Tucked into the cornucopia of eateries in downtown Brunswick is a new Vietnamese restaurant at 44 Maine St. Although open for only three months, Little Saigon is enjoying popularity thanks to the reputation and offerings of Vietnamese veteran restaurateur Cuong Ly and his staff.

Ly is well-known in the midcoast area for his three China Rose restaurants, which he sold a few years ago in order to focus on promoting his native foods. He also owns Little Tokyo, a Japanese restaurant just a short walk down the street from Little Saigon.

Mr. Ly, who was 16 when he escaped Vietnam in 1979 by way of China and Hong Kong, obtained his first job at The Wok Inn in Portland in order to support his two younger siblings. Over the years, his work ethic, confidence and courage have paid off.

It seems apparent that Little Saigon is where Ly and his wife, Vay, also a Vietnamese native, feel at home, offering healthy ingredients and creative dishes based on traditional Vietnamese cooking, which is known for its minimal use of oil and reliance on fresh herbs and vegetables.

As Vay explains, “This kind of food is healthy, almost all gluten-free, low-fat, affordable, and satisfies your body.”

Her husband adds, “This is the way we eat at home. What we serve here are my personal favorite dishes, what I love to eat.”

Staples in Little Saigon’s pantry include aromatic herbs such as mint, cilantro, basil, garlic, lemons, vinegar, ginger, lime, crunchy mung bean sprouts, fresh vegetables, rice and vermicelli. Various meats, along with shrimp, mussels and calamari, round out the components of many of the dishes waiting to be created for restaurant patrons.

Ly and his staff have created an atmosphere that feels like home, where you can have a conversation and be accommodated according to your preferences. At Little Saigon, the essence of home-style Vietnam cooking is captured and shared in a cozy, personal way.

One of the most popular offerings is pho (pronounced fuh). There are several varieties of this hearty noodle dish, where the rich beef marrow or chicken broth simmers for about 48 hours. The big, steaming bowls of meat-filled soup are meant to be shared . . . and slurped. Of course, there’s also a vegetarian version.

A second popular offering is bun, another noodle dish that is lighter, full of flavor and served with vermicelli-style rice noodles.

During these sultry days of summer, bun and spring rolls are light and healthy choices easily prepared for one, or for a crowd. Ly was willing to share his recipes for both.

With the prep work of chopping done ahead, these dishes lend themselves well to backyard interactive entertaining with no one standing over a hot grill. Many ingredients can be found in your garden or the farmers’ markets. Ly recommends Veranda Asian Market on Forest Avenue in Portland to stock up on supplies such as vermicelli, rice paper wrappers and more exotic ingredients.

Bun (pronounced “boon,” meaning “brothless”)

This simple, attractive dish is composed rather than cooked. Noodles can be boiled in the morning and re-heated in the microwave later. Meat can be marinated and grilled ahead as well. Serve with your choice of thin slices of marinated grilled meat, tofu or seafood

Ingredients:

Cooked rice vermicelli noodles*

Shredded iceberg lettuce

Mung bean sprouts

Cucumber, chopped

Shredded carrot

Mint

Cilantro

Shallots and/or chives, minced

Pickled daikon or fresh radish from the garden

Crushed peanuts

Vietnamese vinaigrette (see below)

Directions:

For each serving, place a cup of shredded lettuce in the middle of the plate and top with a small amount of herbs and vegetables from the ingredients. Place a cup of warm noodles over this and garnish with crushed peanuts. Arrange thin slices of meat or seafood around the edge of the plate. Add vinaigrette and toss lightly.

* Little Saigon owner Cuong Ly recommends the vermicelli never be crowded in the pot. Also, cook it for 5 minutes while stirring constantly, then allow the noodles to sit in the hot water for 3 more minutes, then rinse in cool water.

Vietnamese Vinaigrette

A delicious addition to any kind of salad or for spooning onto fresh spring rolls — just the right combination of sour and sweet. Makes about 3 cups.

1 and 3/4 cup water, boiled then cooled (spring water is recommended)

A bit less than 1/2 cup white vinegar

A bit less than 1/2 cup fish sauce (Three Crab brand is recommended)

10 tablespoons sugar

Juice of 1 lime

8-10 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon chili paste

Add the sugar to the water and stir to dissolve while the water is still hot, then add the other ingredients when the water cools.

Spring rolls

Many of the same ingredients for bun can be bundled into rice paper wrappers for the spring rolls.

Filling ingredients:

Finely chopped cooked meat or tofu or whole shrimp

Cooked vermicelli noodles

Shredded iceberg lettuce

Shredded cucumber and carrot

Cilantro

Mint (experiment with different varieties from your garden, including lemon balm)

Vietnamese vinaigrette

Dipping sauce (see below)

Directions:

Blend filling ingredients together.

Ly emphatically recommends using the large size of “Three Ladies” brand rice papers. The wraps are given a quick dip in very hot water immediately before placing some filling on the quarter of the wrap closest to you. Don’t overstuff! Turn the wrap twice, tuck in the ends, and continue to turn. These can be made without meat for a vegetarian version.

Dipping sauce for the spring rolls

Stir together equal parts peanut butter, hoisin sauce and coconut milk; add a bit of water to get desired consistency. Add a bit of sugar, if desired.

Garnish with crushed peanuts

Little Saigon

44 Maine St., Brunswick

11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; open until 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday

725-1888


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