive.
That’s when she found Matt Eversman. He’s young and had training and experience but was still willing to listen and learn about Vietnamese cuisine from Mary’s mother, the true expert on the subject. He, after all, has never been to Vietnam, nor cooked this style of food, until now. The combination of the two of them proved to be a success as Matt was named ‘Breakout Chef of the Year’ by Time Out Chicago.
But alas, chefs will be chefs. On to the next big thing. Ugh. It hasn’t even been a year, for crying out loud. It was just announced, and I believe it came as a surprise to Mary as well, that he’ll be moving on to work on his own concept with some partners. This may be Mary’s first experience with the flightiness of the world of restaurant employees, but I can almost guarentee that it won’t be the last. Sorry, Mary.
I wanted to do a segment at Saigon Sisters because I like it so much and she agreed to do so with much enthusiasm. But when I contacted her to schedule the shoot, she informed me that there were many changes happening and it would be better to wait a while. She’s working on a new summer menu, that I’m sure will be wonderful, even without that smelly boy :).
This was my second dining experience at Saigon Sisters and it was quite good, although I might be inclined to say that I preferred my menu selections on the first go.
Here’s what we had:
Three steamed buns: one with wagyu, one with pork belly and hoisin, and one with braised chicken. My fave is the pork belly. Plus, I just love the soft, squish, stick-to-your-teeth texture of steamed buns. They all had a little pickled veg, like they put on their bahn mi sandwiches, for a little crunch and brightness. Mmmm…
The Caramel Prawns is one of the restaurants signature dishes. They’re served with fried rice, an over easy egg and pickled onions. Sounds pretty fab, huh? Yeah, it was, but I have to say that it was a bit salty for me (and I ain’t afraid’a no salt!). The acid in the onions helped to balance the sweetness of the prawns and I’m a fan of anything with an egg on it. Mary says everything in Vietnamese cooking has an egg in it. I can dig it.
Next was the Udon Noodle Soup. Can you say smoky and rich? “Smoky and rich.” The sticky, deep pork broth was the best part… well… next to the soy-soaked soft boiled egg. There was also some nori, a fish cake, pork belly and some mushrooms in there. Yes, a lot going on. All good things though, except for the noodles themselves which only reminded me of linguine that had been sitting in a pot of unsalted hot water for a hour: bloated, soft and flavorless.
Lastly, we were offered a very interesting dessert that Mary told us has become one of their signature items. It’s a butternut squash and coconut custard with ‘sticky rice,’ peanuts, taro chip and basil. The custard was pretty darn stiff, and I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that I would have never guessed it was a custard (set with eggs). It seemed to me like something that was set with gelatin, but who am I to say. I could be wrong. And I’m not totally sure what the definition of ‘sticky rice’ is but I was expecting rice in it. The white smear on the plate is what they were referring to. The whole thing together was not very sweet, more of a savory finish, but quite an interesting combination of flavors and textures. We enjoyed it.
And like I said, this was my second time dining so I know there are plenty of fabulous and interesting things on the menu. We loved the Fennel and Red Quinoa as well as the Black Pepper Tofu and Rice. I would definitely order that over and over if there weren’t so many other delicious looking items to try. They really do make it hard to choose.
The ambiance is that of a cafe. It’s teensy and casual with wooden banquets, A-14 chairs and a chalkboard full of specials and drinks. I think they might be trying something new with the liquor selection as we were informed by the (arrogant and quite pretentious) “mixologist” that this was a “mixologist’s” bar and therefore only had vodka and gin at the moment. Well, if that was the case, wouldn’t you think that he’d be at least minimally helpful in explaining and/or directing the guest in their drink selection? I mean, since there were no composed cocktails to select from but instead a list of obscure ingredients from which I assume one was supposed to concoct something themselves. Yes, I would too. But he didn’t. He simply looked down his nose at us until we gave up and ordered a beer.
The service, otherwise, was fine. Mary, herself, is the clear highlight of the place. But that’s normal. She cares the most. It’s her place.
Go, Mary, go! You can do it! I can’t wait to see what happens next!
The Short Version (Out of 10)…