Dining Out: Alo Saigon, Westfield, MA

This Vietnamese restaurant is by nearly all accounts quite authentic, and I highly recommend it.

Alo Saigon
116 Elm St (Route 202)
Westfield, MA 01085

I’ve eaten 6 dishes here from  three different visits.  I don’t usually get this down and dirty about reviewing, but this great Vietnamese restaurant is about 3 minutes from my physical therapy facility.  Although I am usually there too early in the morning to consider dining here afterwards.  (Fortunately, not always.  And I did run into a horrid Westfield Chinese “eatery” that I refuse to review, or step inside again, whatsoever…!)

First Visit:  (a lunch immediately after my physical therapy session):  I thought the Vietnamese crepe was an appetizer, because that’s where it was listed. So I ordered that and the steak and tendon pho.  Well, it was an appetizer, but… it was filling all on its own!

Second Visit: (again a lunch after physical therapy):  I made certain my chosen appetizer was an appetizer, and not a meal in itself!

Third Visit:  I didn’t feel the need to post my review before the third visit, but I did want to try the vegetable summer roll, and take a gander at some main course that wouldn’t be pho.  (Much as I like pho now.)  After what turned out to be my next to last physical therapy session.

FIRST VISIT

Banh Xeo / Vietnamese crepe: 

alo saigon, dining out, westfield MA, Vietnamese crepe

Clockwise from top: Vietnamese house ice tea (gratis), the edge of the condiment lazy Susan, the Vietnamese crepe, dipping sauce, lettuce and herbs and veggies for eating the crepe with.

This is a dish that owes much to the melding of two culinary cuisines – Vietnamese and French.  (Without getting into the history, the French had colonized portions of Vietnam – and Indochina — from 1187 to 1954.)

The crepe came out and was over-stuffed… it was a meal in itself!  I understand it is made from rice flour, and this one really loaded in the mung bean sprouts.  It contained shrimp, as well as pork (probably pork belly).  It came with a savory dipping sauce, and with a platter of what I thought was a salad – some lettuce, Thai basil, carrots, cucumber slices, and such.

After I got home, I hit up my friend Google, and learned that the way one should eat it is to cut off a bite size piece of crepe, dip it in the sauce (or spoon some over), and then wrap it in a bite size hunk of lettuce, adding in any of the other vegetation on the platter as one sees fit… I blew that!  I will, however, know next time!

Pho Tai Nam / Steak and Tendon Pho:  (I apologize, I don’t know how to enter diacritic symbols in WordPress.)

alo saigon, dining out, westfield MA, pho

Pho: I’ve added sprouts, Thai basil, and an unknown bit of greenery to this. The steak is on the left at 8 o’clock, the tendon seems to be the rest of the meat visible at this point. It was ALL tender! Oh, the noodles are under…

The steak meat, and the tendon meat are sliced very thin, near paper thin, thinner than most delis seem to manage.  Authentic pho broth is clear, and very nicely seasoned in a delicate manner.  Pho rice noodles are necessary.  The steaming hot broth is ladled over the meats and the noodles and onions before serving, cooking the meats instantly.  The bowl is brought out, along with a platter of vegetation one can add to the broth.  This includes mung bean sprouts, Thai basil, Asian mint, a savory green I have no idea what it is, a lime wedge or two, and a few other items.  Don’t add everything in at once… they’ll get soggy before you can finish the bowl.  Pace yourself, and slurp up on the noodles – it’s polite.

At least I’d already seen videos of how Vietnamese eat pho, and I didn’t treat that “salad platter” like I did that of the first dish.

PS:  Pho is pronounced:  Fuh.  Yes.  

For both of these dishes, there’s a lazy Susan on the table, of condiments you can add.  Hot oil, Hoisin sauce, Rooster sauce, red pepper flakes, and at least five other things not counting salt and pepper.  I played around with a few of them in the pho — after of course tasting a good bit of that without adding extra condiments.   I did add a little to the crepe towards the end, but at that point I wasn’t sure if I should be doing that???  (Yes, you can.)

Definitely a cuisine where the chef minds less if you modify his (her?) own personal kitchen touches!  Unlike some high-end places I’ve read about where they go so far as to hide the salt and pepper shakers… I do recommend you try a good sample the way it comes out before you play with the condiments!

I finished the crepe, as I wasn’t sure if it would hold well for a second meal, and took a good third to half of my pho home for brunch the next morning.  Along with any leftover “salad” parts.  My pho was excellent that morning after, too.

SECOND VISIT

Goi Cuon / Summer Rolls:

Alo Saigon, dining out, summer rolls, vietnam, goi cuon

The best summer rolls I’ve ever had!  (Actually, I think mine are pretty good, too, but this restaurant has the rolling of them down, and yes, both the rolls themselves and the dipping sauces go to the level of excellent.)  The rice vermicelli inside was not remotely dry, and they didn’t laden the rolls down with shredded carrot… there was enough for color and a little crunch, but the carrot didn’t overwhelm.  (When you bite into a summer roll and it is 2/3rds carrot, something is Seriously Wrong.)

dining out, goi cuon, vietnamese, summer roll, Alo Saigon

A very tasty roll, and its choices of sauce.

Each roll had a little lettuce, a lot of shrimp halves, and some pork, again probably pork belly.  The dips were a peanut-based dip with a mild amount of heat, and a Nuoc Cham dip, which is something I love  and have tried to make but failed at (will try again…).  It contains fish sauce, rice vinegar, and a bit of sugar to mellow out the fish sauce, as well as a mild bit of heat.

They also offer a vegetarian summer roll (with tofu), and I may try that next time.

Highly recommended.

Pho Ga / Chicken Noodle Pho:

Alo Saigon, Pho ga, Chicken Pho, soup

Pho Ga, with veggies to add in the background. Here, I have yet to add anything from that other plate.

Pho again.  I decided to try a Pho that had different protein in it than my appetizer.  I went with chicken.  It was prepared in a beef base, so this encouraged me.

Although I was surprised they just used white meat, as in Indochina all parts of the bird are prized, this was actually quite good.  The breast meat was NOT overcooked and dry (something which can readily happen to this cut even in a soup or broth surrounded by water).  I preferred the earlier Pho, but I could do this one again.  Again, the soup was served with a plate of mung bean sprouts, loads of Thai basil, another herbaceous leaf I don’t recognize, a lime section, and a slice of what looked like seedy Jalapeno.

This time, after enjoying a good third of the soup, I added hot oil — basically, oil that has been infused with red pepper flakes.  I added a little too much, alas… a little DOES go a long way!  Still, it was flavorful (in a good way); but because of my action in seasoning this up, and despite the fact I still enjoyed the flavors, I couldn’t finish all the broth, as I’d be paying for that, later.  (Do Not Ask.)  Tastes were, as I will point out again, were great!

THIRD VISIT

Okay, perhaps a little too many physical therapy visits in Westfield?  Plan them late enough in the morning, and a trip to this restaurant is in order?  (There’s a great breakfast joint in town which may get reviewed in the future — they also serve lunch but I have yet to do that — Vietnamese wins out hands down as a destination over what is more or less standard American fare…)

Goi Cuon Chay / Vegetarian Summer Rolls:  

Alo Saigon, dining out, restaurant, Vietnamese, summer roll, goi cuon chay

The wonderful ice tea to the left (really refreshing on that hot muggy day), and the summer rolls. One of the extra dipping sauces was meant for my main course which showed up shortly.

The pork and shrimp get subbed out for avocado and fried tofu.  These are likewise very good although the avocado didn’t really impart much flavor.  Still, it was fresh and green, and not remotely brown.  The dipping sauces remain as before, so if you are vegetarian or vegan and/or don’t want fish sauce, stick with the peanut sauce.

Alo Saigon, dining out, restaurant, Vietnamese, summer roll, goi cuon chay

Cross section. The tofu is lightly fried, the rice vermicelli is tender, carrot is not obtrusive, and I do wish the avo kicked up just a bit more. But it is worthwhile.

Banh Hoi Tom Nuong:  

Alo Saigon, dining out, restaurant, Vietnamese, shrimp, rice vermicelli, Banh Hoi Tom Nuong

Veggies to the left, hot and seasoned shrimp along with vermicelli rice “cakes” to the right. Enough vermicelli rice cakes to make it one per shrimp. Enough lettuce to split each leaf in half, for each shrimp. More carrot than I’ll ever eat, but I did make a dent in that. Mint and cuke..

When I ordered this, I had no idea what this would be, other than grilled shrimp with vermicelli rice noodles and some veggies.  I wanted something without actual “heavy” rice, and so I settled on this.  I got the platter above, along with the veggies above (lettuce, mint, carrot, cuke).  No Thai basil, and I am pouting… I love that stuff!  Were they out?  Is that not usual with this dish?  I don’t know.

It came as a platter with shrimp in a barbeque sauce on one side, along with the vermicelli rice laid out in rectangular flat areas, the same number of those as there were of the shrimp.  Another platter came out as described with veggies above.  Uh, huh.  Something else I don’t know immediately how to eat?

Alo Saigon, dining out, restaurant, Vietnamese, shrimp, Banh Hoi Tom Nuong

Laying down the shrimp on a rectangular bed of rice vermicelli…

Having the phone along helped… I surfed for info as to the best way to eat this menu choice.  Roll each shrimp, sauce and all, into one of those rice rectangles, lay it into some lettuce, add in mint, cuke, and carrot at whim, roll together and dip in the Nuoc Cham fish sauce.

Alo Saigon, dining out, restaurant, Vietnamese, shrimp, Banh Hoi Tom Nuong

Adding the rice, which has been rolled around a shrimp, to a portion of lettuce leaf (in this case a smaller than usual fragment), and topping with mint, carrot, cuke. Will fold over and dip into the sauce.

It is a very messy process, as well as rather slow, but I’m sure with practice I can do better.  Oh, btw, the shrimp come with tails on.  My quick surf on Google determined that many people leave the tails on and eat the things in entirety, but go ahead and remove if you wish.  I decided I really needed more calcium, so I ate most of them…

I like this dish, but I think of all the dishes I had, the steak and tendon pho was my favorite.  Oh, possibly the crepe, but I will have to eat that correctly sometime down the road.   Not because I have to, but because I want to try it the Vietnamese traditional way.

OVERALL

An excellent place to dine.  The interior of the restaurant doesn’t look like much, but service is fast, and efficient.  Prices seem in-line.  Seems reasonably popular for it being Tuesdays at lunchtime, typically not an up time for eating out.  There are a number of vegetarian tofu items on the menu that come with rice, but you will have to vet out any dipping sauces if you don’t want any taint of fish.

I will rate it 4.25 / 5 stars.  Some of the lack of starring here is due to ambiance.

Things that truly impressed:  Finding a quality Vietnamese restaurant that makes an ultimate Pho broth.  Finding tendon as a choice with the meats.  An awesome Vietnamese crepe, though this is really NOT just an appetizer, it should be listed as a main.  Wonderful summer rolls.  Pho with chicken breast that really provided quality white meat, a hard barrier to pass.  Quick and friendly service.  Some may prefer the main dishes arrive after the appetizers are finished, but maybe this is a Vietnamese thing?  It didn’t bother me.  There are a large number of vegetarian items on the menu, including a vegetarian pho.  You may have to vet out any sauces when you order.  (But there are a wide range of vegan condiments at the table at all times — though many of them are hot on the tongue.)

It would be nice if they upgraded the restaurant itself, many of the benches at the tables have splits in the plastic seats, and some things are very faded-looking.

I have only been here for lunches.  I did check the “facilities” on my last visit:  clean and handicapped accessible at least on the women’s side.

(I had Pho before, at a restaurant in Northampton, MA. It was just a broth, and simply “okay”, and from that I could not understand why anyone would care or rave about this dish.  But since so many people hither and yon, actually DID, I wanted to eat it at this restaurant, to see if that other restaurant was just… being pedestrian.  It was.  THIS one does serve the real item, as far as I can tell.  At least as good as I might expect until I can do some serious travelling to say, Indochina…) 


PS Since writing the above, I’m no longer taking physical therapy.  So I will not have a good reason to drive 45 minutes to this restaurant.  I need to grab friends by their coat-tails and drag them here so they can enjoy with me!  


 

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About goatsandgreens

The foodie me: Low/no gluten, low sugars, lots of ethnic variety of foods. Seafood, offal, veggies. Farmers' markets. Cooking from scratch, and largely local. The "future" me: I've now moved to my new home in rural western Massachusetts. I am raising chickens (for meat and for eggs) and planning for guinea fowl, Shetland sheep, and probably goats and/or alpaca. Possibly feeder pigs. Raising veggies and going solar.
This entry was posted in Asian & Asian Influenced, Cooking, Dining Out, Meats, Poultry, Seafood, Soups & Stews, Vegetarian and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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