March 7, 2022
CAPE TOWN – It is not easy to find a Vietnamese restaurant in South Africa. The Vietnamese community in this southernmost country of Africa is small, and the number of restaurants with authentic Vietnamese food is fewer than in other countries I have been to.
So whenever craving a bowl of hot savoury phở (beef noodle soup), I usually have to cook it myself or drive 50 kilometres from Pretoria, where I live, to the neighbouring city of Johannesburg.
For some time, Vietnamese friends, including those who have been living in the country for a long time, have been whispering in my ear about the authentic phở at Saigon Restaurant in the far southern city of Cape Town. So, one day I decided to travel 1,500km for a bowl of this Vietnamese classic.
Cape Town is a must-travel destination with the iconic Table Mountain and the famous Cape of Good Hope, and I finally had a chance to visit the city last month, and the first thing I did was grab an Uber and rush to Saigon Restaurant.
Lying at the corner of Kloof and Kamp streets, the restaurant was easy to find with its eye-catching yellow neon sign.
It is a modest yet elegant two-storey restaurant with a contemporary setting and magnificent view of Table Mountain.
The menu was a highlight-reel of fantastic Asian cuisine with abundant choices of starters and mains with chicken, duck, beef, lamb, pork, seafood and even vegetarian options. As my purpose was to try the ‘best phở in South Africa’, I quickly looked for it.
The dish name is printed boldly in the middle of the menu: “Pho Bo – famous traditional Vietnamese clear broth beef noodle soup.”
There are two sizes — large and medium, priced at ZAR165 (nearly US$11) and ZAR95, respectively, quite reasonable prices for an Asian dish here.
I ordered and was quickly served with a significant portion together with hoisin sauce, sriracha, a slice of lemon and a plate of bean sprouts and basil. The sides suggested this dish was served in the southern style of Việt Nam.
The aroma was authentic and tasty. The dried rice noodle, which is popular abroad, was well boiled to look soft and fresh enough. The copious amounts of slices of purple and green onions reminded me of Hà Nội’s Phở Thìn shop in Lò Đúc Street.
The broth was not entirely clear, but it tasted of everything a good phở broth needs, beef bone soup, roasted onions and ginger, together with the collection of spices. The thin slices of rare beef were tasty and juicy, while the well-done brisket was decently tender. The broth, the noodles, the meat and the aromatic herbs merged in a perfectly harmonised taste. I felt elated.
I briefly thought perhaps it only tasted so good because I was so hungry after the long journey, so I asked a traveller from the US who was sitting next to me, what she thought.
She is a big fan of phở and has tried it in many restaurants in the US and even cooked the dish herself.
“The phở in this restaurant is good. The broth is excellent, a perfect spice level, and the noodle and all of the sides are delicious,” she said confidently.
Satisfied and with my belly full, I spoke with chef Nguyễn Văn Mỹ, who has been running the restaurant since he opened it 26 years ago.
He showed me the restaurant’s many achievements, including certificates of Best Asian Restaurant granted by local hospitality organisations and badges from online travel companies like TripAdvisor.
Mỹ also proudly said the restaurant had regularly been chosen to host and introduce Vietnamese cuisine to international guests. And phở had always been the top choice since he started making it.
He told me that at the beginning, phở was not the main dish on the menu and was only cooked two or three times a week. But with the increasing fame of the dish worldwide, more and more customers came and asked for a bowl.
Now, Mỹ cooks a big pot of phở broth every day, which he boils for at least eight hours to bring out the best umami taste. He always chooses the best ingredients for the broth, including fresh beef bones and brisket, fish sauce, rock sugar, onion, and all the necessary herbs and spices such as ginger, cinnamon, star anise, clove, cardamom, fennel and coriander.
He said all the ingredients made for a mixed broth-style, influenced by both northern and southern parts of Việt Nam.
“It will make all Vietnamese people happy, whichever part they come from, as they can feel the taste similarity when eating phở here,” Mỹ said. “Even the dried rice noodle and fish sauce are from Việt Nam shipped to Cape Town.”
Besides phở, many other Vietnamese famous dishes like fresh spring rolls, fried spring rolls and Vietnamese salads have won the hearts of South African and other international diners for the authentic and healthy taste at the restaurant.
Many locals have been coming to Saigon Restaurant for Vietnamese dishes. I was utterly moved by Mỹ’s efforts in introducing Vietnamese cuisine in South Africa. Next time I come back to Cape Town, it will surely be time to taste all the other dishes. VNS
SAIGON VIETNAMESE RESTAURANT – CAPE TOWN
Address: Corner of Kloof & Kamp streets, Gardens, Cape Town, South Africa, 8001
Opening hours: 12pm – 9pm
Price: A wide selection of Vietnamese style starters, dumplings, soup, salad, main dishes (including vegetarian) and desserts ranging from ZAR72-299 (US$4.5-20)
Comment: The best Vietnamese traditional phở in South Africa