For years I’ve cruised past Chez Saigon on my way to San Carlos, Redwood City, or beyond, in search of a break from the usual sandwich, salad, sushi or pasta.
But when a friend urged me to try the newly managed neighborhood eatery, with an innovative menu that blends Thai and Vietnamese cooking, I showed up for lunch the next day.
And thank goodness I did.
The restaurant, now named Chez Saigon—Authentic Thai & Vietnamese Restaurant, is owned and operated by Chala Santino, a veteran in the restaurant business.
You may be familiar with its sister restaurant, the popular Bangkok House in Half Moon Bay (which truly is run by her sister now that Chala’s efforts are here in Belmont).
Chala’s enthusiasm for cooking fresh, healthful dishes belies the entire menu at Chez Saigon.
“I serve what I eat,” beams the friendly Chala. “I care about health and quality and using the best ingredients. I pick all the meat and produce myself.”
She explains that the design of the menu blends the best of both worlds: the fresh and healthy ingredients used in Vietnamese dishes and the unique elements and juxtaposing flavors of Thai cuisine. The stock for her pho, a traditional Vietnamese soup, simmers for 12 hours to get the best flavors from the chicken and beef bones.
The small restaurant (seats 50), has a stylish, yet comfortable decor. Chala credits her friend and former Chez Saigon owner for the dark wood features and authentic artful touches; “My friend is Vietnamese and I think she did a fabulous job creating a warm ambiance.”
Despite its size, Chez Saigon produces an ambitious, creative lunch and dinner menu featuring a diverse selection of appetizers, soups, curry dishes, meat and poultry, seafood, noodles and rice dishes and an entire page of vegetarian appetizers and entrees. Lunch specials are served daily until 2:30 p.m. and special lunch combos include two mini-entrees served with steamed rice and salad.
Although the ethnic Thai population is small in the Bay Area (as opposed to Vietnamese or Cambodian, for example), it’s refreshing to find a restaurant that will prepare dishes authentically.
The key to Thai cooking lies in the explosiveness of the seasonings and the combination of the aromatic flavors in every dish.
My personal benchmark for Thai food is how much I enjoy the Pad Thai—panfried rice noodles with shrimp, ground peanuts, tofu, egg and bean sprouts in a delicate tamarind sauce. My dish of Pad Thai was prepared to perfection, and beautifully plated. That, and a shared appetizer of Vietnamese goong gra bok (shrimp rolls), made for an exciting, satisfying lunch without feeling overly indulged.
When my husband ordered the chef’s special, lamb jungle curry, Chala grinned as though he had read her mind and ordered her personal favorite dish.
“I’ve never seen anyone leave a drop of sauce left on the plate,” she said. “It’s a homemade family secret recipe, and is the only one of its kinds in the Bay Area.”
The tender Australian lamb was served in a rich and spicy curry with hints of lemongrass, bamboo shoots, peppers and basil. Indeed, my husband scraped the plate clean.
And of course everything goes better with a pot of jasmine tea, but if you prefer something stronger, choose from a nice selection of beer and wine.
Chala clearly has a refined sensibility for running a dual-cuisine restaurant and for preparing food that has clarity of flavor, variety of fresh ingredients, beautiful preparation and gracious service.
“We go the extra mile for our customers,” Chala explains. “For me, it’s important that our customers know they are getting the freshest ingredients and the best of both worlds of Vietnamese and Thai cooking.”
In addition to traditional restaurant seating, Chaez Saigon offers private parties, catering services, luncheon meetings, and wedding rehearsal dinners.
For more information, call 650-591-9888, or go to www.chezsaigon.com. The restaurant is at 1316 El Camino Real.