(Published on Baristanet, March 8, 2010)

The sudden closure of Little Saigon in Montclair late last year disappointed many, and raised curiosity as to why. The restaurant had been a familiar sight on the otherwise uninspiring Elm St. for four years, having moved there from Nutley, where it recovered from fire damage in 2003 and plugged on bravely for a couple more years.  It was great to discover that Little Saigon was alive and kicking, and basically resurrected back in Nutley in January under the new name, Huong Viet, which means thinking of Vietnam.

Nestled among the stores on Passaic Ave was Huong Viet, 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 the name and extensive list of menu options suggest, Huong Viet remains true to its Saigon roots. And, while the restaurant itself isn’t fancy, 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 (known as pho) 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 ex-Record journalist and blogger, Victor Sasson. For me, the charm of our waitress and my dining companions made up for the bouts of waiting, keeping in mind the restaurant had just one server at the time and a number of other tables to tend.

There was nostalgia, too, 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 cheap charlie 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 expresso (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 recall 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, 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 (phonetic idiosyncracies are faithfully 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 soon after 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 of all, 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.

Instead, still on a nostalgic bent, I specifically ordered a cup of Vietnamese coffee “as they serve it in Vietnam.” What came were three little cups, atop which sat a stainless steel coffee dripper, dripping the beverage very, very slowly (this is indeed exactly as it’s done in Vietnam, 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 name no names, had enough of waiting and ended up pouring it into his cup partially brewed, 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.

It made me think of Vietnam.

Huong Viet is open, Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:00am to 9:30pm. It’s closed on Mondays.

358 Passaic Ave,

Nutley, NJ

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